I hydrolocked and completely ruined my engine when I went off-roading on Saturday. But there was an upside: I bought a new engine off Craigslist for cheap, and I met some wild new mud-crazy friends in the process.

I just rebuilt my XJ’s engine 3,000 miles ago. That’s right: my refreshed engine was still on its maiden oil-change when it was wiped from this earth by the unstoppable force known as “redneck hooliganism.” Here’s how it went down.

The Incident

A few weeks back, a reader sent me an email asking if I wanted to go off-roading at Bundy Hill Off-Road Park in Michigan. Since I rarely turn down the chance to wheel (and, frankly I don’t get out much), of course I said yes. A few of my friends tagged along with their rigs, and we were all set to have an awesome day off-roading.

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A few hours later and my internal Kansas Redneck Mode had kicked into high gear. I was foaming at the mouth and twitching as I gazed at a beautiful, giant mud pit right in front of me. It had been far too long since I’d taken a Jeep through mud. This was going to be glorious!

I decided to drive along the edge of the mud pit to gauge its depth. It seemed shallow enough, so I gave her the beans. Those Goodyear all-terrains grabbed that muck and slung it sky-high. The Jeep was unstoppable!

Then it happened. My front left tire fell into what I now believe was the Mariana Trench. It was so deep that muddy water engulfed the hood, but all the while my foot was still firmly on the skinny pedal. Before I could get off the gas and shut down the car, the engine cut out with a loud clunk. It all happened so fast.

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Had I destroyed my beloved 250,000 mile inline-six, an engine that had served me so well throughout the years? I begged the off-roading gods for mercy. Please, I pleaded with them, save this engine. Take me instead.

I opened up the airbox and found that the insides were soaking wet. Water had made it into my engine. In an effort to flush water from my cylinders, I removed my spark plugs (which were completely covered in filth) and tried turning the engine over; she cranked for a quarter of a second and locked up. She was toast.

In case that picture doesn’t do it justice, here’s a video of a new Wrangler JK Willys Edition hitting that same puddle:

Though the JK didn’t hydrolock, water did pour in through its glovebox. It was a serious mud puddle, you guys. I promise.

So then a friend in a red JK Sport released his winch cable and tugged me out. After getting a tow back to the parking lot, I assessed the damage. It wasn’t pretty. Here’s a shot of my oil pan:

Let’s have a closer look:

Water in an engine is a good thing when it’s keeping the motor from overheating. But water in a cylinder is very bad and can lead to a catastrophic failure known as a “hydrostatic lock,” or “hydrolock” for short.

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The air intake on Jeep XJs is on the driver’s side right behind the headlight. So when I came barreling through the mud hole like an amateur and dipped my left side into the Mariana Trench, my intake was under water.

The vacuum created by the piston’s intake stroke sucked water through the air duct and manifold and into my cylinders. Pistons one and six then rammed into slugs of water in the cylinder as they made their compression strokes, and, because water doesn’t really compress, both pistons came to an abrupt halt.

If I had been thinking during this ordeal (remember, I was in full redneck-mode), I would have let off the gas pedal. This would have reduced the force of the pistons trying to compress the water and the engine simply would have stalled. But, because of my infinite genius, my foot was on the floor and that piston’s upward force was huge. Something had to give, and in this case, it was the connecting rods.

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Connecting rods one and six snapped, leaving the pistons sitting in the cylinder. The crankshaft spun the snapped-off rods right into my oil pan, thus seizing the engine.

The picture above shows connecting rod number one, and here’s a picture of the hole in the back of the pan made by connecting rod number six:

After calling a tow truck, I was able to get the ol’ girl back home. Luckily for me, AAA covers tows up to 100 miles, and my house was 94 miles from the off-road park. I dodged a bullet there.

Off-Roading With My New Friends From Craigslist

After my 94 mile drive with the nicest tow truck driver on earth, I found myself sitting at home, distraught. My poor Jeep. My first car. And I had destroyed it.

Oh well. Craigslist time!

I fired up the classifieds, and boy was I happy with what I saw. While I maintain that Michigan is the worst place to Craigslist if you’re looking to buy a whole car, if you’re looking for car parts, Michigan is where it’s at. Why? Because when cars inevitably rust to oblivion, folks often part them out to make a bit of change before junking them.

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I came across the engine in the picture above, texted the seller, and set up a time. It was way out in the boonies, about an hour away. I drove my $600 XJ out into the sticks, and I may have died in an accident, because where I ended up was as close to heaven as I’d ever seen.

I rolled up to a barn that was surrounded in a dozen giant, lifted Jeeps, trucks and purpose-built buggies. The barn was huge and filled with ten or twelve people drinking, welding, grinding and wrenching on awesome off-road rigs. It was awesome!

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I hopped out of my Jeep, and everyone greeted me kindly and showed me their machines. One guy had two Chevy Trailblazers on 35s with custom bumpers, another guy had a crazy modded TJ with a stretched wheelbase, and then there was that Mad Max buggy in the picture above.

We talked Jeeps for what seemed like hours. I drooled over this 1970s Ford pickup on a modern F350 frame with a fuel-injected 7.3-liter diesel under the hood. I was in heaven.

Just as I thought this couldn’t get any better, these strangers from Craigslist asked if I wanted to go wheeling. “Heck yes I do!” I told them. We went off-roading on their own custom-made trails on their 100 acre property in the middle of the night.

The trails were very tight, and we bounced off trees as we tried to climb up loose, extremely steep grades. I was riding shotgun in an XJ on 35s, but joining us was a fully-custom TJ and a Geo Tracker buggy. These guys had built these rigs with junkyard parts and tons of their own fab-work. They were experts at stretching the dollar to build highly capable machines for less than $1,000.

These guys are the perfect consultants for my $600 XJ Moab build.

My New Engine

With all the excitement, I had forgotten about the engine. The engine was sitting in the yard with a cup over its intake. I checked the oil: the level looked good. I turned her over by hand, and it moved. I was content. I handed over $145, and I had myself an engine within 24 hours of blowing up my old one.

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They picked the motor up with their 1940 tractor, placed it next to my XJ, and five of us simply lifted the 450 pound engine and placed it the back of my Jeep.

So the day after I seized my motor, I had a new engine ready to rock and roll. I think I’m making the best of this unfortunate Jeeping tragedy. Am I 100 percent sure it runs? Not really, but it does turn over, and for what I paid, it’s worth the risk.

I was sad when I broke my Jeep, but now I’m excited. I’ve got an engine and I’ve got some new wheeling friends. It definitely could have been worse.