Home » How I’m Building The Greatest Jeep Grand Cherokee Ever By Using Rare Original Parts

How I’m Building The Greatest Jeep Grand Cherokee Ever By Using Rare Original Parts

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“Meow!” I hear as an orange cat bounces around the interior of my hyper-rare 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee five-speed, a vehicle that I often refer to as the “Holy Grail.” As I open a door, the cat drops out from…somewhere…and scurries away among the many other cars in the Galpin Media parking lot. The Jeep looks sad; it’s been sitting abandoned in this lot since I arrived in California a few months ago, and before that was sitting abandoned in my front yard for months. Before that, it was abandoned in my backyard, and before that it was abandoned in a field in Virginia. But fear not, oh Holy Grail, for glory awaits you, as I am amassing the greatest stockpile of factory-original parts ever assembled. Why? I’m building The Ultimate Jeep Grand Cherokee. Here’s how.

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The automobile I first learned to drive was a first-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee, called the “ZJ” internally by Jeep and also externally by weirdo Jeepers like me. The vehicle played a pivotal role in my trajectory, introducing me to the off-road world, and inspiring me to dedicate some of my life to studying engineering so I could work at Jeep in Detroit, developing the next-generation of off-road machines (I was lucky enough to arrive at Chrysler in 2015, just as the JL Wrangler program began). Here’s the machine that made me the weird Jeep-man I am today:

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I love the ZJ. With a stick, I think it’s the best budget-overlanding Jeep in the world, and it is without question the best-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee, which was initially meant to act as the successor to the venerable Jeep Cherokee XJ, which had been around since the 1984 model-year. But when the ZJ debuted for 1993, the XJ stuck around as the less-expensive, smaller Jeep, and the ZJ became its bigger, younger brother. The ZJ would later be succeeded by the bigger, heavier WJ, which had a spare tire well in the trunk that reduced ground clearance, plus the WJ was just a generally bulbous machine. The WJ was still a great off-road Jeep compared to the independent-suspension-equipped Jeep Grand Cherokees that would follow, but Jeep’s best Grand Cherokee was its first, and it’s the one I’m using as the basis for the Ultimate Grand Cherokee — specifically the ultimate overlanding Jeep Grand Cherokee.

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My Starting Point Is The Best Grand Cherokee Model Ever

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I’m starting with a “Holy Grail” Jeep Grand Cherokee, one of 1,400 Grand Cherokees ever built with a manual transmission (in the U.S., the only Grand Cherokees ever offered with a stickshift were 1993 and 1994 models). This is a big deal for a number of reasons, the most important of which is the fact that the Chrysler transmissions offered in other Grand Cherokees were known to be unreliable. Other advantages of the rare stick is the fact that it’s more fun to drive than an automatic, it’s easier to repair, and it offers another way to fire up the car should there be issues with the starter (you can roll-start the Jeep).

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The video below shows me buying my very first “Holy Grail” manual transmission Jeep Grand Cherokee. Its accompanying article, and my old article about a Wisconsin man who planned to junk his rare Jeep due to rust, brought numerous “Holy Grail” Grand Cherokee owners out of the woodwork and into my email inbox. As I described in my article “Here’s How I’m Going To Save A Doomed ‘Holy Grail’ Jeep Grand Cherokee Sitting On An Old Wisconsin Dairy Farm,” a man from Virginia sold me his red one for $350 (I towed it back to Michigan, then to California), though it was missing a transmission; the aforementioned Wisconsite then sold me his rustbucket for $350, and together I had the makings of a nice, solid Holy Grail Grand Cherokee, and all for just $700.

(The one below I sold, in part because it looked terrible due to its bad paint, and also it had 260,000 miles on it, but really it’s because I knew if I didn’t save the Virginia Jeep using the rusty Jeep, they’d both end up in junkyards).

