Home » I Bought This Chevy Tracker For $700. Here’s Why Fixing It Has Cost Over Twice That

I Bought This Chevy Tracker For $700. Here’s Why Fixing It Has Cost Over Twice That

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This article was meant to be a victory lap for me and my most recent automotive purchase. Initially titled “How I Turned A $700 Chevy Tracker Into A Respectable Off-Road Daily Driver For Dirt Cheap,” the piece was going to chronicle how this body-on-frame 4×4 was the deal of the century. I’d describe how I’d scored a soulful, mostly rust-free, manual transmission off-roader equipped with a low-range transfer case for an absolute song, and how the thing drove like a dream. But last night, just after I’d decided to hold the article for this morning, disaster struck, putting the kibosh on my victory lap. The fact is, given the latest setback, it’s clear that the Tracker was a mistake. Let’s look at how much I’ve sunk into this deceivingly-cute Suzuki.

[Editor’s Note: Oh boy. – JT]

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I’ll be honest and say I knew the Chevy Tracker wasn’t a smart buy when I pulled the trigger on it earlier this summer. I’m trying to reduce my fleet so I can move to LA, and facts are facts: “Plus one” is not the same thing as “minus three” — it’s simple math. But this was a manual transmission Suzuki Grand Vitara AKA Geo Tracker AKA Chevy Tracker — a vehicle known for its off-road toughness, and fairly highly regarded in terms of reliability; for $700 bones, I figured I couldn’t lose. It seemed to be in decent shape overall, and there were tons of these machines in local junkyards, so parts would be plentiful and cheap. And while that has ended up being true, the expenses do pile up. Worse, though, is that the one thing I don’t have right now is time, and the Tracker is stealing every ounce of that from me.

Here’s What Happened Last Night

Before we get into the dollars and cents, let’s just talk about the disaster that struck last night.

I’ve driven the Tracker about 100 miles over the last few days, and it’s been great. It’s comfortable, and handles better than any of my other vehicles, with much sharper steering (since it’s my only car with a rack and pinion setup). I was quite pleased with my purchase until around 7 P.M. yesterday, when my dreaded charging issue resurfaced.

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I’ve been battling this for quite some time now. Every now and then, I’d read 13.8 volts at the battery, indicating that the new alternator I had just purchased was doing its job. But then I’d drive around and my lights would go dim and my engine would start to sputter as the fuel pump and ignition system lost juice. I pored over wiring diagrams, checking every fuse and wire I could find that might have something to do with that alternator not putting out enough current to keep that battery from draining. Last weekend I stopped by the junkyard and snagged a daytime running light controller, as the wiring diagram indicated that it was tied into the alternator’s battery voltage sensing wire:

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But this did nothing. I searched for other potential current draws by paying attention to which systems worked and which didn’t. Maybe if I found something that wasn’t functioning properly I could narrow down where in my electrical circuit the problem lay. What I discovered were two seized electric motors — and important ones, at that. The first one was my wiper motor; technically, it wasn’t seized — the wiper transmission was (that’s the linkage that turns the rotary motor motion into back-and-forth wiping action). So the motor was basically stalling, drawing absurd amounts of current when the wipers were on. Whether they ‘d been on while I was driving, I’m unsure, since they didn’t work anyway and I hadn’t paid attention to the switch position. I swapped the wiper motor and transmission from one I’d gotten from a junkyard for $30. This required some modification, because Chevy apparently made some running changes over the Tracker’s manufacturing span, but the job was fairly straightforward.

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My friend Brian discovered that the electric “pusher” fan in front of the condenser was completely seized. This could also draw quite a bit of current, and could explain why I’d seen significant coolant temperature spikes during my short test drives. So — again, with a modification (to the connector) — I swapped the part with a new one I’d snagged on eBay for $70.

