Home » Rotting In The Woods In Tennessee Is A First Model-Year Jeep Cherokee XJ, The SUV That Changed The World

Rotting In The Woods In Tennessee Is A First Model-Year Jeep Cherokee XJ, The SUV That Changed The World

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The 1984 Jeep Cherokee changed the world in ways that most will never truly understand. It was the first really high-volume civilian four-wheel drive unibody “crossover” SUV, and therefore arguably the blueprint for the tens of millions of unibody SUVs that have taken over the roads around the world today. And yet, an example of the model sits rotting in the woods in Tennessee, and will either be sent to a scrapyard or saved by someone who understands its historical value. Will that someone be me? I don’t know.

The oil crises of the 1970s spurred automakers to “downsize” their SUVs, or at the very least offer a smaller version. The Ford Bronco that looked like this:

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

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Was joined by the little Bronco II:

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The Chevy Blazer that looked like this:

1979 Chevrolet Blazer brochure

Was soon joined by the “S10 Blazer”:

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And yet, the biggest “downsizing” operation happened at Jeep, in part, because it was part of American Motors Corporation, which not only had a lot of unibody experience (one of the companies that was rolled into the AMC brand was Nash, which was very early in the unibody game), but was being run by French company Renault, which was building small unibody cars at the time. Why does “unibody” matter? Well, it was a totally different way of building an SUV; instead of a body being bolted atop a ladder frame that held the powertrain, drivetrain, and suspension, the body itself had an integrated frame.

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This is not how one should really think about unibody vehicles, as “integrated” frame might conjure thoughts of big parallel rails going the entire length of a body, with crossmembers tying it all together — basically a frame welded to a body, but with the Jeep Cherokee this isn’t a bad way to think of it. Jeep called it the “uniframe” design, and described it thusly:

There’s a new structural design called UniFrame that takes a weight-reduced, conventional frame and welds it directly to the floor pan. UniFrame holds twisting to a minimum under all types of loads and terrain. It provides better ground clearance while maintaining a lower vehicle ride height. And it’s light in weight, but also strong and durable. Another example of Jeep technology.

The result was a vehicle that weighed under 3,000 pounds — over 1,000 pounds less than its predecessor (!) — and that maintained 90 percent of its predecessor’s interior volume. It was a true breakthrough in the SUV world, and the first-ever five-link coil-sprung solid axle front suspension also played into that. When the 4.0-liter inline-six joined the party in 1987, the Cherokee began cementing its legendary status as a truly affordable, practical, reliable, powerful, daily-drivable vehicle that brought off-roading to the masses and not just to owners of niche, harsh-riding machines.

Anyway, here’s what a 1983 Cherokee looked like (OK, this is from a 1982 brochure, but they looked the same):

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And here was the “downsized” 1984 model. A hell of a departure!:

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The result of the XJ’s rigid and lightweight chassis, and the clever suspension, was excellent ride and handling for a 4×4, with Car and Driver writing at the time:

It’s a little hard to get your mind wrapped around the Cherokee’s mission in life, but Jeep tries to help by calling it “SportWagon.” It’s a station wagon with extra-functional overtones, an American car in Oshkosh overalls—part car, part truck. It’s easy to believe the Cherokee was designed in Kenosha and Toledo, because it harks back to America before the Interstates, when it was tough just to get around. The Cherokee can take you to town in the winter or haul a ski boat in the summer. It has four-wheel drive to bust through the snowdrifts in your driveway or muck through the bog on the way to the summer cabin.

[…]

You can fling the Cherokee at switchbacks and keep all four tires on the ground. It’s tight and responsive, and it cuts smartly for the apexes; it’s flawed only by slow and extraordinarily numb steering. On the Interstate, the Cherokee feels more stable than a Blazer or a Bronco, and the driver is effectively isolated from the small road imperfections that most 4wd vehicles communicate directly to your fillings. On a flat-out run through the desert, the Cherokee bobbed along happily, the suspension both resilient and able to soak up 80-mph charges through the vados of the Anza-Borrego.