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My red 1994 ZJ’s stickshift is bolted to the stout 4.0-liter AMC inline-six, which is an unstoppable engine so long as it’s kept cool. Luckily the ZJ Grand Cherokee — unlike the XJ Cherokee, YJ Wrangler, TJ Wrangler, and other legendary Jeeps — was originally designed to fit, and thus cool, a 5.2-liter V8 motor. So the radiator — which dips down to a lower cooling opening (which the aforementioned 4.0-liter Jeeps don’t have) — is enormous; ZJs do a great job at keeping their cool, as I explain in this video clip:

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by David Tracy (@davidntracy)

But my Jeep isn’t just a 4.0-liter five-speed “Holy Grail” Grand Cherokee, it’s actually a Holy Grail among Holy Grails. That’s because my manual Grand Cherokee is a base “SE” model, featuring crank windows, manual locks, manual cloth seats, and very few niceties. Jeep sold very few Grand Cherokees with manual windows and locks in 1993 and 1994, and in the model’s third year of production, it no longer offered such a basic trim.

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With a stickshift and very few interior electronics, my ZJ is a truly basic machine built on an excellent platform. In fact, the platform marks the very first time a high-volume production vehicle offered a five-link coil-sprung solid axle suspension both front and rear. This later became the standard for Jeep; every Jeep Wrangler generation since the ZJ’s launch has utilized such a suspension. The ZJ’s novel rear suspension — called “Quadra-Coil” when paired with the Jeep XJ’s “Quadra-Link” front suspension — would later be adopted by the Toyota 4Runner, Mercedes G-Class, Ram 1500, and more. It’s now the standard for solid rear axle coil spring suspensions because it offers excellent ride quality, excellent off-road suspension articulation, and handling improvements over a leaf spring design.

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Pair that engine, transmission, and suspension with a unibody that offers good interior space without weighing that much, and add a genuinely comfortable and quiet (but super basic) interior, and you end up with an (arguably) modern Jeep that’s reliable, comfortable, practical, and genuinely off-road capable. It’s an excellent starting point for an off-road build, but mine needs some upgrades before being a true off-road warrior and thus the ultimate Jeep Grand Cherokee. Luckily, Jeep offered lots of options on the ZJ, and they can be found in junkyards everywhere.

Turning My Base ‘Holy Grail’ Jeep Grand Cherokee Into ‘The Ultimate’

To build the Ultimate Jeep Grand Cherokee basically requires starting with the best variant — the base-model manual ZJ — and then adding all the best Jeep Grand Cherokee parts that Jeep ever offered either from the factory or from the dealership through its parts company MOPAR.

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One obvious improvement my ZJ could use is better seats, as the base vinyl ones (examples shown above) are really not comfortable or durable. As such, I yanked the rusty Wisconsin Laredo trim’s incredibly comfortable, durable cloth seats:

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In addition, the spare tire takes up far too much room in the ZJ’s cargo area — a gripe darn-near every reviewer in the 1990s mentioned during evaluation – so I’m currently in the process of picking up a hyper-rare, dealer-installed, MOPAR spare tire carrier. Check this thing out:

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By “currently in the process” I mean I already bought half of the thing a few days ago I somehow convinced an Autopian reader named Jack to drive with me 90 minutes from LA to an impound lot in Fontana so we could wrench on this spare tire carrier in the dark. Here are two photos I took of the sketchy impound lot:

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Sadly, I didn’t have the right tools or the energy to get the main swinging tire carrier, but I did get the hatch-mounted latch. In fact, I got the whole hatch!:

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I also managed to snag a set of factory mud flaps from a Michigan junkyard prior to my departure. Plus, I found a gray grille, which is what should be on all base ZJs (someone painted mine black). The grille is in excellent shape, and the mud flaps aren’t bad, either:

(Small aside: That gray grille is super rare. You can either get it on a base/SE trim Grand Cherokee (those are super rare) or you can find a gray high-trim ZJ whose grille is body-colored — also rare. So I got lucky finding the latter).

