How I Managed To Destroy Two Engines Without Driving My 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle More Than 20 Miles

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I have been the single worst owner my 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle has ever had. I have failed it in every conceivable way, not just through neglect, but through genuine stupidity. I have destroyed two perfectly-good engines without driving the vehicle more than 20 miles, and for that to happen requires a level of foolishness I didn’t know I had in me. But I do, and now I need to get this off my chest and tell you about how I have failed one of the most beautiful Jeeps ever made.

How did this even happen? I bought my 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle five years ago. The vehicle actually ran and drove just fine, aside from its propensity to stall under load, though this was probably just an ignition timing issue. Just listen to this thing idle!:

 

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Honestly, an hour of basic tinkering, and that thing should have been humming down Woodward Avenue, sucking down gas like semi truck. But that’s not what happened.

I noticed that there was an exhaust bolt broken in the cylinder head, and — keen to fix the resulting exhaust leak — I decided to remove the engine’s passenger’s-side cylinder head. I took it to a shop, who extracted the broken bolt, and then I should have reinstall the head and driven off into the sunset. Instead I flew to Germany for a month to hang out with my family; during that time, the saran wrap I’d placed over my exposed cylinders blew away, and by the time I returned from Germany, the cylinders were rusted.

should have just run the engine anyway. That light surface rust was probably not a big deal. Maybe it’d have been smart to vacuum out any dirt particles that may have made it into the cylinders, but other than that, I should have run that AMC 360 and enjoyed the beautiful Jeep’s comfortable ride and burbly exhaust note.

But I didn’t do that. Instead I chose to remove the whole damn engine so I could hone the rust off the cylinder walls. “You know what, the ridge on the cylinder walls doesn’t look good anyway,” so let me just take this whole motor apart and replace bearings/rings. Then, for some reason, I couldn’t get the pistons to go back into the cylinders without locking up the motor.

I checked ring end-gaps and even used the old rings: The motor just wouldn’t go back together. To this day, I’m baffled by the whole thing, and while I know my friends and I would have solved this eventually (how can you not just put a motor back together the way it was before? Come on, DT, that’s not rocket science), the fact is that the city of Troy was on my ass.

So I had to act fast. I bought a freshly-rebuilt AMC 360 from a friend of a friend. It was complete aside from the high-flow oil pump he took off for his other engine.

In installed a new oil pump, threw the motor in, and fired it up. Things seemed fine at first; the engine sounded good. I turned the Jeep towards Woodward Avenue and had a wonderful cruise to my favorite diner, Hunter House. Then I began hearing top-end knocking.

 

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I drove home, removed the valve covers, and noticed that there was no oil flowing to the top of the engine. Bizarre. I threaded a mechanical gauge into my oil filter adaptor: 40psi (see below) while warm; not bad! Why the hell wasn’t I getting oil to the top of my motor, then?

Well, folks, it appears I have figured that out. After neglecting the problematic motor for so long, I just began wrenching on it again this past weekend, and what did I discover? It’s seized.

I don’t think it’s the rings, either. I think there’s something wrong with the camshaft bearings. I think somehow there’s a blockage in the cam bearings’ oil passages that would normally feed the lifters and the top of the motor. The bearing could be locking the camshaft in place, and since the camshaft and crankshaft are connected via the timing chain, I’m unable to move the crankshaft by hand; this thing really is stuck.

 

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If I had to guess, my foolishness in not priming my new oil pump led to an oil starvation issue during my initial start, causing the camshaft to eat one of its bearings, starving the top of the motor of oil, leading to top-end knocking.

Anyway, this is bad news. I now have to remove the new engine from the Jeep, and see what I’ll have to do to save it.

In any case, I’ve now basically destroyed two engines, all without driving the Jeep more than a few miles up and down Woodward Avenue. I’m ashamed of this, because it’s a product of my own poor decision making. I shouldn’t have left the engine so poorly protected while I was traveling, I shouldn’t have remove the engine due to minor surface rust, I shouldn’t have torn the whole thing down, I shouldn’t have thrown a new oil pump into my refreshed engine without checking its clearances, I shouldn’t have run that motor without first priming the pump so that the important engine components receive lubrication at the first engine start-up in a while.

I have been a terrible owner for this Jeep; I’ve got too much shit going on all the time, between travel and city ordinances and writing and wrenching on other things. Focusing my thoughts in 100 different directions has led me to make decisions that caused this Jeep to languish in my driveway for five years. The Jeep gods will never forgive me, so I will have to prepare myself to live in Jeep Hell with the two-wheel drive Compasses and Patriots. I brought it upon myself.

 

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66 Responses

  1. Everyone knows that I am a pretty good technician……but you know, EVERYONE fucks up.

    One of my personal cars, a 1988 Mitsubishi Starion ESI-R, I managed to develop a very very faint rod knock. No problem, done this before on other cars, we’ll just drop the pan, and swap out the rod bearings, and be on our merry way.

