By Alternate-Universe-David Tracy
“I know you’re on a strict diet, but…”
The above text awoke me from a deep slumber after a late night wrenching on my newly acquire0605d 1987 AMC Jeepster (follow the link to get up-to-speed on alternate-universe-DT), getting it ready for its big debut at Pasteinter’s Cars & Coffee. The text message was followed by a link to a craigslist ad, and was sent to me by our colleague and fellow serial car/bus collector Mercedes. She mentioned the “diet” since she knows that I am trying to appease the desires of the City of Troy to not purchase any more cars and blight their lovely suburb. Adding the aforementioned egg-shaped Jeepster did not do much to moving things in their direction:
[Editor’s Note: This isn’t actually me writing this, this is The Bishop writing as if he were me, but in an alternate-universe. The AMC Jeepster never exited, the SJX platform doesn’t exist, the Offroadster doesn’t exist, the “TechForce” V8 engine doesn’t exist, and the events depicted in this article involving fake-me and fake-Mercedes didn’t happen. Honestly, I’m deeply confused and disturbed, and really unsure whether publishing this is better for humanity or much, much worse. I’m sorry, but the Bishop cannot be tamed. And also, I really respect that he created fake brochures of fake cars with fake, but incredibly detailed and interesting features. -DT].
However, Mercedes also knows that I am a big fan of the new-from-the-ground-up for 1987 Jeep SJX full-sized trucks, and always sends me for-sale examples that she sees. Autopians are likely aware that I lovingly own a white example of the SJ pickup (which can fit a Changli in it’s bed), and the next generation SJX is highly revered by Jeep fans since it supposedly still possessed a true Jeep soul, but also offered a rugged independent front suspension and other refinements the nearly-unchanged-since-1963 SJ simply didn’t have (it’s also around 300 to 400 pounds lighter) [Editor’s Note: Some early Wagoneers and Gladiators came with independent front suspension, but they’re super rare. -DT]. Dick Teague’s team basically kept the design language of the Cherokee/Commanche, tweaked the details, and upsized it…if you wanted the soul of an XJ but in something F150-sized then your dream truck awaited.
Below is the full lineup of models. No matter if you were looking for a forest service-basic pickup or a something to upstage a Range Rover, Jeep had you covered:
The SJX series started with short and long wheelbase pickups and then moved up to the Chief range of four door wagons, including a long wheelbase 3 row version and even sport editions with floor shifts. AMC tooled up for a four door pickup- the Crew Chief- but didn’t have enough cash left to make longer doors for a two door Chief.
Top of the top of the heap was the $34,700 (in 1987 dollars) eight-passenger Grand Wagoneer to keep at the Aspen mansion. The Wagoneer had a chrome grille insert, body colored bumpers, and quad headlamps to set you apart from the unwashed masses in two headlight, grey bumpered lower level models. Inside, Wagoneers featured wood trim, digital gauges, and a metal-finish analog Rolex clock to make it upper-crust friendly.
Obviously anything with a Rolex dash clock is a bit like Kryptonite to me. More to my liking is that pickup version of this SJX, called the Honcho. Unfortunately, the Honcho was released just as AMC was being taken over by Chrysler, a company that had their own full sized truck line. To avoid cannibalizing sales, Chrysler poorly promoted the SJX Honcho pickup and killed it as soon as the big-rig looking Ram was ready to launch in 1993.
The Holy Grail
It’s getting exceedingly rare to find any non-Wagoneer SJX models today, particularly special editions like the Honcho OffRoadster pickup.
The Offroadster was a short wheelbase V8 4WD version which had the roof chopped off by American Sunroof Corporation and replaced by a wider-than-the-body fiberglass ‘roll bar’ cap housing an electric mechanism that slid the roof panel back over the bed area (and added a retractable backlight). It was really a pretty ingenious solution from the tragically-fated Heinz Prechter…also far less complex than many similar solutions like the Japan-only Toyota Soarer AeroCabin and Honda Del Sol TransTop. Even if the whole thing looked a bit like a backwards baseball cap when the roof was opened, most 1987 owners wore their hats in a such a manner anyway; plus, to have a hard roof convertible that took up no bed space and opened at the touch of two buttons made the visual tradeoff worth it.