Jeep went on to build almost 3 million XJs worldwide, and then over a million more ZJ Grand Cherokees, which were closely based on the XJ. (Liberties and WJ Grand Cherokees shared the XJ’s formula, though the former’s independent front suspension means it’s a bit of a different animal).

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Damn near every one of the hottest-selling SUVs on the market today utilizes a unibody setup like the XJ did. And it all began in 1984, which is why this 1984 XJ abandoned in the woods in Tennessee makes me so sad:

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The photos come to me from reader Mandy, who wrote me an email, saying:

We have a 2dr 1984 jeep cherokee with I believe a red pinstripe. It is an automatic. It has been sitting for years and is located out on family property that we are trying to get cleaned up. It had a brand new transmission but had slung a rod so it was parked and set aside. My mom always believed one day she would be able to fix it, but unfortunately that never happened. I was just trying to reach out to someone that knew something about jeeps. Is it worth something to someone, or should we just scrap it? 
Thank you for your time,
I put that bit in bold to highlight that this legendary machine is on death row!

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Mandy sent me another email saying the engine was actually not in bad shape — the transmission (a Chrysler A904) was:

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I did find out from my mom that it had a brand new engine when it was parked and that is was the transmission that went out. I can get to more pics if you would like. My husband is currently weedeating around it.

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“This jeep has a lot of good memories with my sister and me,” Mandy told me over email. “As much as I would love to ‘fix’ it for my teenage daughter, we just do not have the means. Thanks for taking the time to take a peek.”

“I would love to see it be restored,” she continued. “Like I said, I wish I could myself. Just let me know  how you would like to proceed. I will get the other info and see if I can get an engine pic or the definitive answer about the 4 or 6.”

The last bit is a reference to my query about whether the engine is the inline four (preferred) or the GM-sourced V6 (a POS).

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Mandy went out to take a photo of the engine so I could see which one it was. It did not go well:

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Cannot get the hood open. When we tried the trick for some lever, a really large snake climbed out. I’m a chicken. Still waiting to hear from mom. Hoping she knows the answer. It was non venomous, but I’m still a chicken.
Good lord.
Anyway, it’s far from the best version of the XJ, but it represents the first year of what would become an absolutely legendary machine. I really hope someone saves it from oblivion.
Images from Mandy and from automakers.

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Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
10 months ago

Is it restored yet?! ( w/ a manual) Should be by now since you’re David “Rusty” Tracy!

Flinched
Flinched
10 months ago

“Flung a rod” lol. Everyone knows it’s “Flang”

Last edited 10 months ago by Flinched
Ryan Barclay
Ryan Barclay
10 months ago

As long as the frame isn’t rotted, I say this is absolutely worth saving. We have a shortage of skilled mechanics. I would find a community college with auto tech programs to donate this to. Lansing Community College and Macomb Community College probably have students that could learn body work, welding, and auto repair with this beauty. I’m certain there are colleges in Tennessee that have auto tech programs too.

A young man buys this for $300, takes it to his college shop and rebuilds a 4.0l and AW4 or AX15, drops them in, refreshes axles, etc…
Then they learn body work and get this nice and glossy again.

Win, win, win.

Heck, I’ll even go so far as to say that a Cummins R2.8 in this would be amazing and certainly worth the cost, in my opinion.

Let the arguing commence.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
10 months ago

David, your supposed “Holy Grail” Jeep has become a feral cats’ den. Your first XJ is already rotting in a field/forest somewhere in Michigan. And you want us to tell you it’s a good fuckin idea for you to go “rescue” this one just because it’s the first model year? While I agree that the XJ was a game changer in the world of SUVs, who gives a turkey that this is the first model year? And as for you being the one to “save” it, you can’t even take care of the ones you already own! Stop this bullshit!

It isn’t you or the scrappers. Someone else will buy it, if it’s offered up on the market place. People love these things.