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With the two stalled motors replaced, I began driving the Tracker, and it worked wonderfully. I took it to an old Chrysler engineering friend’s house on Sunday about 30 miles away, ate some ice cream, and drove to take care of some errands. There were no issues. I then washed the car in preparation for this article, because — again — the thing actually looks quite nice, and given how well it was operating on Sunday, I wanted to highlight how pleased I was with the purchase. It’s possible I was also going to applaud car culture in Michigan; “You can buy a car for $700, throw a few junkyard parts into it, and have a cool daily driver. What a place!” sounds like something I might have written.

But when I fired the Tracker up at the grocery store last night, it cranked rather slowly, and I immediately knew I was screwed. I understood what this meant; the alternator was no longer charging, and I had just a few minutes before the car would shut down. I rushed home, noticing that my turn signal dash lights were dimming; my airbag light began to flicker on and off, and my tachometer needle started going apeshit. My headlights were clearly dimmer than they should have been, and on the final half-mile stretch, when I hammered the throttle, the car began to sputter. I upshifted early to keep my foot off that rightmost pedal; this helped, but the car began bucking all the way until I pulled into my driveway. That’s when the car overheated.

“What the hell?!” I thought. “I fixed this charging problem, didn’t I? Also, the coolant temperature gauge looked fine!” I declared before realizing that nothing on my gauge cluster was to be trusted after that electrical meltdown sent the tach and airbag lights going bananas.

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The problem, which I thought I’d solved with new fan and wiper motors, a new alternator, a new daytime running light module, and even a new $100 ECU, was still there. My heart sank, and I went to sleep. It felt like I was fighting an endless battle against invisible electrical gremlins, and I was never going to win.

Trust The Process

But this morning, with a clear mind, I reminded myself of one of the most important wrencher’s adages: “Trust the process.” That process refers to the diagnostic process, which is informed by your knowledge of how systems work. I knew that my engine had overheated. Why? And why did it happen at the same time that my charging system went bad? I’d figured that my previous overheating issues were a result of my electric fan not coming on, so maybe the drained battery wasn’t spinning that fan fast enough? “No, that doesn’t make sense,” I realized. The Tracker has a mechanical fan that kept the vehicle cool all day; at no point did the auxiliary fan fire up — why would it have to do that when it was colder in the evening?

That’s when it came to me; I knew what the issue had to be. Aside from the auxiliary fan that the Tracker clearly doesn’t need most of the time, the vehicle’s charging system and cooling system are connected in only one way: They’re both hooked to the car’s Front End Accessory Drive (or FEAD, as they call it in the industry). Oddly, though, I saw no issue there. The belts were all intact, and I noticed no slipping; in fact, the belts seemed to be in decent shape, with no melted bits or rips. This is where trusting the process came into play.

No, there were no issues with the belts, and looking at the accessory drive while the engine was running showed that the belts were turning. So this wasn’t an issue then, right? No, wrong — as I said before, I knew what the issue had to be. There are no other options; I know how this car works, and I know that somewhere on this accessory drive, something is screwing up both my charging system and my cooling system. Somewhere there is a problem. So I looked harder, and here’s what I found:

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As you can see, the harmonic balancer/crankshaft pulley that uses belts to take the engine’s crankshaft work use it to spin a water pump, power steering pulley, alternator, and fan had failed. Yes, the balancer itself — which to a layperson looks like just a single-piece pulley — had split at its rubber junction (the rubber helps damp vibrations from the crankshaft). It was an essentially invisible failure. The naked eye cannot see the split, which is why the “trust the process” adage is so important. If you know how something works, then when it fails in a way that cannot be seen with the naked eye, you’ll have the confidence to say “I don’t care that I can’t see it. It’s there.”

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A similar situation happened to me when I was driving my 1948 Willys CJ-2A cross-country to Moab back in 2017. I lost all compression instantly in all cylinders, and I knew this could only happen if there was a timing issue. But I looked at my timing gears and saw that nothing was wrong; even the timing marks on the crankshaft and camshaft gears were still lined up. I buttoned the Go-Devil engine back up and towed the vehicle; later, after some thought, I came back to the gears and told myself: “I know I don’t see anything, but this has to be it. The problem is somewhere here.” And indeed, I found a failure similar to the one my Suzuki is facing: The center of the timing gear became delaminated from the outer portion, meaning the crankshaft gear was spinning this camshaft gear, but the outer portion was rotating without spinning the camshaft that was keyed to the center section. My Suzuki has the opposite issue: The inside bit is spinning, but the outside pulley bit is not.

