[Editor’s Note: I’m genuinely excited to be writing this note, because it’s an attempt to describe one of the weirdest things we’ve done here, and that itself thrills me. So, you all know The Bishop, the imaginative loon who went to auto design school many decades ago but moved to a different career, and is currently undertaking a fruitful automotive design career that only exists within his imagination and the pixel-populated pages of The Autopian. Today, The Bishop wants to take his mental voyages a level deeper: a voyage into an alternate automotive universe, as usual, but this time filtered through the rusty mind of an alternate-universe version of our very own David Tracy.
That’s right. We’re running a story about an imaginary car in an imaginary world where that imaginary car had been neglected to such a degree that our imaginary world David Tracy would be interested enough to imaginary buy it. Of course, it’s an imaginary Jeep, with imaginary rust. Got all that? Too bad. Here it comes anyway. – JT]
[Editor’s note: How my auto journalism career got this strange is beyond me. I might need to retire. I’m also not sure I should even approve this article; it’s just far too bizarre. And meta. And I don’t really even know what Meta means. I’ll flip a coin, here; heads and this article is going to the trash, and this “Bishop” man, whom I respect for his incredible imagination, will just have to try something else. Tails, and I guess I’ll run it. [flips coin]. SUNOVA! -DT].
Watch Me Drive 800 Miles In A Rare 1987 Jeepster That Hasn’t Run In Six Years
By (Imaginary) David Tracy
Would an art collector miss the chance to purchase some Andy Warhol print of a car crash or consumer product just because he had no wall space? No. He would not. In the same spirit, if the Holy Grail of AMC Jeepsters- a five speed first year 1987 model with the Trailrunner package- presented itself on Ebay at two in the morning from the backwoods of Mississippi would you refuse it JUST because the city told you that you had too many cars? Oh, and you have an automotive website to run? I would hope not. Once-in-a-lifetime opportunities must be acted upon, not ignored. Even if this example was described as “clutch going, runs a bit ruf.”
Act on this opportunity I did, finding myself many, many miles away from home with the intent of driving a sight unseen vehicle back to Michigan. Did I mention that said vehicle had not run since Obama was president?
Above is the 1987 brochure image of the EXACT car on offer, roof panels off and gleaming in the sun. While I can assume that most individuals that read this ill-conceived website know what a Jeepster actually is, you could be forgiven for drawing a blank.
The 1987-1991 Jeepster was the production version of this idea of putting a more car-like body and interior onto a Jeep- by this time the YJ Wrangler. It seemed like a great idea to make an off-road sports coupe to draw in those that did not want something as hard-core as the original Jeep.
The overall idea had actually worked in production for the original Brooks Stevens-designed 1948-50 Jeepster, even if that idea was less of a sporting proposition than the XJ-001.
However, the concept that debuted in 1987 ultimately found few takers, and it is likely for the same reasons that the original Jeepster went away (as did the oddly named revival: the Commando of 1966-73, shown above). Jeep people actually want the tough-looking stripped down body, and those who want a more car-like vehicle want…well…a more car-like ride. Oh, and the strange ad campaign with psychedelic dancers and T-Rex’s ‘Jeepster’ playing did it no favors. Chrysler executives supposedly claimed that if the merger with AMC had happened a year earlier, they never would have let the Jeepster see the light of day, and Iacocca was pretty pleased when “when that stupid thing” didn’t sell. What a jerk.
I was still convinced that this modern-body concept seemed like a great idea, and wanted to experience it for myself.
The trip did not start out well. As soon as the Uber pulled up in the seller’s dirt driveway, I could see that the 100 pounds of tools I had checked on the flight from Romulus to Memphis International were incomplete, because I would need a chainsaw and trimmer to even get to the Jeepster. Leaving a car for six years in a backyard in Cockrum, Mississippi means that it will most certainly return to nature, and nature in the Deep South has some mad skills. The possibility of having to interface with injury-causing wildlife that didn’t want to get evicted was also now quite likely. Getting the Jeepster running enough for it to make the trip back to Troy, Michigan was, at the moment, the least of my concerns.
Was I questioning my choice, as well as my sanity, to find an example of a Jeep that inexplicably failed miserably in the marketplace? Of course not. That wedge shape looked still looked fresh despite the broken pop-up light winking at me and the derelict state of the Sebring Red finish. I especially like the “louver” detail that runs below the windshield and side windows and then wraps over the roof. It has a functional purpose as well: at the front it hide strange, high-mounted driving lights.
Felling shrubs and pushing it out into the open, it became evident that this example was in perfect condition for me, meaning that it was what any sane person would deem to be a total piece of shit and run away from as fast as their legs could take them. The body had the expected corrosion, but the frame appeared to be all there.
With all the brush it was hard to see at first, but the big plastic rear taillight and heckflosse could be revived with some polish. The best feature has to be those brake/tail/backup lights…notice how their shape is an abstraction of the Jeep Box Taillight that our own Jason holds in such high esteem. The trunk (instead of a hatch/cargo area) was a sticking point with Jeep traditionalists, but it is pretty sizable. All of the aforementioned tools that I had brought along (and oil needed to prevent the badly leaking main seal from killing the motor) easily fit in this space, and I could confidently leave this precious cargo in the Jeepster unattended, something I would NEVER EVER do on fabric-roofed CJs.
Of course, the trunk lid also featured a great ledge for a bungee cord to hold up the rusted-off exhaust on this one.