The “TechForce” AMC 360 in the OffRoadster was heavily modified and enhanced with dual throttle body fuel injection, a hotter cam, dual exhaust, and a few more tweaks raising the power from something-bad-even-for-malaise (140 or so) up to just over 235 horsepower….yes, I am well aware that the V8s in Big Three cars offered more with about 600cc less of displacement (about the size of a whole 2CV motor), but at least it was now making respectable power. It also featured..according to type buried deep in an old press release…”a revised lubrication system for greater efficiency.” By “greater efficiency” did they mean to actually LUBRICATE the motor, even the back cylinders? Who knows…but all welcome improvements.
The OffRoaster is the undisputed Holy Grail of SJX pickups…and I’d walk past a free Veyron to get one.
So back to the text- what the hell was in the craigslist link that Mercedes sent to me? Take a wild guess.
It was a 1987 OffRoadster…in the same Sebring Red as my “new” Jeepster.
Mercedes Checking Out The Grail
Oh…did I mention that the OffRoadster on offer had a factory five speed stick between the optional leather seats? Would you believe that it was sitting semi-derelict in Coal City, Illinois not far from where Mercedes lived and could “check it out for me?”
This is why recovering addicts are told to cut ties with people in their past life.
Later that day, Mercedes did a search mission and found the OffRoadster to be horrible but still possibly not as bad as expected. It did not currently run, but it ‘has run at least this year’ according to the seller…’I think.’ The entire interior would, according to Mercedes, ‘be a great education for students of fungi-type living organisms’, which is the main reason the full size Jeep fan that owned it deemed the project insurmountable and left it to sit in the Dollar General lot across the street. It sounded awful and entirely undriveable.
What’s the next train that I can take to Union Station in Chicago?
The OffRoadster did NOT appear on a StreetView of the address given, so the run-this-year story could be true. Mercedes had thankfully brought her own jack, a newish battery, and other large items that Amtrak would likely frown upon so we could do some basic work to get the truck running. We arrive under overcast skies, and I get my first glimpse of the Holy Grail… it sat sort of askew which was thankfully a flat tire and not a broken spring, crusty as those items looked.
The changes AMC made to this special Honcho surprisingly transform it into something that could be quite fetching in a 1980s way; the “big” 16-inch five spoke alloys, that full width light bar on top (even if only four of the lights actually function, the inside ones being fakes), and the lower body cladding, the drilled attachment points of which being a major source of this example’s corrosion.
All SJX models feature the designed-in “push bar” type bumper/grille up front for an aggressive and functional look. At the back, the OffRoadster package added a sort of rolled-pan ‘sport bumper’ and the innovative AirGate, a sort of hybrid of a typical steel tailgate and a netting-style unit. The AirGate is made of nearly indestructible blow molded plastic and the jail-bar looking thing apparently helps gas mileage, if only by fractions.
If there is ONE great regret, it is that this particular example of the OffRoadster lacked one insane but desirable option- the Ramble Seat. This feature was first shown by American Motors on a prototype AMX back around 1967, and it’s a play-on-words fold-up outdoor rumble seat:
The one the OffRoadster offered was a blow molded plastic affair with built-in Volvo grid headrests that, honestly, was much like the ‘fun’ seats in the back of a Subaru BRAT, but facing forwards instead, and collapsible. The mounting points were still present (if rusty) in the bed…I will search ebay and craigslist the world over….some day, Rambleseat, I will find you.
The Car Had Problems
Getting inside was easier than getting out, since the interior door handle was broken off on the driver’s side and the outside disabled on the passengers door, but those are XJ-common parts…I think I have five or six good salvaged handles in a dresser drawer at home…doesn’t everyone?
Inevitable leaks from the power Targa roof had allowed rust to perforate small sections of the cabin floor, and indeed a respirator might be a good idea for the ride home…a pretty overpowering scent. The design inside looked futuristic next by my SJ (a design so old that the optional factory air conditioning hangs down under the dash). However, do not fear…the SJX still has vent wing windows in the doors! This must be the last production vehicle ever released with this lamented feature…Jason??
The OffRoadster features wide bucket seats and a console to give a real GT car feel to the interior. There is the Cerwin Vega Bass Boxx under the console storage box, with two nine inch subs facing the floor…when new, a sixteen year old Jason could have rocked Blue Monday with this thing…or whatever GenX aspiring art students listened to.
The spare is mounted on a bracket behind the cab, so combined with the AirGate and targa bar it adds a competition/off road pre-runner kind of vibe to the thing. I would need that spare since the flat tire was not holding air; removing the flat one I felt and saw what appeared to be the biggest balancing weight I’ve ever seen on the inside a wheel. This weight fell off when I removed the wheel…and proved to be a turtle. This guy kind of lucked out since, had he been on any other wheel, it is likely that said turtle would have started turning and centrifugal force press him against the wheel surface like on a carnival Gravitron ride as the Jeep rolled at 60MPH down I-94. Possibly.