ZeGerman
ZeGerman
10 months ago
Reply to  Shop-Teacher

Totally agree. And after the total disaster that was David’s rental house in Michigan, I was surprised and saddened when I saw that he was somehow able to get Boeckmann to agree to dumping his heap of crap Jeep in the Galpin lot. Just a pile of trash not getting used or fixed, this time taking up space on someone else’s property. The hoarding continues.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
10 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

Ok DT. Gonna be blunt here. As a former therapist and as someone who once stayed at a Holiday Inn, I will tell you the truth. Just because you have not gone nuts yet and shot up a junk yard with an AK, does NOT mean that you are not nuts. Plain and simple.

In fact you are much like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, only instead of collecting abnormal brains, you collect abnormal piece of shit vehicles. As evidenced by your above list, you also take pride in doing stupid shit with said vehicles before passing them off on the unsuspecting villagers. Shame on you.

This shit has to stop DT.
Now go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done.

Dumb Shadetree
Dumb Shadetree
10 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

I am not (and never have been) a therapist, but I have stayed at a Holiday Inn. That makes me half as qualified as the above commenter.

Of all the decrepit Jeeps that belonged in a junkyard, this one belongs in a junkyard the most. It is not rare, is very rusty, does not move, and probably needs new brakes / tires / hoses / shocks / bushings on top of everything else.

But it has good parts in it. That new engine will keep a nicer Jeep on the road. David, if you try and “rescue” this you are depriving someone of the brand new engine they need.

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
10 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

Yay!

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
10 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

I COMPLETELY support your saving Jeeps quest!!!

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
10 months ago
Reply to  ZeGerman

Spare us the clutched pearls, man. “Total disaster?” “Dumping?” Good grief. Dude’s got a much better track record of actually fixing cars than, gosh, most of the autojourno/YouTube set.

I read this as “please save this Jeep,” not “I’m going to go across the country right now and personally save this Jeep.”

Nlpnt
Nlpnt
10 months ago

The biggest problem I see with this one as a specimen of the car that started a revolution is that it’s missing of the XJ’s other revolutionary, segment-defining feature-four doors!
The Bronco II, and up until 1991(!) the S10 Blazer were 2-door only. That limited their market and their usefulness as family cars.

Ford Friday
Ford Friday
10 months ago

I had a 1984 Cherokee with a 2.8 V6 and that engine was atrocious. It was the most underpowered vehicle I’ve ever experienced. The 4.0 was the best thing that happened to the Cherokee. The old Cherokees may be significant because they were the first ones, but they didn’t have the engine that made the Cherokee legendary.

Jim Zavist
Jim Zavist
10 months ago
Reply to  Ford Friday

I’ll see your ’84 and raise you with an ’82 Scrambler running the 4-cylinder Pontiac Iron Duke, rocking 84 whole HP! (When the OG 4-speed crapped out, my mechanic swapped in a used 5-speed, and 5th gear was useless on the highway.)

Dodsworth
Dodsworth
10 months ago

Would the VIN tell you what you want to know? Do you really need another home for wayward cats?

Nlpnt
Nlpnt
10 months ago
Reply to  Dodsworth

One way or the other, the cats and snakes will take care of each other.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
10 months ago

No “I’m tired of these mutha—snakes…” comments?
Have we cycled out of that era and I just missed the memo?

David Smith
David Smith
10 months ago

All I ask is that you keep your Jeeps out of the left lane.

Also, how do you stand all of the road noise? While I pass you on the right (thanks for that) I am near deafind by the sound your barely ever driven off road knobbie tires on the road. And I’m half deaf in one ear and down to 75% in the other.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
10 months ago
Reply to  David Smith

Will you keep your foot off the gas?

David Smith
David Smith
10 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Will you keep your foot off the gas?

That’s how I maintain forward propulsion, something most Jeep drivers around me don’t seem to understand (as they lollygag in the left lane).

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
10 months ago

Having seen the XJ Cherokee displace Volvo 240 and Buick Century wagons from affluent suburban driveways in the mid 80s I can attest to the importance of the XJ in kickstarting the SUV boom that led to Ford Explorers everywhere in the 90s.
This one may be too far gone depending on how much rust and mold is present

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