 

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So now I have to replace that harmonic balancer. This will require me to remove the radiator and use a puller tool to get the balancer off the crankshaft. This will probably be a pain in the ass. Why I bought an eBay crankshaft pulley that is a quarter the price of all other Suzuki 2.0-liter dampers I saw, I don’t know. But for $15, I figured I’d risk it. I’m a cheap bastard. Hopefully that doesn’t come back to bite me.

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[Editor’s Note: History suggests it’ll be fine, just fine, with no problems at all, ever again, forever! Anywhere! – JT]

I Paid Twice As Much For Parts As I Did For The Tracker Itself

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I really thought fixing the Tracker would be a cinch. When I arrived at the seller’s house earlier this summer, he told me the $1,600 SUV ran and drove great; it overheated every now and then and needed a jumpstart. This seemed trivial to a former cooling system engineer like myself.

The seller accidentally switched the positive and negative battery cables, frying the Tracker’s main fuse. Unable to prove the car ran, the seller told me he’d let it go as-is. I wasn’t sure exactly how much it would cost to fix whatever had been friend — it could have been the ECU for all I knew — so I offered $700. He agreed.

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I had AAA tow the little body-on-frame off-roader to my house, and then — after a bit of research — I went out to find a part that would yield the cheapest fix of all time: the main fuse.

Indeed, the $5 fuse rejuvenated that 127 horsepower 2.0-liter inline-four. Just listen to that thing purr.

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This is where I optimistically thought I’d just clean the car up and start driving it, but of course, this being a $700 shitbox, that’s not how things work. If one buys a car for under $1,000, there is a 99 percent chance that it will suffer from some kind of significant mechanical or electrical problem if not immediately, then certainly within the first week of ownership. That’s been my experience.

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And of course, a soon as I went to test drive the Tracker for the first time, I realized that the vehicle was undrivable. It wasn’t just that the steering kept locking up (this was sketchy), but the lights began dimming while I was driving, and eventually the car started to sputter as the fuel pump went weak. The charging system was toast.

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buyitnow-auto-parts/eBay

So I slapped in a new $46.50 eBay-sourced steering intermediate shaft, and that took care of my steering issue. As for the charging system, I threw $35 at a junkyard alternator, and when that didn’t work, I tossed in an $87 one I bought from Amazon. When that didn’t work, I threw in a $95 ECU, then the aforementioned $72 electric fan, then the aforementioned $37 junkyard wiper motor and transmission, and two $16 daytime running light modules (one was the wrong part).

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I also replaced the awful tires with $200 junkyard tires that are quite nice. Add that price to the installation cost, and I was out about $350 on rubber.

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I had to throw on new lugnuts after my old ones got stuck onto the lug studs, so that was another $20.

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The Tracker had a lot of cracked interior trim. Based on the paint spots on the rear carpet, I think this thing may have been owned by a house painter. In any case, I replaced that rear carpet and much of the interior plastic trim; I think I probably paid about $60 for all of it.

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The four-wheel drive system on these Trackers is far more complicated than it should be, as I described in my article about my ingenious fix to the electric front axle disconnect system. Before that Harbor Freight solution, I did buy two 4×4 controllers for about $15 each. So all in, my silly repair actually cost around $50.

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I also had to install a new junkyard taillight. That cost me $20.

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As for all the fluids — the engine oil (plus filter), transmission oil, rear differential oil, transfer case oil, and coolant — I probably dropped another $80. Add the vacuum I used at the local car wash, plus the car wash itself and all the cleaning fluids, and I probably dropped another $50 just to get this thing clean.

The cleaning operation happened after I fixed the dent on the rear quarter panel on the driver’s side:

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My friend Brian came over with his Jeep Wrangler TJ Unlimited (also called the “LJ”), and we used his front winch to pull the dent out a bit.

