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

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


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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65 Responses

  1. We feel you David, sometimes we just get excited and forget to do stuff, you’ll learn from it and hopefully revive this jeep once again. Also sometimes is just better to do the min to keep a vehicle running instead of overthinking and making small issues complicated we all learn this from time. Now revive this and that cool cabover 🙂 .

    1. Crap. I hit enter by accident.
      Anyway, if it makes you feel any better, my god-dammed garbage disposal has started to get a mind of its own and only work when it feels like it. The motor seems to be fine, but for some reason, the “blades” have decided to start taking extended naps in their current location until I get out the hex keys and manually “encourage” them to do some sightseeing.
      Since I’m not willing to lose (a best-case scenario) a fingernail trying to attack it from above and I am not trying to become a plumber, that’s just how it’s gonna be for now.
      My good buddy Charlie used to sing a little ditty with the only lyrics consisting of, “Everything is a battle…battle.” It’s always something, DT.

      1. Replacing a garbage disposal is relatively easy. When mine started leaking I bought a used one from Habitat for Humanity for $25 and had it swapped in under 30 minutes. The only issue is having to rearrange the under sink cabinet to accommodate the more powerful motor.

      2. That’s what mine was doing for a few months before it died completely. A new one was under $100 and it clipped into the same connector under the sink, so it was a no-tools job. Way easier than I had feared!

        The only problem was that I originally put the rubber gasket on the wrong side of the outlet hose connection, so it sprayed water everywhere in my sub-sink area.

  2. Well DT as I have told you before when you are done trying to resurrect this beast give me a call and I will gladly take it off your hands. It will live a life of semi luxury in the PNW and be enjoyed thoroughly with its new LS powered heart.

    1. I was like this after I replaced all 24 rockers and all 24 lifters in my JK Pentastar. There was a lot of praying, bargaining, solemn reflection, and much trepidation before I turned the key.

      And it ran. The only time I got that excited was in the delivery room when my children were born.

  3. David, you’re giving me second thoughts about getting the Evo compression and leak down tested. Granted, this isn’t tearing apart the motor, but I’ve been wondering about the relative health of the internals from the high mileage. The car drives fine, so maybe I should just let that be my guide.

    It will let me turn my attention to likely needs in the suspension/subframe bushings and motor mounts…

  4. Yes, you have fallen off that horse, kicked it, broke a toe, tripped over it limping around, broke a leg, and then fell face first into it’s poo…. We’ve all been there. Now get back up and get on that horse ( or Eagle) and try again.
    Good luck, I have faith in you. Worst case, you’re only another engine away from getting it running.

  5. Oh the pain! I know it well. I know it deep in my soul. I’ve done it myself. Like that time I blew up an engine immediatly after a swap. THAT is how I found out that there are TWO timing marks on a Chevy balancer, and I had used the wrong one.

    All you can do is cry, roll up your sleeves, and then fix it. Can’t hurt to sacrifice a goat to Ba’al. All hail Lucifuge!

  6. This is why I now have a note taped to the computer in my hobby workshop that says “DO NOT BUY ANYTHING ELSE, YOU HAVE PLENTY TO DO.” Too many projects, and you start to lose track of things and make silly costly mistakes.

  7. I learned a fun lesson once installing a transmission cooler in a rush: don’t do it upside down so that the nipples are facing up. Or if you do, don’t immediately take a 2 hour trip without first doing a few laps to make sure all of the hoses are sufficiently tightened.

    What I found out is that this can result in seeing fluid running up your hood towards your windshield on, followed by white smoke billowing behind you on a remote stretch of highway in middle of nowhere, Indiana. After realizing your stupidity, there’s nothing to do but pull over and see your ENTIRE ENGINE BAY coated in hot, disgusting-smelling red fluid after the upward-facing nipple basically became a sprinkler head. No matter how much cleanup you do and no matter how many rags/rolls of paper towel you go through, you WILL leak concrete-staining fluid for months. Also you will ruin several shirts fixing it on the side of the road.

    Not as bad as two trashed engines, but enough to ruin a weekend’s worth of plans!

  8. 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!”


    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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. David, you should have just run it with rust in the cylinders. That is actually the official break in method for 1970s BMW motorcycle engines because they have extremely hard piston rings so the ritual is to establish an even layer of rust, assemble dry and hold at 3500 rpm on first startup. It still took almost 10 years to fully seat the piston rings.