[Ed Note: I generally don’t acknowledge the existence of a “centrifugal force,” since I consider that just the reaction to the centripetal force (which is real), but I’ll let this slide. -DT].
We disconnected the fuel line and with a jump, it turned over and fired up on starter fluid after half a dozen or so attempts, sounding like a bunch of metal garbage cans going down a flight of stairs. Eventually we got it to run constantly, settling into a bass-profundo BLOAT BLOAT BLOAT rhythm (or like the first thirty seconds or so of Van Halen’s Hot For Teacher) as the top end started to quiet down with oil pressure building. Thankfully, not much gas in the tank to pump out and contaminate the fresh fuel we dumped in (the filter didn’t look horrible), and the brake lines looked surprisingly good and did not seize up when pressed. A sane person would change the (cleanish looking) oil and do more investigative work before even going to the end of the lot…a fool would try to drive it five plus hours home. “Come on, the power roof opened up! That’s a good sign!” I tell a nonplussed Mercedes.
“Well…I like your new car” says Mercedes, with the simulated enthusiasm you typically give a past-his-prime actor friend after his dinner theater performance of Rent. I pushed in the clutch (still works), popped it in first and pulled away. Here goes nothing.
The Road Trip Home Was A Shitshow
source: Google maps
I get maybe half a mile and the thing is struggling up any kind of incline. Worse than that, the truck goes squarely for the curb when hitting the brakes, like the driver’s side caliper isn’t working AT ALL. No warning lights, gauges normal, which means at least one needle or idiot light is broken. Think, David…is it a sticking caliper? Is a rear drum locking up and holding the truck back? No, the engine just doesn’t feel right.
Pulling into an auto parts store lot, the drivability problem is apparent. Coolant is pouring on the ground up front…the motor is overheating. But the brakes? That was also pretty obvious…the high engine temp was filling the cracked expansion bottle to overflowing and super-cooling the brake rotor located below.
Getting hot that fast points to a thermostat, which is discovered to be more closed than a Toys R Us on this 80 degree day. ‘So much for a good sign’ texts Mercedes. Easy fix.
It got worse. On the move again, and the motor refused to idle, requiring that heel-and-toe thing to keep it running at lights, but the potential for this ancient muscle-truck is palatable. As I start to head north towards the highway, the sky is turning black…you can say figuratively or literally black…either way it looks like bad news. The transmission has a bad-but-improving-as-it heats-up 1-2 syncro, and the rear end sounds like it’s making some kind of whining sound, which is odd.
Actually, there’s no problem with the diff…turns out that’s not a whining sound…it’s a tornado siren. So now the whole trip is going to hell.
Maybe it’s time to shut the roof. Hit the switch…nothing….push the switch again…no…and again….now we do have a problem.
“Roof will not shut- these might be my last words’ I text to Mercedes. I get nothing back from her initially, as the wind starts to pick up, and then see a response about five minutes later. ‘Pull over, push forward passenger’s seat, pull off access panel”. I have no idea what that means, but figure she must have done a Google search. There is, indeed, a pry-off access door on the ASC-installed panel behind the seats…revealing an Allen socket..and an Allen key snapped on the back of the panel. Could it be?
I crank for all it’s worth and the roof SLOWLY SLOWLY starts to shut. I barely get it closed when the downpour begins. Following the leaks give me a great indication where the floor will no longer exist. I couldn’t see a tornado even if it were out there, the ‘wipers’ being more ‘smearers’ at this point. The weather warning on the phone is saying to ‘find a fortified structure’ which the SJX sort of is…I could say it doesn’t feel as ‘substantial’ as my old SJ but that might just be the fact that I am confusing ‘crude’ and ‘less refined’ with more substance. Hard to tell.
Storms this rough don’t last long, and as it cleared up the water in the cabin found its way out the holes in the floor. I could likely shove my drill with an Allen bit into that roof emergency override and create a ‘power top’ backup to enjoy open air again but think better of it and just enjoy the seats that don’t replicate park benches as in my SJ. One tire simulates the (nonfunctional) Cerwin Vega Bass Boxx above 60MPH so that is our maximum right now as night falls.
I admire some cool features on the interior, particularly storage. The upper glove box on the Honcho (there are two gloveboxes) is actually a drawer…I don’t know if I’ve seen this on any other car but it’s really quite brilliant. No fumbling for things in a big pile…everything is laid out right there, with even a pocket for the owner’s manual and documents.