From there, I tried my hand at Bondo body filler, which I’d never used before. First, I had to secure the taillight, and since it no longer lined up with the holes in the rear quarter panel, this meant strategic use of a drill and some zipties:

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Next, I had to fill in the space between the quarter panel and the light. I know I’m going to get some shit from old-timers on this, but I just shoved a bunch of aluminum foil into the gap:

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After not realizing that I needed to add hardener, and wiping the first layer of Bondo off, I mixed up the filler nicely and lathered it onto that foil, filling the gap. I then let the filler dry, sanded it, added a few skim coats, and then primed and painted it.

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The result after clear coat is far from beautiful, but it’s better:

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I spent about $80 on the body filler and paints.

Other than that, I removed the rear hitch and then tried using some special $10 compound to darken the gray front and rear bumper covers. It didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, but it’s now a bit darker. Honestly, I think the little Tracker looks great:

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Note: If that gas cap door not closing bothers you, don’t worry: It bothered me, too. So I spent a few bucks on some rare earth magnets, and that took care of it:

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Obviously, I still need to replace that crankshaft damper and all the belts that go with it (together, assuming my cheap eBay damper works, thats about $70 in parts). And I need to steam clean that interior, but otherwise I think the Suzuki is just about ready. Here’s the full cost roll-up so far:

Chevy Tracker: $700
Taxes and Registration $100
Tires $200
Tire mount/balance $150
Lugnuts $20
Main fuse: $5
Steering Shaft $46.50
ECU $95
Alternators $122
DRL Modules $32
Electric fan $72
Wiper motor/trans $37
Interior trim $60
4×4 system fix $50
Junkyard taillight $20
Fluids $80
Cleaning $50
Bondo and paint $80
Bumper restorer $10
Harmoic Balancer/belts $70
CV Axles $80
Water Pump $25
Total: $2,105

Those last three italicized rows are parts I haven’t yet installed. I figure, since I’m doing the belts, I should replace the water pump. Plus, I noticed some cracked CV boots, so at some point those will need to be done.

In any case, I’ve dropped abut $2,100 on this car in total. Three times as much as the initial purchase price! Yes, I could have been a bit thriftier, but I had no time to waste; plus, with the balancer in and those axles installed, this really will be a decent little car. It won’t be worth much more than what I paid for it — it is a 176,000 mile Chevy Tracker after all — but I bet it will be a nice, reliable daily driver for whoever I sell it to in the next few months. After I off-road the everliving crap out of it, of course. Stay tuned for that.

[Editor’s Note: I’m not sure if I should have David read the comments here or not. Just know if you take this as an opportunity to kick a well-meaning wrencher when he’s down, I’ll be JUDGING YOU as well. I mean you can, and it’ll probably be fun, sure, but deep down you know you love that David does this shit, and owns up to his stumbles and failures, because, dammit, that’s how we learn. And I’m sure he’ll get this steaming pile of shit made into a steaming pile of drivable shit once again, because I’ve seen him do it. Don’t underestimate the Raja Of Rust. – JT]

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Chris Hoffpauir
Chris Hoffpauir
1 year ago

Look at it this way, if you’d paid what he originally wanted you’d be at $3K. You still saved $900 bucks.

Now you have a fun little off-roader to enjoy and can sell to somebody else when you’re tired of it.

Ron888
Ron888
1 year ago

Great diagnostic skills there David! I like a good mechanical mystery.
I can’t help but wonder how long it would’ve taken me to work it out.For sure there would’ve been several ‘walk away now! Dont be tempted to burn it to the ground’ moments ????