    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.

      (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)

  14. And this is why I told you to stick with the original motor, get the machining done professionally, and above all else, RTFM instead of just saying “I can just wing it!” There’s a wealth of information out there from reputable sources. (What, you think I blew up a bunch of motors learning? Hell no. I gleefully accept piggyback rides from the guys who designed ’em new.)

    You failed to prime. So you definitely cavitated the pump. And no oil at the top means no oil period. Gen3’s run as much as 3 quarts up top in flight normally. And galleys are bottom to top, front to rear, top to bottom.
    Which, by the way, is the exact same as the LS.

    So, who would like to guess what doesn’t get lubricated until after the lifters on both the AMC Gen3 and the GM LS?

    1. I gave a dude who was total stranger in my kids afternoon pickup line… 20bux to please help me smash off a set of Rotors.

      It… was KIIIND of a pick-up line. I went over to his car…( feeling de-jected from spending most of the day trying to do something) and flat out asked him, do you have a 20lb sledge. He asked why… I confessed, said he’d be over after school.

      Dude… made my day.

      My day… was the definition of S H I T E.

  15. Rule Number 1, don’t do a larger project on a car to fix something small (aka remove the entire head to fix a broken off exhaust stud, or tear the engine all the way apart due to minor rust in the cylinders), it always leads to even bigger problems as you have found out. Always keep it simple!

  16. As long as you learned from the experience then don’t sweat it. The nice thing when you’re young is that you get to live the next 50-70% of your life having already learned that lesson.

  17. It’s not destroying-an-engine grade, but I recently spent a couple of days swapping out the Getrag 250 in my daughter’s 318ti (the original had eaten 2nd gear) on my icy-cold garage floor. Finally got the new (used) trans wrestled into place and all of the linkage, etc. bolted up. I figured I’d better test the clutch pedal, etc. before I fully reassembled the car. I depressed the clutch, only to feel it bind and then plummet to the floor, followed by an unpleasant metallic noise. I looked underneath and noted a steady stream of fluid from the bottom of the bellhousing. Goddammit. Turns out that I’d somehow knocked the pivot fork out of place during the install, causing the the slave piston to over-extend itself, and the cylinder to come apart and yeet its internals into the bellhousing. Nothing to do but order a new part, rinse, and repeat. Why do we do this, again?

    1. An old friend of mine had a father who was a tinkerer and gadget freak.

      His philosophy was “If it ain’t broke, take it apart, lose a few pieces, and it will be! Then we can buy a newer, better thing!”

  18. You’re making me feel good about not pulling the gear box in my Spitfire even though it whines in 3rd gear and pops out of reverse. I have had a used gearbox on the floor of my garage for two years, but something tells me I should enjoy driving my Spitfire as is until I really need to get dirty.

  19. Dude, you have two complete long blocks in decent shape; if is a walk in the park to make a running engine without a ton of cash spent.

    Bring them to Chicago and I’ll put them together just to stop the pain of watching you flail about.

    1. To this day, on my MG’s distributor, plug wire number 1 is where number 4 should be, because I installed the distributor drive shaft 180 degrees out, and tried several times to get it to go in right. It refused. So I just rearranged the plug wires. I feel no shame at all.

      1. We’ve all done it. Did head gaskets in my old gf’s ( $500 at a yard sale-I kid you not ) ‘70 Ford truck. Couldn’t for the life of me get the distributor in right. Swapped wires, then lived in fear of the day we’d go ‘down the country’ to visit her father-a cantankerous coot with a fleet of Fords: I knew he’d spot it as soon as the hood opened…

        Amazingly, we caught him on a good day and he just laughed and told me he’d had a Hudson back in the day that he had same problem with. Never bright it up again.

    2. Look at it this way….
      Im happy it was on at all. It coulda been on upside down, inside out!

      I had to ask a dude, who was a total stranger in my kid’s pickup line.. help me with my stuck rotors. As he sees my rotors, he notices my Calipers are on backwards. It was raining and I looked really stupid. On top of.. he took a big ol Sledge and wacked the shit out of the Rotors and broke off in 3 pieces. I felt like a fucking moron.

      Also… thankfully I got my wife knocked up 7yrs ago so my smol one could help me bleed my brakes.

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