Another Jeep fan complaint was the standard space saver donut spare under the rear…a full size swing away tire holder was a popular option, but the fact that it wasn’t standard also pushed the Jeepster’s reputation as being not a “real” Jeep…despite that fact that this was aimed at people that valued convenience over having to pivot away a giant wheel every time they wanted to get in the trunk.
By far the most interesting feature of the trunk that this particular example still had was the Jeepseet option. If you flip the floor of the trunk upside down, there is padding for you to sit there; if you lock the trunk lid in the fully open position, it acts as a sunshade. You might think this would create a great place to sit and fish or watch a game, and you would not be alone in your thinking. The American Motors designers put little tubes in the floor to allow you to place a fishing rod there or put in an optional snack table.
(Jason is requiring me to point out that the entirety of the taillights being mounted to the trunk lid required Jeep to put the little windows on the inside bottom of the trailing edge of the lid so you can see the lights if you drive the Jeepster with the trunk open. There. I said it.)
The inside smelled only slightly like opening a locker in September where a sweat-soaked uniform had been left at end of school year. The removable roof panels had convinced at least some rain not to enter the cabin, and with a jump from the seller all of the power windows went down, including the retracting backlight, but that only managed to go down about halfway before hitting a hornet’s nest, squirrel carcass, or other such desirable item.
But that dashboard! How many cars can you think of that emulate the look of the front of their vehicle in the instrument panel? The seven slots echo the Jeep traditional air intake, expect here they blow out cold air, or would blow cold air if the A/C compressor hadn’t died back when the Spin Doctors had a career. And the round shapes flanking the ‘grille’ like headlights on a Wrangler? One has the glove box latch, and the other ‘headlight’ features a cool fluorescent compass. How can you not want this car RIGHT NOW?!?
(Once again, Jason is forcing my hand here to let you know that the other reason for this dashboard design is that it can be easily converted to right hand drive models; the glove box and steering column switch sides, as does the gauge pod.)
The futuristic giant windshield was always a sore point with Jeep fans…complaints (rather unfounded) about weight, cracking (which rarely ever happened) and distorted view in the corners. The huge glass also makes access to the back plugs on the straight six humorous if you didn’t own the car…which I now do, and needed to tackle with all of the universal joint socket extensions in my box. The condition of the rear plugs indicated that previous mechanics had given up and were likely the cause of the ‘ruf-running. There are times when design wins over engineering, and this is a prime example…what a pain!
Still, the ‘six eventually fired up, and most readers know that I have the ability to Jedi-force communicate with four liter Jeep engines, and this one was giving me all the signs that it was, in fact, a good one. The tires held air and the battery allowed me to get to the nearest AutoZone for the cheapest replacements they had. I did, of course, get this:
Perfect! Another overheating Jeep! But blasting heat and mouse droppings out of the seven slot dashboard ‘grille’ did nothing. Opening the hood, the normal expansion tank level told the tale of a bad sending unit as the likely reason for the reading. I hoped.
Thankfully the owner still had the Jeepster compass keyfob/multitool (knife and screwdrivers!) to allow me to find due north (since the fluorescent compass was not functioning); I removed the roof panels (the ridged fiberglass pieces are split in two for easy handling) and we were off.
Even with the roof panels removed , the 1987 Jeepster offered a pleasant highway experience quite alien to CJ owners..it’s amazing what a real windshield and body will do. Also, I found a new benefit of those louvers- what looks like totally blocked rear quarters are actually louver-covered rear side windows…from the driver’s seat you can see out of them and the blind spots are much less than you might think. The “seven slot” headrests on the 2+2 back seats also help. If pressed, I would say that the YJ chassis ride and handling did seem a bit at odds with the ultra-modern exterior, but if you’ve driven a broke-ass postal Jeep across country this was like running a Lexus.
As the evening started to set in, even the one closed headlight dutifully popped up to illuminate the last few hours of the journey. After reinstalling the roof panels and rolling up the windows, I easily pegged the 85MPH speedometer and kept up with traffic at near-silence-for-a-Jeep road noise levels.
The main seal only needed about a quart with each fill up, the expansion tank coolant stayed level, and the little egg-shaped Jeep made the trip surprisingly uneventful. However, the clutch was truly in its death throes. It BARELY engaged when leaving a Taco Bell off I-75 by the Jeepster’s birthplace in Toledo.
“WOW, what the Hell IS this car?” chirped the drive thru attendant, thinking it came from Mars and unaware that it had rolled out of the Stickney Avenue factory about three miles away from us, well before he was born. His eyes looked like wide as saucers as he handed me the box of Crunchy Supremes…“It IS a real car…when I saw it on the camera here I thought I was still high…this is fucking awesome, man!!” After much revving and cursing the clutch hooked up. I slip shifted it up to highway speed and tried not to touch the left pedal again for the remaining drive. Getting off of the Fisher at Big Beaver for last few miles of the run home, I was running lights redder than the Jeepster’s paint finish instead of having to risk stopping at 3 in the morning.
Still, pulling into the driveway after nearly 800 miles, the lack of market success of the Jeepster stung even more. I love this thing for all of the reasons that it didn’t sell…the comfortable, refined cabin made the journey far, far better than it would have been in even a new Jeep, and if non-Jeep people found the incredibly off-road capable YJ mechanicals too crude for the looks then…well, I hate to invoke the hackneyed Jeep-Thing-You-Can’t-Understand line, but it makes perfect sense here. As does the Jeepster itself. At least to me.
What a shame few others saw that.
[Editor’s note: What just happened? -DT]