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My Jeep Cherokee’s Battle Against Rust, Time, and Quarantine: Member Rides

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It was late August 2020 when we received the letter. The owner of the garage we had been renting for the past two years had decided to terminate the lease, effective September 30th. The fact that we were even renting a garage a mere six houses down from our own was unusual. Each house in the row of terrace houses in which we lived (in Frankfurt, Germany) had a garage integrated into the front. More or less everyone used their garages; our own was full of bicycles, boxes of files, scrap wood, and my two mopeds. The owner of house number 16 had been renting to students who didn’t need the space, so he offered it out. My wife had been walking past one day and saw a handwritten “garage for rent” sign stuck to the door. She immediately sent me a text message asking if we should do it, and I responded with “Yes! Call them ASAP!” We snagged it, and up until we received the termination letter, the space acted mainly as a handy place to park our car and a few extra bikes. But all that had changed a few weeks prior when I bought my Jeep Cherokee XJ. I had plans for this garage, and they were all shattered by that termination notice.

(Welcome to Member Rides. This is the weekly feature where we look at people who became members of the site by signing up here and parting with a little of their hard-earned dough to keep The Autopian going. Our plan is to do these every week! Today it’s Doug’s turn, and actually he’s writing his own! Doug wrote “How I Converted A Vespa To An Electric Scooter With A Removable Battery That I Carry Into The Office” back in October. I visited him back in the summer of 2020, when he showed me the Jeep that is the subject of this article. Here’s a look:

Green on tan: It’s a beautiful machine! -DT]

Rooting in the Appalachians
Cherokee No. 1 getting dirty in Virginia

I bought my Jeep Cherokee after spending over a year searching the second-hand markets in Germany for the right one. Most of the Jeeps listed for sale were either too perfect (and thus expensive) or falling apart (and thus dirt cheap, as tends to be the case in Germany, where inspection is strict). I was looking for something in between. My first Jeep was a 1995 Cherokee Country that I was fortunate enough to be given by my dad. I drove it for a few years at university, exploring the offroad trails in the foothills of the Appalachians and generally having a great time. My dad and I had installed a 3” lift kit, 30” BF Goodrich All Terrain tires, and a brush guard. I had the stereo system just where I wanted it as well, with Q-Form kick panel pods, a custom subwoofer box, and Alpine V12 amps. I loved that Jeep, but at some point, I suppose that I got bored because I decided to swap it for a 1997 VW Jetta GLX (VR6 with a 5-speed manual). The Jetta was great, but I missed the Jeep.

Cherokee No. 2 (aka Rust Bucket)
Cherokee No. 2 (aka Rust Bucket)

A couple of years later, I was working full time as a project engineer on a construction site, living at home, and saving a ton of money. I decided to scratch my Jeep itch and buy a 1992 Cherokee Sport for $1,500. It was a beater, with 227,000 miles, a leaky roof, and, as I discovered after pulling up the carpet, Swiss cheese floorboards (at least on the passenger side). Much to my parents’ annoyance, that rust bucket spent the next month occupying most of their garage as I tackled the rot with an angle grinder, wire brush, and ample volumes of POR-15. Mechanically, it was sound, only requiring a new radiator and battery. The end result was a rough looking but reliable Jeep that was equally at home on the construction site as it was on the streets of Philadelphia. I drove it for a year or two, adding 20,000 miles to the odometer, and then sold it to a mechanic friend before moving to Australia.

For the next 16+ years, I had a Jeep-sized hole in my life that I was searching to fill. By the time my better half finally gave in to my persistent pleas to rectify this obvious automotive gap in our lives, we were living in Germany. Jeep sold Cherokees in Germany from the early 90’s onwards, but due to the cost of fuel and the relative inefficiency of the engines on offer, XJs never saw anywhere near the same level of popularity that they saw in the States. Jeep sold over 426,000 vehicles (110,000 of which were Cherokees) in 1995 in the U.S. alone, which was roughly a 5% share of the market. In the same year, Jeep sold roughly 24,000 vehicles (Cherokee, Wrangler, and Grand Cherokee combined) in Europe, and had a paltry 0.2% market share. Many of these were scrapped years ago, leaving a relatively small number for sale in the German market. This number gets smaller when you eliminate the diesel and 4-cylinder Cherokees and focus only on the 4.0L 6-cylinder models, which is what you should absolutely do because that’s the motor to get.