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
1 year ago

I don’t think the costs are unreasonable, but the problem is you didn’t start with something desirable. If you can get something “cool” and “in demand” then wrenching on it and spending money on parts is no big deal, because you’ll likely make a profit. You keep buying stuff that’s almost a lost cause, that postal jeep would never be worth much, and neither will this. Instead of this, if you bought something desirable, like… say… an old SRT4, Integra GSR, or something that people actually want, if it isn’t rusty and the paint is good you can generally make some money. I wouldn’t have tackled this if it was free, simply because people generally are not even interested in these things. For a smaller SUV, I think I’d stick to it’s sibling the Sidekick, because the box flares and styling are a lot nicer, or maybe a first gen Xterra, or Montero or something. Those are still desirable.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
1 year ago

You finding the root cause of the issue as being an issue with the harmonic balancer reminds me of an issue I managed to solve with an overcooling issue I had with a 1995 Ford Escort I once owned.

The issue was it had bad heat and on the highway, the engine would cool down too much.

The typical mechanic would just swap out the thermostat which didn’t do shit. Sure it would SEEM to be fine when they’d test it idling in a warm garage.

But I researched it and found out that the thermostat housings had a bypass (designed to open if the engine got too hot due to a thermostat that was stuck closed) that could fail. And when they failed, it meant the thermostat would get bypassed and allow too much coolant flow and cooling.

So I went to a mechanic with a new thermostat housing and told him to install it. The mechanic told me “that won’t do anything”. I told him “I’m not paying you to diagnose it. I’m paying you to replace the old part with this new part”

And lo and behold… it fixed the issue because I knew my car better than a general mechanic that works on all cars. Not saying the mechanic was bad. But I am saying that a general mechanic isn’t gonna know about every mechanical quirk of every car out there… like the thermostat housing issue on the 1991-1996 Ford Escorts.

Chi_spotting
Chi_spotting
1 year ago

This article makes me realize my Chrysler Fifth Avenue’s a lost cause and needs to exit my life with as little impact to my wallet as possible. But dammit, no one wants it for what I’m asking. Life is pain.

Gary Moller
Gary Moller
1 year ago

I had a friend with a car dealership who took a really rusty Volvo pv544 in a trade. It had rust holes all over, but my friend didn’t want to spend real money fixing them. It would never would sold as it was, though. So he asked me what I thought while I was standing there looking at it. I looked around his shop and saw a big can of spackle. We speckled all the rust holes, and rattle canned it to roughly match the body. As long as it was not gotten wet, or driven more than a couple miles, it would last until he sold it. He never stopped laughing all the time we were spackling the car.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
1 year ago

Just think of it as a $4K car, paid for in installments.
What happened to your Aussie ute? Or I have I missed a bunch of posts?

Dave Horchak
Dave Horchak
1 year ago

You want rare? Beverly Hills Customs has a 1 of 2. Needs full restoration the other hasn’t been seen since WWII.

Klone121
Klone121
1 year ago

A lot of crank pulley/harmonic balancers have a slot with a small piece called a keyway (looks like a little half moon and lines the two notches up) be very careful when removing to not lose this piece. From what I remember the new balancer may not come with a new keyway which is crucial to alignment. Upon pulling the balancer this piece has a a tendancy to get lost in the fray. Do not lose it.

Black Peter
Black Peter
1 year ago
Reply to  Klone121

To be pedantic; the “keyway” is cut into the shaft and pulley, the key is the loose piece. If it is half moon shaped it is called a woodruff key.
Never discount an Ace Hardware having one, they have far more interesting bits of hardware than I can keep track of and I roam their hardware isle a lot.. I was shocked just the other week at their amazing selection of electric motor brushes

Red Devil GT 5.0
Red Devil GT 5.0
1 year ago

The bondo fix on the taillight made me go all sorts of nuts. I’ve been selling auto paint and body stuff for the last 7 years, after working in a body shop 3 years. I’ve seen my share of shit repairs.

We all gotta start somewhere, and your repair passes the 10 foot test for sure…..so even though my inner bodyman was freaking out, kudos for going out of your comfort zone and fixing it.

Detroit-Lightning
Detroit-Lightning
1 year ago

I love this website.

Fourmotioneer
Fourmotioneer
1 year ago

The hubris is enjoyable to experience vicariously – please keep this stuff coming so we don’t have to experience it for ourselves.

Man. Lawn looks nice!