Then there are these amber turn signals, which I bought from eBay Kleinanzeigen while visiting my parents in Germany:

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Here’s what a typical Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ looks like with U.S.-spec turn signal lenses (this is my old base trim, which you’ll notice has the gray factory-color grille):

Product photo of 1993 Jeep grand cherokee Base

And here’s the Euro-spec look with those amazing amber turn signals:

Image: eBay Kleinanzeigen/Auto Tekin

Plus, I’m throwing on the factory fuel tank skid plate to protect the undercarriage:

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And I have a factory transfer case skid plate that I snagged from a junkyard near Ann Arbor:

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If you’re looking at those pictures wondering where the transfer case skid plate is in all that mess, then that makes you and me both. But I can tell you there’s a nice set of slotted rotors that I found at a junkyard; they were basically brand new when I removed them (these aren’t original rotors, of course):

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Plus, during my junkyard visits, I have been hoarding a bunch of center caps for my steel wheels:

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And I found a spare steel wheel (those were painted black) on Facebook Marketplace about a year back. These are rather rare:

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And of course I plan to bolt up a later-model-year hatch, because it features a pop-out rear window. I’m going to want that fresh air when I’m camping:

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Image: Atael JV/Facebook Marketplace

So there you have it: I’ve bought the best Jeep Grand Cherokee ever — a rare base-model, stickshift ZJ — and now I’m adding a super-rare rear spare tire carrier, amber turn signal lenses offered in foreign markets, excellent Laredo seats, mud flaps, a glass-poppingly-good rear hatch, and skid plates. Plus I’m replacing all the broken interior trim, the grille (with the nice gray junkyard one), the faded bumper covers, and more. I’ll repaint my wheels silver, install the center caps I found in the junkyard, and in the end I will truly have the greatest, OEM-parts-only Jeep Grand Cherokee of all time.

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I plan to then increase its off-road capability a bit by installing a small lift kit and some larger tires, and possibly a different set of axles (a stronger Dana 44 rear with a limited slip diff (maybe a locker at some point) and shorter gearing to accommodate those bigger tires; and a standard Dana 30 front with the same gearing). I also have a snorkel and a winch, though I need to decide if I want to install those. If I do, it will be before a major off-road expedition, and not just for the heck of it.

I have a lot of work ahead, as should be obvious looking at that parts-shed-disguised-as-a-Jeep, which is currently occupied by a cute cat. But I have all the parts I need and some. It’s time to get working on the Ultimate Grand Cherokee.

 

 

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Ron888
Ron888
1 year ago

Sweet! I look forward to seeing it complete and polished

James Davidson
James Davidson
1 year ago
Reply to  Ron888

Polished!? You have got to be kidding. Hosed off? Maybe, but only because DT is so SoCal now.

Matthew Skwarczek
Matthew Skwarczek
1 year ago

I remember helping with one of the doors on this thing before you moved! I didn’t realize how much of a Holy Grail it was

pizzaman09
pizzaman09
1 year ago

The pop open glass window on the tailgate is actually wonderful. My parents old ZJ had that feature and we used it a ton.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
1 year ago

I have been waiting on this build since day 1. Glad to see if finally happening!

notoriousDUG
notoriousDUG
1 year ago

Which 5spd do those have? The one with the terrible internal clutch cylinder or the nicer one?

pizzaman09
pizzaman09
1 year ago
Reply to  David Tracy

I very much am jealous of the external slave. I’ve and internal slave on the AX15 in my MJ, and I have to bleed it every few days as it oddly sucks in air. Someday I’ll do the external slave conversion.

Last Pants
Last Pants
1 year ago

I bought a ZJ with a lot of miles but no rust because David “The Radiator” Tracy told me to. It’s not a Holy Grail but its mine and I love that thing.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 year ago

So we won’t be hearing from you again for what, two, three years?

Grey alien in a beige sedan
Grey alien in a beige sedan
1 year ago

TIL that DT wasn’t always suffering from a severely receding hairline. He was like a barefoot James Dean back in the day!

chad Face
chad Face
1 year ago
Reply to  David Tracy

Eff ’em if they can’t take a joke. You do you. Better to be real than trying to be something you are not.

chad Face
chad Face
1 year ago

Dude just has a high hairline. It’s just covered by bangs in the older picture. Some of us (me included) were born with five-heads.