Cherokee No. 3
Cherokee No. 3 Leaving the Used Car Lot

The 1995 Cherokee I ended up buying was unusual in that it was a Canadian market Jeep that someone had exported to Germany in 1996. It had the “Country” trim with power windows, mirrors, locks, cruise control, etc., but for some reason it had a basic instrument cluster with idiot lights instead of proper gauges and a gigantic fuel gauge in lieu of a tachometer. The odometer read just under 104,000 kms (~64,000 miles), which was really low considering the age. The Country was one of the top trim levels and, considering all of the other “luxury” features, it didn’t make sense that my Jeep had the instrument cluster from a base model Cherokee. Despite my strong suspicion that someone had swapped out the original cluster for one with a lower odometer reading, I decided to buy it anyway. The price was right at 4,800 €, the body was in decent shape (except for minor hail damage), the interior was in great condition, mechanically it seemed sound, and the color combination (dark green with a tan interior) was perfect. Even better, it seemed to be rust-free!

My first order of business with the Jeep was to buy new tires and to ditch the horrible aftermarket wheels that were on there. Fortunately, the original wheels were included in the sale. I then set about sourcing a replacement gauge cluster, installing a Thule roof rack, and replacing the non-functioning aftermarket CD player with a modern head unit. It was while I was working on the stereo that I noticed that my rust-free Jeep might not be so rust-free after all. After a heavy rainstorm in which I used the AC, I noticed that the passenger side front carpet was damp. Visions of my ‘92 rust bucket danced in my head as I dared to peak underneath the mat. While it didn’t appear to be as bad as my ’92, it was clear that there was some work ahead, especially as I had the TÜV inspection coming up in late October. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just make use of my spare garage and get it done in time for the TÜV.” And then the termination letter arrived.

Time is a problem that I haven’t quite solved. I want more of it for my projects, but between my day job and family with three young kids and all of the associated activities, my projects are generally not high on the collective priority list. The termination of the lease left me with 5 weeks to take advantage of the garage. Since I would be working at my day job Monday through Friday, I only had nights and weekends to do the work, but even then, I would have to confine any noisy work (e.g. grinding away rust) to Saturdays since Sundays in Germany are considered to be “Ruhezeit” (quiet time) where you can get into trouble for making noise.

Rusty Front Seat
Rusty Front Seat

I started by removing the front seats, which is fairly easy to do in a Jeep. Each seat is held in by three bolts and one stud. Due to my impatience, I didn’t bother with the PB Blaster and, as expected, the rear passenger side bolt snapped off when I tried to remove it. Amazingly this was the only bolt or screw that I would break in this entire month-long project. (I also managed to break my EZ out extractor when trying to remove the remains of the rusted bolt, but eventually I was victorious.) The bottoms of the seat brackets where they made contact with the floor were nice and rusty, but somehow the rust had spread higher to the sliding mechanism as well.

After removing the seats, I took out the center console, trim panels, and seat belts. The carpet in the Cherokee is split into two sections that overlap under the rear seat. Upon removing the front section, I was left with the sight below, which actually wasn’t too bad. The driver’s side was mostly fine, but the passenger side had some crusty bits, along with a few small holes:

Crusty Floor
Crusty floor under the carpet

The worst part of the floor was under the rear seat where, with some gentle prodding, I managed to open up a golf ball-sized hole right above the muffler (heat catalyzes rust):

Under the rear seat
Under the rear seat

Nothing I had found was unusual; these types of rust problems have been well documented on the various Jeep forums and on YouTube. Water was getting into my Jeep, so I started at the top and took off the roof rails to inspect the threaded inserts underneath. These seemed OK, but I put some RTV sealant around the outside of each insert just in case. There were a couple of gaps in the upper corners of the windshield gasket, so I sealed them as well. At the rear, the tailgate gasket was split in several places, so I ordered a new one and threw the split gasket into the bin. That might have been the reason for the rust around the cargo area, but the rust in the passenger area was likely coming from the usual places up front: the AC drain, the blower motor, the antenna cable, and/or the heater core.

The AC drain tends to get blocked with leaves and other debris. This causes the water to come back into the car instead of draining into the engine bay. Mine seemed OK, so I moved on to the blower motor, where water can sometimes leak into the car around the seal between the blower motor and the firewall. I liberally applied RTV wherever I could around the blower motor and sealed up all other joints that might allow water to seep into the cabin. I read that the antenna cable could also be a source of leaks, but everything seemed fine. As for the heater core, I just hoped that this was not the cause as I really did not want to go through the process of replacing it. I have also seen some people create access panels into their cowl to seal everything under there, but I decided not to do this as I needed to move on to the task of removing and treating the rust.

