Restoring a Rare Jeep Truck

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Before Chad Roberson could even drive, he was the unofficial mechanic for the fleet of Jeep trucks at his father’s excavating business. 

More than 25 years later, Roberson—now an official technician at Russ Complete Auto Repair in Wabasha, Minn.—has never been able to separate himself from those classic Jeep trucks of his childhood. 

In 2005, he bought a 1987 Jeep J20 from his long-time neighbor for $2,900. 

“I remember this truck from when it was brand new,” Roberson says. “I was a teenager when [our neighbor] bought it as a farm truck.”

Roberson’s neighbor had only racked up 60,000 miles on the truck, so very little mechanical work was needed. But the body was torn to shreds. He fixed a coolant leak and put in a new timing chain, and then set about the bodywork. Previous body repairs were falling out of the bed. The rocker panels and driver’s side floor had large holes in them and the truck was in desperate need of a new paint job. 

“I may have overpaid for it, because it needed a lot of work,” Roberson said. 

Finding parts for Jeep trucks isn’t quite so simple these days. Lucky for Roberson, he had a few run-down jeep pickups sitting around his property in rural Wabasha, including his father’s old ’78 J20. The wheels from his father’s ’78, as well as a few other small parts, have made their way onto the ’87. 

To find other pieces he needed, Roberson had to buy entire trucks simply to use a few parts. To get a replacement floor plan, he had to look out West to a retired body man in California who makes them by hand. 

“That’s the only place you can find them,” he says. 

He bought another J20 just to strip the roll bar, rail guard and receiver hitches to put on the ’87. Roberson says he tries to take every possible part of the trucks to either use or sell. 

“They’re too rare to scrap,” he says.

Photo courtesy Chad Roberson

Roberson had a custom seat cover made to match the original design, recovered the bench seat himself and ordered matching floor mats from Florida. Although he kept the look of the interior original, he installed an air conditioner and radio that the truck had never had before. 

A neighbor helped Roberson with the paintwork, which kept the original dark brown on the top half of the truck and added a fresh, chrome-colored covering on the bottom half. 

One of the most difficult aspects of the vehicle to restore was the tailgate. Roberson wanted a single-panel tailgate with the original “Jeep” stamping on the back. Eventually, he found one that had been taken off a ’75 Jeep truck nearly 40 years ago when the vehicle was brand new. 

“That’s one of the hard things to find, and I was lucky it had the factory bumper on it,” Roberson said. “I’ve seen the end caps alone go for $150 per cap.” 

Although finding parts for Jeep trucks is unusually difficult, the rarity is what Roberson loves about them. He enjoys talking to others with the same passion via online message boards. 

When the truck comes out of winter storage, Roberson uses it to haul trailers and brings it to car shows and car cruises. At the first show he attended, “Mopars in the Park” in Farmington, Minn., he brought home top honors in the Civilian Jeep Class. 

Though Roberson also owns an ’88 Grand Wagon he hopes to restore some day, he knows the work on his J20 will never really be finished. 

“It’s like painting a really large bridge,” he says, “Once you’ve finished, you can go back to the beginning and start again.”

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