Last edited 1 year ago by chad Face
Robert Pridgen
Robert Pridgen
1 year ago

Like the “public electric charger etiquette”, I would be interested to know if there are any rules for pick-and-pull/junkyards.

chad Face
chad Face
1 year ago
Reply to  Robert Pridgen

Main rule is one man per car. If someone is pulling parts off of a car, you don’t just start pulling other stuff off it. At the bare minimum, you ask if it’s okay to pull ‘X’ off. Most will grunt/say ‘yes’ or ‘si’. Don’t split roast without permission, man.

Last edited 1 year ago by chad Face
Dennis Birtcher
Dennis Birtcher
1 year ago

At least the cat won’t eat your wiring like the Tracker groundhog did.

JDE
JDE
1 year ago

I wonder how hard it would be to source a 2.5 Vittori Turbo-Diesel Engine? In Europe the NA 2.5 VM diesel was available in the Cherokee, it always hooked to a manual trans and the Scorpio turbo version was at least not a complete hinderance as far as forward acceleration goes.

Plus you have worked on VM’s in that caravan….might even have a parts source from Germany in a pinch…lol

OptionXIII
OptionXIII
1 year ago
Reply to  JDE

So that engine actually continued on for many years after. The 2.5 was developed into the 2.8 CRD that briefly appeared here in the Liberty. The 2.8 was developed into the diesel engine that appeared in the Chevy Colorado a few years back.

I’d love to import a Euro Diesel XJ with one of these engines, and then see how many of the ancillary components will swap between all the different versions of the engine so I could get a decent modern diesel engine that bolts into an XJ, without having to lift and bumpstop the XJ to ridiculous heights with no compression travel.

Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
1 year ago
Reply to  OptionXIII

Would a Cummins 2.8 fit? They sell them as a crate engine.

Speedway Sammy
Speedway Sammy
1 year ago
Reply to  Mr. Canoehead

Probably, but at 9 grand it’s about 2X the value of the Jeep

MH7
MH7
1 year ago

David, FYI that the site in glitching super hard on google chrome mobile. Like I can’t read an article because it keeps randomly (and rapidly) jumping down. I can’t believe I’m saying this but possibly even worse than your prior employer. Just started a few days ago

Mercedes Streeter
Mercedes Streeter
1 year ago
Reply to  MH7

Silly question, have you tried clearing our site data from Chrome? I have access to a bunch of devices (Apple and Android) running Chrome on mobile and am unable to replicate your issue.

MH7
MH7
1 year ago

Cleared all browsing data and it seems to be doing ok. It wasn’t happening for every article, and hasn’t happened the past year I’ve been reading here, so I thought it was some new ad or something. Maybe just me lol. Carry on

JDE
JDE
1 year ago

Ditch the Dana 30, at least go 44 up front with the disconnect option if you can find one. also I think you need the Jeep bumper mount fog light with jeep script covers.

notoriousDUG
notoriousDUG
1 year ago
Reply to  JDE

Why?
Later D30 uses the same u-joint and is a fairly robust unit if you are not going ham on it. I know guys who ran 35 and 36″ tires on them with no real issues.

LactoseTheIntolerant
LactoseTheIntolerant
1 year ago
Reply to  JDE

I’m with @notoriusDUG on this. I had a sleeved and gussetted Dana 30 with a spool locker that ran 34″ (305/70r17) tires and I live near Ouray, and it spent a lot of time in the rocks in Moab.

The mini-spool locker actually broke, yet the joints, housing, and gears were fine. It had a poor man’s sway bar disconnect that required a hammer to assemble and dissemble, but that was part of the charm. 🙂

JC 06Z33
JC 06Z33
1 year ago

BUILD THREAD!

This is the epitome of “OEM+” which is my modding mantra. I am here for all of it!

Data
Data
1 year ago

“an (arguably) modern Jeep”
Starts counting on fingers and toes…29 years.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
1 year ago
Reply to  Data

You have that many digits?
I can’t count past 20.

Data
Data
1 year ago

Maybe I am polydactyl like Hemingway’s cats.

Brian O'Neill
Brian O'Neill
1 year ago

If I’m naked I can count to 21

Vic Vinegar
Vic Vinegar
1 year ago
Reply to  Data

Seems like DT spends most of his motoring time recently in a 1) 1965 Mustang and 2) a 70’s Jeep J-10. So this is modern in comparison.