I spent the next week primarily using the wire brush on my drill to get rid of the rust, as well as a series of stiff wire brushes where it was too tight for the drill. I had already decided that I wasn’t going to cut out the rust and weld in new metal. Despite the few holes, it wasn’t that bad, and none of it was structural. Instead, I dusted off a POR-15 floor pan and trunk restoration kit.

I bought this kit 10 years earlier with the intention of using it on my grandmother’s 1972 Mercedes 220, but for a variety of reasons, never even opened it. The kit comes with the various preparation chemicals (degreaser, metal etcher, etc.), POR-15 rust preventative paint, POR-15 top coat paint, and “Power Mesh” reinforcing fabric. The reinforcing fabric is essentially fiberglass, and instead of resin, you use the POR-15. After two weeks of work, the Jeep was degreased and ready for treatment:

Prepped and ready for treatment
Prepped and ready for treatment

However, before I could crack open the first can of POR-15, I received the unfortunate news that my 7-year-old son had tested positive for Covid-19. My son had had a fever for a couple of days and a headache, so we took him to the pediatrician to get tested. The day he was tested he no longer had a fever or a headache, so we were quite surprised to receive a phone call that he had tested positive. This was September 2020, which was before rapid testing (let alone home testing) was common, so the advice to the entire household was to quarantine for 14 days and hope for the best. We were lucky in that my son was perfectly healthy from that day on, and the rest of us never got it (until 2021).

This did pose a problem for my Jeep project though. Technically, I was not allowed to walk the 40 or so meters from my front door to the rented garage. The penalty for breaking quarantine was in the order of several thousand Euros. The obvious intention of forcing people to quarantine was to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Would I really be putting anyone at risk by walking down to my garage and working behind a closed door? After a couple of days of not working on the Jeep, I decided to take my chances and sneak down to the garage at night. I was halfway through the month and there was a lot to do.

I started with the silver POR-15 and applied it to the previously rusty metal in and under the Jeep. I cut sections of the mesh fabric and carefully applied the POR-15 over it. It stuck nicely and the POR-15 was thick enough to fill the voids without dripping onto the floor below. For the larger holes, I applied three layers of fabric over the course of three days.

Patches of silver POR-15
Patches of silver POR-15
No more holes
No more holes

Once the silver POR-15 had dried, I applied the black top coat throughout the Jeep:

Black POR-15 top coat applied
Black POR-15 top coat applied

The POR-15 was followed by a layer of adhesive-backed sound deadening material (similar to Dynamat):

Sound deadening applied
Sound deadening applied

While waiting for the various coats of POR-15 to dry, I was busy back in my workshop. One of the items on my To Do list was sorting out the sound bar. The fabric on the sound bar was stained, ripped, and hanging down in areas. I removed the dome light and speakers and then the fabric itself. I then used Goo Gone and, in places, fine sandpaper to remove the old adhesive. This was tedious work, but eventually it was done. Prior to the family quarantine, I had bought 6 € worth of fabric that was fairly close to the original color. Using spray adhesive, I re-covered the sound bar with the fabric and reinstalled the dome light.

One of the previous owners had done a mediocre job of installing 6.5” speakers in the sound bar, despite the fact that this was designed for 5.25” speakers. To do this, they crudely enlarged the openings and “secured” the speakers to the sound bar with a couple of wood screws. The speakers themselves were rubbish, so I tossed them in the bin and bought some decent Pioneer 6.5” speakers (there was no way to revert to the 5.25”) along with 5.25” speakers for the front doors from the same speaker series. I then managed to securely attach the speakers while also sealing any gaps between them and the sound bar with caulk. Below is the sound bar, ready for installation:

The refurbished sound bar
The refurbished sound bar

Another item on my list was upgrading the instrument cluster. As I mentioned earlier, this Jeep had inexplicably come with the base instrument cluster, consisting of a speedometer (with odometer), a massive fuel gauge, and idiot lights for oil pressure, engine temperature, and battery voltage. These are known as “idiot” lights because they don’t give you any information on the actual measurements or conditions; they just light up when something is wrong, and at that point it’s too late. This was the instrument cluster that came with the Jeep:

The base instrument cluster that came with the Jeep
The base instrument cluster that came with the Jeep

I found a second-hand instrument cluster on eBay. I could have swapped out the entire instrument clusters fairly easily and left it at that, but I didn’t want to do that because the one I had bought was a US spec unit with the speedometer in MPH, whereas my “original” unit was the Canadian spec with KPH (and MPH in smaller, blue numbers). In addition, the odometer reading was something in the order of 250,000 miles versus ~104,000 km in my Jeep. Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to remove the speedometer gauge from the instrument cluster itself. I put the MPH speedometer into the base instrument cluster and then managed to recoup most of the cost by selling it on eBay.