Dan Finch
Dan Finch
1 year ago

These articles are THE reason to be at the Autopian! This stuff is gold and riveting to read about. It’s like watching a train wreck and the train re-tracking all at once.

Stryker_T
Stryker_T
1 year ago

I am always fascinated by these stories of yours.

We all know these purchases are bad ideas, but I can’t help but enjoy the madness.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
1 year ago

Hit those faded grey plastic bumpers and trim with a heat gun. It worked wonders for my wife’s old PT Cruiser.

M K
M K
1 year ago

Congrats on getting it sorted out and glad you are honest about it. I was in the same situation with my G35x, I bought it cheap but spent 2x on getting it up to par and reliable. I have a really fun little off-roader that is rock solid reliable and owes me nothing. Are you planning any Autopian Off-Road events in Michigan prior to your move?

toplessFC3Sman
toplessFC3Sman
1 year ago

So, and I hesitate to even ask, was there any damage from overheating that will need to be contended with after the new crank dampener, water pump etc is installed? Before pulling that radiator, better do a compression or leak-down test and check the coolant & oil

I_drive_a_truck
I_drive_a_truck
1 year ago

The answer to the implied question in the headline is: Because you’re David Tracy.
That’s why we’re all here – cheering you on, celebrating your successes and misfires with equal enthusiasm. For every postal jeep there’s a postal jeep, and we love you for that, David. Keep on wrenching!

Bryanintowson
Bryanintowson
1 year ago

You did a great job on this, DT.

MP81
MP81
1 year ago

In all honesty…that’s really not that bad. The amount of effort would be annoying, but overall – that is still dirt cheap.

My now-wife bought the car back in 2012 for $800 with 214k miles on the clock, and by the time it fought a fire hydrant in 2017, it had 258k miles. I didn’t start logging costs for things I had to do until mid 2015, so I don’t have an easy way to calculate costs – but given I had to replace the front subframe in late summer of 2013 (because it grew a 360-degree crack between the front and rear mounting points of the passenger-side LCA), I’d estimate I spent probably around $1500-2k over the lifetime of the vehicle’s time with us.

Way cheaper than a car payment.

le_reynard
le_reynard
1 year ago

Death…(or…illogical financial investment) by 1000 paper cuts / Ebay parts…

How do I know? I have an E46 Coupe, Fiat 126P and a ‘Smart’ car. All high mileage.

Ypsituckian
Ypsituckian
1 year ago

My Sister had one of these. It was a great car. She sold it after 5 years and got as much as she paid for it. I think she sold it at 120K miles. Things to know of:
(1). Hers had Manual Valve Tappet Adjusters, not Hydraulic. Tick-tick-tick/money.
(2). The Floor Boards evaporate on these. When I was under the car, I looked up and an thought; “That’s interesting, sound insulation on the outside of the floor-boards.”. When I pushed on it, it went up an inch. It was not on the outside, it was the carpet padding. The entire floor-panel rusted away. Luckily she was a Petite girl, or it would have been Fred Flintstone-Mobile time. Check yours closely.
(3). Avoid Autozone Alternators. I had 5 bad ones in one week(returned/tested/installed/failed in one hour). Went to O’reileys and got a decent one.
(3). My Jeep Cherokee XJ’s Harmonic Balancer failed like that(160k miles). Rent a Wheel-Puller at the Tool Place, fairly easy once the Radiator is out.

Rafael
Rafael
1 year ago

So, the savings upfront were offset by the cost in parts and the cost in time, but this is offset again by providing material for this site, so… work expenses?
I can’t help but wonder what the seller would think if he ever read these articles. His mind would go from “damn” to “yep, we scored a fair deal all right” pretty quickly. Let’s hope you never reach his “phew, better him than me! ” point.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
1 year ago

The Tracker is the XJ Done Right 🙂

The worst Tracker is equivalent to the best XJ in terms of reliability 😛

Albino Kangaroo
Albino Kangaroo
1 year ago

It’s good that you keep such a detailed records. Now with the business you can at least deduct all that from your taxes.

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