Ben
Ben
1 year ago

I’m amazed the cat was still there. Isn’t cat theft a huge problem in California? 😉

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
1 year ago

Is there anything more underrated than manual, base models?
As an avid, middle of nowhere, camper I agree with your logic.
The ability to pop the clutch has saved me from a long hike more than once.

GertVAG
GertVAG
1 year ago

Same here, got me or even a colleague (who learnt the trick from me) home more than once !

Paul B
Paul B
1 year ago

Do take advantage of being in Cali and use the plethora of repair/overhaul places we don’t get elsewhere (where it makes sense with what you know your limits are).

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
1 year ago

That will be a nice build.

I would also try to see if Jeep made a cat carrier. If not there are pet beds that use the anchor points.

Let’s start the Save the Holy Grail Cat go fund me along with Torch’s Octopus blogger.

Dodsworth
Dodsworth
1 year ago

I’m not sure about this. Those Calicos don’t have a good reliability history and you can’t even get parts for them anymore.

Lokki
Lokki
1 year ago
Reply to  Dodsworth

Yeah, but generally speaking, if you get a Calico fixed, it stays fixed.

OptionXIII
OptionXIII
1 year ago

Sounds like a fantastic project – that level of OEM+ style mods is exactly what I did with my base ’99 XJ. From a RWD POS, to an NP242 equipped Up Country package replica that I’m proud of. I wouldn’t hesitate to take it on an off road trek across the country tomorrow. For the same aero, space, and cooling reasons you mentioned, I sort of wish I had started with a ZJ. But one of those didn’t fall into my lap like this XJ did.

If you want more brakes, you can also do a WJ front brake swap without doing all the crossover steering most people insist is necessary. To get the steering linkage angles perfect, you’ll either need a small drop of the pitman arm, or a moderate 2-3″ lift. Either one will compensate well for the different length of the track bar and drag link. I did both, only after I took some measurements did I realize I would have been better at my lift height to stick with an XJ pitman arm.

WJ Brake Swap, on the cheap – Jeep Cherokee Forum

I’ve got the same concerns other people mentioned about off roading with a heavier tire on that factory spare tire carrier. You may want to plan on doing some “pre-enforcement”. But I’m sure this is already on your mind.

Good luck, I look forward to more installments!

OptionXIII
OptionXIII
1 year ago
Reply to  David Tracy

You gotta get the overhead console in this thing too!

Gee See
Gee See
1 year ago

It looks like a female cat (calico pattern usually indicates).. and since it is spring have you check she didn’t leave you a litter of kittens in the car?

Garageless
Garageless
1 year ago

Do you have to replace and re-paint the whole rear hatch to get the pop-out window? Or can the hardware from the salvage hatch be grafted onto the existing non-pop-out hatch?

If you’re going to all this trouble to make this a Holy Grail Off-Roader, why not make some real upgrades to the powertrain?

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
1 year ago
Reply to  Garageless

Because it is a 4.0, and is perfection, and because it is an AX15, which is also perfection. What upgrades would you want to make?

Garageless
Garageless
1 year ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

Well, given that the 4.0’s HP curve plummets to Earth at moderately high RPM, how about a little forced induction.

Garageless
Garageless
1 year ago
Reply to  David Tracy

A smart decision.

PlatinumZJ
PlatinumZJ
1 year ago

Wow!! This is going to be exciting. Good call changing out the seats; I’m not sure how much they updated the materials between the first and second generations of the ZJ, but the cloth in my ’97 has been surprisingly durable. I only have a couple of wear spots on the rear seat where it was kept folded down for many years.

TXJeepGuy
TXJeepGuy
1 year ago

Are the steel wheels any different from the ones that came on Sport level XJ’s and TJ’s? They look the same as the ones my 94 XJ had.

Idiot_with_a_garage
Idiot_with_a_garage
1 year ago
Reply to  TXJeepGuy

The spokes on these are flat without the little ridge in the middle. I believe they were the base steel wheel on the GC and the spares on the trucks that came with alloys. I had a set I unfortunately let go last year 🙁

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