As I had learned from various Jeep forums, you can’t just swap instrument clusters and expect everything to work; you also have to swap out the oil pressure sending unit and temperature sensors in the engine bay. This isn’t too difficult to do, but I did make the mistake of buying the wrong temperature sensor, although I didn’t discover this mistake for several months. The sensor was returning a temperature that was 15-20 degrees too high, which made me think that I had an overheating problem. These Jeeps are known for having weak cooling systems, so it was entirely possible that I did have an overheating problem. It wasn’t until I had a local Jeep specialist confirm that the gauge was off that I knew I had made a mistake. The lesson learned here: double check that you install the right sensor.

The upgraded instrument cluster
The upgraded instrument cluster

On September 25th, I was finally ready to start reinstalling the interior. Everything went back into place without too much difficulty. I did end up with a couple of leftover bolts, which is always a little concerning. To this day, I never figured out where they should have been installed. Here’s what the Jeep looked like before installing the center console and front seats:

Putting everything back together
Putting everything back together

Another one of the side jobs I took care of while waiting for paint to dry was cleaning up the base of the front seats. The seats themselves unbolted from the bases without any drama, making it fairly easy to remove the surface rust, treat the metal, and re-spray everything. With 4 days to spare, the seats were bolted back into the Jeep and I was officially done.

Done and dusted
Done and dusted

The Jeep was now free to leave the garage and ready for the TÜV the following month. Even better, it was ready in time for a visit from a certain Jeep fanatic named David a week later:

Getting David's seal of approval
Getting David’s seal of approval

I cleaned up the mess I had left on the floor of the garage and handed the keys back to the owner. I tried finding another garage in my area, but that proved impossible, and I ended up having to do all of my future wrenching on the Jeep in my driveway, leaving me wishing more than once that I had never received that letter back in late August.

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20 Responses

  1. Awesome project! That giant fuel gauge on the original instrument cluster reminds me of my Dad’s 1990 Suburban, which had the fuel gauge where you would expect to see the tachometer.

  2. “The POR-15 was followed by a layer of adhesive-backed sound deadening material”
    Great move to do that while you were in there. If you’ve already got things stripped down, you may as well take the steps for a quieter ride. And good job on all of it!

  3. Actually, there IS such a thing as a rust-free Jeep XJ.

    A reader named Will that met up with Torch, David, and I in St. Louis showed us his. The underside was immaculate, and David Tracy himself was there admiring it.

    1. I’ve got one like that, but as I discovered later, it was all hiding around the frame of the windshield, under the urethane, working its way toward the cabin from the outside. So far still superficial enough that it’s being held at bay with Rust-O-Leum. Look anywhere else on the vehicle and you wouldn’t think it.

  4. Doug,
    I get why we in the states go for the i6 but were the diesel options so bad that they are not worth doing? I’d figure the torque at low rpms would be great for off-roading and comparatively cheaper fuel costs

    1. Reliability issues aside, the problem with buying one of the diesel XJ’s is that they would not qualify for a Grüne Plakette (green sticker) which would mean that I would not be able to drive within Frankfurt (and many other German) city limits without risking a fine. That would have been a major inconvenience for me. The I6 version qualified for a Grüne Plakette.

  5. Excellent job! I enjoyed your attention to sealing gaps for better speaker performance. As someone with 2 Hokies in the family, I also appreciated the license plate surround on ride #2. Couldn’t tell which playboat was on the roof; outfitting looked like a confluence boat? Have you kept in Whitewater during your global relocations?

      1. Excellent boat! I had a couple Mr. Cleans for a short time, back when my (size 13 extra wide) feet could take the abuse. Never too late to get back into it! Kids love being on the river (as long as you bring snacks).

  6. If I had the cash I’d go Jeep shopping and let you know if Oregon high desert Jeeps avoid rust. I know my 2002 F150 is rust free, having spent its life in Deschutes County

  7. That is an awesome job on the Jeep. I am glad you never were caught walking to your garage to work on it. Also I hope you were able to impart wisdom to Mr. Tracy about rust and how to remove it.

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