    Got it done, went for a very calm test drive, watched oil pressure, and engine temp, all looked good. 6 miles later, here comes the knock back. Well, son of a bitch, must have done something wrong….maybe a little piece of grit somewhere, who knows. Gently back home.

    Do it again! Make sure everything was spotless, every cap in the right place and orientation, assembly lube in place, perfect torque, you get the idea.

    Six miles later, still quiet!

    18 miles later, it’s beginning to feel a bit soft on power. Look down, it’s running a touch warm. Look over at the turbo boost gauge, and to keep the car running at 40 MPH, I’m using 12 PSI turbo boost. Soon enough, I’m on the floor to keep it running at the speed limit.

    Hoping and praying I make it home!

    Get to the house, lift off the throttle, and I get that noise……”SQUEEEEEEEAL!”

    “Oh…….shit.”

    Hit the key, and man, it was just that click of finality. Looked under the hood, the coolant in the reservoir was boiling, and the exhaust from the hot side of the turbo all the way under the car was just cherry red.

    So, shit happens, even to the best of us. Look at this way. If the really kickass engine guys were perfect, they wouldn’t grenade engines at Nascar races, LOL.

  2. I can’t remember where I read it, Car Craft, Hot Rod, Mustang Monthly, something like that, but there was an editorial where the writer described the anxiety of the first start of the engine on his project car. How he checked and rechecked everything was hooked up properly, how he made sure timing was right, everything. Then he started it and… nothing was wrong. No problems at all.

    The thing was, he had a crate motor that time. He had been burned so many times by his own rebuilds that he couldn’t imagine NOT having teething issues when he started it up the first time.

    I never got that until I rebuilt my first motor alone. Ford 300 I6, timing gears instead of a chain, the gears have two cast-in dots to show the timing position. I remember lining them up, but I must have pulled the crank or cam to do something, then put it back in haphazardly. Took me 6 weeks of trying damned near everything to figure it out. In that 6 weeks I washed the #5 cylinder enough that the oil rings didn’t seat. Engine runs, but its almost a two stroke now, just without the power associated with a two stroke.
    It sucked.

  3. I would take this as the automotive deities telling you that the thing to do, the sacrifice to their omnipotence, is to do the LS swap. Or even just a Chevy V8 swap. Surely there is a carbureted Chevy V8 in your neck of the woods waiting to fly like an Eagle…..

    OOOOOOOOOR….this is the one to electrify. The Golden E-gle. Just make sure if you do screw that up, your profile pic clearly shows the smoking tips of your hair….

    ….no wait, does rust conduct electricity?

    1. Since editing isn’t yet a thing: I feel your pain to some degree, David. What should’ve been a few easy jobs became more difficult tasks, though in my case it’s mostly anxiety-related rather than the fault of the car itself…

      …although the brake bleeder that snapped off can go to Hell and stay there.

  4. This is your redemption story, Dave. The Golden Eagle has the right owner: you. It’s been calling to you and you haven’t been listening. Now it’s time. Put aside all the others for now. Focus on just the Golden Eagle. Find a terrific engine for it. Ignore the AMC 360 you despise and find the engine YOU want it to have. And make it legendary once again.

    1. Find a donor Dodge 360, so that’s keeping it in the family, so to speak.
      I’m not a fan of the AMC 360. Also had one Grand Cherokee eat two of them, the 2nd rebuilt motor lasting 3 months

  5. Don’t feel too bad. I once tried to help a friend replace the clutch in his Escort Pony. Lets just say neither of us knew what the hell we were doing and I may have accidentally tipped all the guts out of the transmission onto his dad’s garage floor. We took the bucket of transmission stew and the housing to another friend of ours that laughed his ass off at us initially. He then misaligned two of the gears when he tried to press the thing back together and split the housing right in half. Needless to say the Pony went to the scrap heap.

    1. I can beat that for stupidity! The first time I tried to do an oil change, I turned the oil pan bolt the wrong way, which stripped it whilst also jamming it in place (with a slight leak).
      I had to replace the whole oi lpan (whilst it was mostly full of oil), but at least I’ve learnt to stop and think about which way I’m turning a fastener before I screw it up.

    1. I swear to god if you say one bad word about Deep Amethyst Pearlcoat ever again, I am going to repaint everything you own in the third best goddamn color to ever come out of Chrysler.
      EVERYTHING. EVEN YOUR HOUSE.

      (We all know #1 is Deep Beryl Green PGV and #2 is Gunmetal Blue Pearlcoat PC6. And #4 is obviously Nitro Yellow Green PF2.)

      Oh, and I’ll tell David you promised to help him fix all his cars.

      1. Lol, I never even saw the color, just looked up ugly ZJ colors and purple came up…a little more digging led me to that color! Knew I would offend at least one…I’m partial to Patriot Blue myself!

      2. Came in here to contest the best colors and while I can’t necessarily agree on exact ranking, you picked some GOOD colors. Carry on. (Patriot Blue on the Ram 1500 is a favorite of mine, but I especially like it because of how it fades to hidden parts of the body as seen on unfinished bodies in the plant)

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