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As previously stated, the Jeep Cherokee was produced for a long time. 1984-2001, to be exact, in the US anyway. Though they were all extremely similar, there were some years that were better than others for various reasons. There was a face-lifted second generation that was introduced in 1997 and ran until the Cherokee was eliminated from production in 2001. These are typically better models to look for, since they have better injection systems, the unibody has been stiffened, stronger axles, and better looking inside in out (of course this is our opinion). The Cherokee came with a few different motors, with the 4.0 inline six being the only engine we would purchase one with. We could always swap in a different engine, but the 4.0 is a great engine as it comes, so we chose to find one with a good 4.0 in it to start. The Cherokee came in an auto or a manual, with an NP231J transfer case. We prefer manuals, however they are getting very difficult to find these days. 97-99 are the most desirable years because they have a high pinion Dana 30 front axle, with larger U-joints than previous years (in 2000, they went to a low pinion for some reason). They came with an optional 8.25″ Chrysler rear end, which is much stronger than the typical Dana 35 that came in the older Cherokees.
With that said, here is what we came up with:
At the point of purchasing this Cherokee, Tegan and I needed a better tow vehicle to pull our enclosed trailer to the Lakeland Downtown Curb Farmer’s Market on the weekends. We had been pulling it with my 1993 BMW 325i, which is obviously not the ideal vehicle for that. I had been searching for a 4×4 Cherokee with a manual for about three months on Craigslist. Well, I was tired of looking, and we needed one to tow. I found this beauty on Craigslist, listed at a price of $2500. Great, I thought. It is my favorite color for the Cherokee, it already has a lift, with 33″ tires, and has the black steel wheels and Bushwhacker fender flares that I LOVE on Cherokees. It was practically love at first site. Oh yeah, and it is a 4×4 with a manual. Sure, I could have swapped an auto to a manual, and/or a two wheel drive variant to a four wheel drive, but I just wanted to drive it with little work. I shot Tegan a text message with a link to the Craigslist ad. She loved it! Perfect, time to pull the trigger. I called the guy and told him I wanted to come check it out. I told Tegan that unless there was something seriously wrong with this thing, we were driving it back home with us that night. There was one problem with it, at the time of purchase, which worried me about getting it home that night. The throw out bearing was going, and if this failed on the way, the Cherokee wouldn’t be able to propel itself.
We drove about 40 minutes to check it out, at night ( I know, terrible idea). We met the previous owner (PO) in the parking lot of a self-wash car wash. We pulled into the lot, I saw it, and I wanted it so badly! I grabbed my flashlight, approached the PO and shook his hand, discussed a few things, and then off to searching I went. I looked over the whole Jeep to see if anything stuck out that I could knock down the price with. What did I notice that night?
1. No rear shocks
2. Dented roof, as if someone jumped on it
3. Rust in the floorboards
4. Rusted out rocker panels
5. Small rust damage on the rear portion of the unibody “frame”
6. The rear hatch didn’t open
7. The tires needed to be replaced
8. There was hitch, held on with 3 bolts and some booger-welds
OK, some ammunition to work with. I had previously told myself that if there was rust, I wasn’t going to purchase it. When I was younger, I purchased a 10 year old car from Michigan. Rusty cars suck to work on, and many should really just be totalled. Alright, let’s take it for a test drive. Tegan and I hopped in the Jeep. It smelled of “Black Ice”, a cheap air freshener that was probably covering up the aroma of a dead body that this thing transported before we got to it. I pushed the clutch pedal in, which triggered a sound that, I assume, only a pterodactyl would be capable of producing. I look at the PO with a “WTF” face. He assured me that it will move, just try and avoid pushing in the pedal. Hmmm…. Should I just have stopped at this point and left? No. The thing ran beautifully. It looks awesome, and has those Bushwhacker fenders! I was able to get the jalopy in motion, and approached the road. When I released the clutch pedal, the Cherokee went into a bucking motion, since the throw out bearing was sticking on the transmission’s input shaft. Now, I have driven some crap before. As I approached the road, I thought to myself, “Should I really be taking this on the road? Should I have left Tegan back at the car in case this thing explodes?” Na, we can handle it. I went to press the brake pedal in so that we can pause before getting on the road. The brake pedal dropped to the floor. It stopped, but it was almost impossible. “Here goes nothing”, I thought. We got on the road, but not until after some loud thunking from under the chassis when we rolled over the gutter. The steering was suprisingly slack-free, but with no rear shocks, paired with the bucking of the stuck throwout bearing, the Cherokee may as well have been an electricl bull ride at some western bar. I took it a block and turned back because I was just afraid to drive this thing.
