I’ve done really tough Moab builds in years past. I’ve taught myself to weld so I could stitch up a rotted out $500 Postal Jeep frame, I’ve torn into the engine and transmission of a 1948 Willys CJ-2A farm Jeep, and I’ve cobbled together a junkyard lift kit for a rotted-out $600 Jeep Cherokee XJ. Relative to those, my $350 Jeep Grand Cherokee seems like a feasible project, and yet it really isn’t. Still, here goes a last-ditch effort to try to make it happen.
I once owned a borderline mint condition 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee “Holy Grail” (that means it was a rare five-speed manual model), but I sold it before I moved from Detroit to LA (see Instagram link below). It was a beautiful machine, but I really had no choice; you see, two people had reached out to me at exactly the same time a couple of years ago — one had a rust-free manual Jeep Grand Cherokee missing its transmission, and the other had a rotted-out manual Jeep Grand Cherokee that was complete. Both Jeeps were headed to the junkyard.
I had no choice but to intercept the Jeeps and save them. Each had what the other lacked, meaning I could at least save one rare, five-speed ZJ from oblivion. For the good of car culture (and because I’m an illogical automotive romantic), I did exactly that. This meant the clean 1993 had to go, and I towed the rust-free ZJ, filled with parts from the rotted-out ZJ, all across the country to the Galpin Media parking lot, where the vehicle has sat for a year, being used solely for cat-birthing.
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My goal was to get this cobbled-together ZJ ready for the Easter Jeep Safari this year, which sadly is quite early: in late March. That’s in six-ish weeks. There’s no chance in hell I’ll have the Jeep ready. Still, the seller of the rotted-out ZJ, a man named Dustin from Wisconsin (his was the first Holy Grail I ever wrote about after I visited him during my pilgrimage to the former home of American Motors, Kenosha), is flying in in March to spin a few wrenches in a last-ditch effort to try to make something happen. He’ll be here from the 6th to the 11th. Will we get the Jeep ready in time for Moab? Probably not, but we’re gonna put in a last-ditch effort.
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As a refresher, here’s everything the Jeep needs:
- New coil springs
- New shocks
- New axles with 3.73 gears
- New control arms
- A new front track bar
- A new rear track bar
- Sway bar links (quick disconnects)
- A new grille
- New front and rear bumpers
- A new header panel
- New seats
- New door trim
- A new exhaust manifold
- New exhaust pipe
- A new water pump
- A new serpentine belt
- A new rear hatch
- A hyper-rare rear spare tire carrier
- A fuel tank skidplate
- A transfer case skidplate
- New headlights
- A front winch (I need to buy a skidplate)
- New tires
- New driveshafts (will need to be custom-made/modified)
- A new radiator
- A new fan clutch
- A new brake pedal
- A used shifter
- A new center console
- A bunch of new interior trim
- New wheel center caps
- A headliner
- New engine mounts
OK, maybe not “needs,” as not all of these have to be done to get the Jeep to Moab; it really just needs to run and drive. The current axles under the Jeep are just fine, I don’t need to install sway bar disconnects or a winch, and on and on. We really just need to get this motor fired up and the vehicle moving — of course, we have no idea if the engine actually runs.
The more I look at the ZJ, the more I love it. Good size, reasonable weight, solid axles are flexy and durable, nice comfortable interior, decent ride, reliable, good visibility, and more handsome each day. (Also the fully loaded U-Haul is somehow doing 11 MPG @ 65mph!) pic.twitter.com/PFVl6GRuPl
— David Tracy (@davidntracy) February 13, 2023
It’s a huge undertaking, largely because of what has precluded me from actually getting this thing started in the first place: time constraints.
All my previous builds have basically involved me, working with my friends in a garage in Michigan, fixing a vehicle as I writing about it in addition to whatever other blogs I was working on. Now I’m no longer just a blogger, but an editor/business owner, and frankly, the time commitment there — and the time I want to put into my relationship — mean wrenching becomes really hard unless I fly to another continent and hide away in a spider-infested garage. I finish each workday exhausted, so working on this junker has been tough.
Still, whether this thing gets done by Moab or not, this wrenchfest that Dustin and I will soon embark on should act as a catalyst to at least get this project moving, and that’s important to me. This Jeep is sort of my dream build. I’ve amassed the best Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ parts ever offered: Euro-spec turn signals, a hyper-rare spare tire carrier, 3.73 axles with a limited slip rear diff, factory mud flaps, factory skid plates, rare ZJ steel wheels, and the list goes on. I am convinced that the manual ZJ is the greatest budget overlanding Jeep in the world; it blends the reliability and low price of a Jeep Cherokee with the five-link suspension and interior volume (and overall driving comfort) of a modern four-door Wrangler.
It won’t look like much, but it’s going to be an amazing machine when I’m done with it. How long that will take, I have no clue. But I’ve got reinforcements flying in from the midwest, so things are about to get moving!