There are slide out drawers under the seats…do you REALLY want to see what kind of dead animals are in there? The OffRoadster also features the removeable turn-into-shoulder-bag JeepPacks on the doors, and this example still has both intact. The lower part of the pack is in leather that matches the seats, and they can be collapsed into your suitcase or backpack when empty. I’ll be a celebrity to old Jeep fans everywhere I carry these things, and get disgusted stares from everyone else that wonders why a black mold covered car part is hanging from my shoulder.
I’ve already filled up the gas tank once in daylight (don’t trust the gauge, though it appears to work), but I get off in Jackson to try to pump more “good” high octane into the tank. I need to drive into town to find an open station at this hour. After the fill up, despite the quiet of this locale, I inexplicably can’t resist doing the juvenile thing of ‘giving it the beans’ for the first time…the inside rear wheel hops like a bunny on cocaine and the tires are still spinning in second. Overall, this thing would likely get smoked by even the least powerful brand-new F series, but with the light weight (and getting lighter all the time on mine) this is easily the fastest vehicle I now own (which is admittedly a low bar). With a shot muffler, it SOUNDS fast, and feels fast with that torque and the stick.
The red interior lighting (exclusive to the OffRoadster) adds a cool look at night, as does the hint of blue…wait…blue and red lights?
I pull over. This is the basic exchange that followed.
“Hello Officer. Look, I’ll fess up…the registration I have with me is for a Red 1987 Jeep, but it’s a DIFFERENT 1987 Jeep that I …”
“Sir that isn’t why I pulled you over, it’s just…wait….is that a turtle on your dashboard?”
“Yes, that’s Willy…for Willys…he was in a wheel…I know he should be in like a turtle seat or something….but Mercedes put him there for luck..”
“Sir this isn’t even CLOSE to a Mercedes, this is an old Jeep truck…have you had anything to drink tonight?”
“No…not Mercedes the car, but..”
“Sir, the reason I’m pulling you over is that I spotted a wheel in the middle of the road about half a mile back, and you’re about the only car on the road right now and the wheel seems to match the ones on…”
So here’s the thing…I didn’t bother to bolt the flat tire onto the rusty spare wheel bracket, nor did I read online that the AirGate was notorious for not syncing up with the latches for the metal tailgate and could, if pushed by weight (like a wheel) open up and release the cargo, like a precious unobtainable charcoal-mica finish polished lip OffRoadster five spoke alloy. When I punched it after the gas station it must have fallen out…I KNOW that Willy saw this out the back window and said nothing, so this is a pretty useless turtle.
The officer let me go. “Sir, what were you saying about registration? You know what…forget it…it’s late..”
Tire retrieved and bolted in place, it looks like we will, in fact, make it home. Because of this imminent success, I take a different route north so I can pass the glowing-in-the-night American Center, a glass high rise in the Detroit suburb of Southfield originally built by AMC as their headquarters. Here, on an upper floor in some meeting around 1985 I am assuming a person likely said to the team..”hey, let’s take some of these new SJX trucks, saw off the roof, add a big motor, and make it like a ‘sports truck’”, and NOBODY threw a Styrofoam coffee cup at him. That’s probably one of the reasons why AMC is long gone and the building is a bank office now.
I’m very happy that nobody told this person that the OffRoadster would be silly and nixed it, because this mythical unicorn is pretty much all that I imagined it would be. What it lacks in the charm and old-school appeal of my old SJ it more than makes up for with performance and innovation of a twenty five year newer design (albeit 1987 innovation). It will certainly be a fleet favorite, and with time and money I don’t have could be made into something spectacular. But aren’t ‘patinated’ cars still cool? Do holes in a floor count as patina?
Oh, and does anyone in the Detroit metro area want a turtle?
1987 Jeep/ASC Honcho OffRoadster Pickup
Base Price: $24,380
As Shown: $25,867
Major Standard Equipment:
Electric Sliding Roof Panel
Power Windows and Door Locks
AM/FM Stereo Cassette
Options on Photo Car:
Leather Seating Surfaces
Cerwin Vega Sound System with Bass Boxx
5899cc OHV V8, dual throttle body fuel injectors, 235 HP
5 speed manual transmission, 4WD
Double wishbone independent front suspension- coil springs
Live axle- leaf springs
Front disc/rear drum brakes
Recirculating ball steering
0-60: 7.3 seconds
Top speed: 112MPH