I pulled back into the lot where the PO was standing. I got out, and I just looked at him and said, “Wow, this thing is all kinds of f***** up!” He tells me he knows, it needs some work, hence the price. Bro, this thing needs a TON of work. I look underneath to see what that clunking was. I was expecting a control arm flapping around, or something very broken. Nope, not obvious enough at the time. I told him there is no way I could spend $2500 on this thing. Not with the rust, crappy driving, and bad throw out bearing. He tells me to throw him a number. Crap, he just invited me to low ball him, and I was still in love with it, plus I was tired of looking for Jeeps at this point. I was destined to leave with this thing tonight.
That’s all I was willing to spend. I told him it was going to cost a ton to have someone fix the issues (oh yeah, I told him I don’t work on cars, and would have to pay someone to do the work for me). He asked if I could do $2000. I stood firm at $1800. “How about we meet in the middle at $1900?” he asked. Again, I stood my ground. He scratched his head for a second and agreed to $1800. What the heck just happened? I low balled him, and he agreed. Now I have to buy this rat, and somehow get it home!? What have I done?
I paid the PO the money, we shook hands, and I grabbed my tool bag from Tegan’s car incase I needed it on the way home, 40 minutes away. I was able to make it about half way home when the throwout bearing finally went out on me while I was in a turn lane at a stop light. Tegan had left me in the dust long before, and was no where to be seen. I called her up to come help me out. No one would help me push the thing to the side of the road, because we live in Tampa, FL. When Tegan showed up to help me push, literally that second, two men jumped out of their cars and helped us push the Cherokee to the side of the road! I guess they help if you have boobs?
Tegan was having second thoughts about this purchase, and made sure to let me know that my new-to-me vehicle had already broken down before making it home. I just assured her that the Jeep was going to be great after some work. Besides, we haven’t even gotten home with it before we started making memories with it! At this point Tegan had asked me how we were going to get it home. I told her I was going to go home and grab the BMW to pull it home with. She thought I was crazy. I knew it would work. Then I went and grabbed the BMW and a tow strap. I hooked the BMW to the front axle of the Cherokee and gave plenty of room to stop with. I told Tegan to get in the Cherokee so she can steer and apply brakes when needed. At this point, Tegan’s nerves were about shot, and we hadn’t even started moving yet! I told her she would do a great job and to just anticipate the stops so we don’t hit one another. Luckily, we made it home in one piece, with no issues. Phew.
The next day I went out and took a closer look at it. What have I gotten myself into?? Apparently, the lift was a hack together setup and one leaf spring was on the verge of snapping. The exhaust clanged around a lot due to lack of rubber hangers, the front left control arm heim joint was worn and knocking, and the front left shock lower bushing was gone. That’s what that clanking was… Upon further inspection, I noticed the studs that held the upper side of the rear shocks to the body were all broken. I was able to get the rear hatch lever to work. The linkage simply fell out of a clip, so a quick snap of the linkage back in to the clip resolved that issue. Once i opened the hatch I noticed the entire rear section of the Cherokee had been covered in sand. How did all that get back there? I stripped the carpet, and pulled out the inner plastics in prep for a bedliner application that would come soon down the line. After removing the plastics, I noticed sunlight coming in through the wheel wells. The PO had cut too high for the Bushwhacker install, and cut a portion of the fender out. Oh, for some reason, the PO had swapped the Dana 30 for an older Dana 30 with a vacuum disconnect axle, and the matching vacuum disconnect transfercase. None of which was connected to a vacuum line. I won’t lie, a little buyer’s remorse sat in.
Keep in mind, I had plans of replacing most of these problematic parts, or upgrading them, which negated the issues. I was in for a journey, but I know that in the end this rig will be a great little machine. Stay tuned for other updates!