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):

Screen Shot 2023 07 25 At 6.26.33 Pm Screen Shot 2023 07 25 At 6.26.52 Pm

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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).

20230724 155102

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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Logan Diekmann
Logan Diekmann
11 months ago

I have a good (at least when I pulled it) A904 that would go right into a Jeep like this sitting on the floor at the shop. Just had a resealed NP231 attached to it.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
11 months ago

I wonder if they had just redesigned the Eagle unibody 4wd cars if they would have been the new Subaru and taken over #1 in US CAR SALES.

90sBuicksAreUnderrated
90sBuicksAreUnderrated
11 months ago

I’ll be a buzzkill. I know that you have a soft spot for XJs, but this one really isn’t worth your time. You already have your ’92 somewhere in the woods in Michigan (in rough condition, but better than this one) that’ll get closer and closer to reaching this state if you continue to take on more projects. Plus you’ve got a lotta work ahead of you on that Overlanding ZJ.

I guess it can be argued that the XJ was revolutionary but if we’re being honest this isn’t a rare car. They sold three million of these in the U.S. alone; they were mass produced. A lot of them have been scrapped, sure, but I doubt they’ll ever be “rare.” A nice example of this car can be had for far less than the cost of a full restoration on this one, that’s just the reality. Sure, it’s sad seeing cars that stir up something inside you getting scrapped. At the end of the day though, it’s just a fact of life. It’s not on you personally to save them all from the crusher. Honestly this thing would be better put to use as a parts car to let other ones live, especially if it’s got a low mileage 4.0L under the hood.

David Smith
David Smith
11 months ago

“He’s dead Jim”.
Thank you Doctor.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
11 months ago

I’ve got it!
>Fly out to Tennessee and wrench on this thing until it sputters to life;
>Drive it to Carolina to help Torch fix the Marshal;
>Leave it with Torch, because he needs an old Jeep in his life;
>Profit!

notoriousDUG
notoriousDUG
11 months ago
Reply to  Geoff Buchholz

904, while a simple trans, may be a bit much to repair in somebody’s yard…

10001010
10001010
11 months ago

My wife had a 2 door XJ with the 4cyl when we first moved to Houston but I don’t remember what year it was. What I do remember is it couldn’t go over 55mph on the freeway without backfiring and bucking. It also couldn’t make it up a parking garage ramp without backfiring. There was a short somewhere in the Selectrac 4wd system that would engage the front axle at random intervals and speeds which destroyed the U-joints. And perhaps my favorite quirk, the throttle would stick open from time to time. The issue was the screw holding down the bracket for the air filter lid would unscrew itself and fall down in the throttle body lodging the butterfly valve open. I kept a pair of chopsticks in the glovebox just for fishing that screw back out.

We were broke and just trying to get started so I never got it fixed, her step-father was interested in it though and had a Nissan Pulsar he was willing to trade her for it. I really liked the Pulsar but she never did. Long story short, the Pulsar was shit too and she gave up and traded everything in on a brand new Corolla which she drove for the next 15 years without a single mechanical issue.

Tim Beamer
Tim Beamer
11 months ago

If money were no object, I’d pull it out, engine swap with an Ecoboost 2.3, Tremec T-6 Manual, new Dana axles and transfer case, and throw a killer paint scheme on it. Recaro seats, refurb the wheels. And I’d make sure it has A/C and a boppin’ sound system. Unfortunately, money is currently an object…

Danger Ranger
Danger Ranger
11 months ago
Reply to  Tim Beamer

I’m sorry, an Ecoboost in a 1st gen XJ?!?! That’s sacrilege! Needs a 4.0 with the good AX15? (maybe, I forget) but an inline 6 and a 3 pedal manual is the way to go. If the body falls apart, get a donor

Danger Ranger
Danger Ranger
11 months ago
Reply to  Danger Ranger

Crap, AX15, damn happy hour

R53 Lifer
R53 Lifer
11 months ago

The plan is obvious: fly to TN, get this thing running, drive back to SoCal via the Trans America Trail. If it’s near Knoxville I even have a barn you could keep it in (and a C1500 work truck that could be borrowed)…

A. Barth
A. Barth
11 months ago

*looks at topshot*

Wait a second…

Is that an actual Rodney Dangerfield reference or is it a coincidence??

A. Barth
A. Barth
11 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

Excellent 🙂

Aaron Vienot
Aaron Vienot
11 months ago

TBF, “uniframe chassis” was an accurate description, not just marketing oddness. There is no engine subframe, and the integrated rails are structural along their entire length like a conventional frame rail. Only a small handful of vehicles have ever done that, as I recall. Most unibody vehicles, even if they have reinforcement ridges that resemble rails, will crush like a bug if lifted on those points.

Scoutdude
Scoutdude
11 months ago
Reply to  Aaron Vienot

The early Chrysler unibodies were like that and had a very similar description in their brochures and advertising. Then there were lots and lots of vans going back to the original Econoline and its competition. So no it wasn’t new or revolutionary.

Millermatic
Millermatic
11 months ago

“ The result was a vehicle that weighed under 3,000 pounds — over 1,000 pounds less than its predecessor (!)”

And the last one looks like it gained all that weight back?

Aaron Vienot
Aaron Vienot
11 months ago
Reply to  Millermatic

The very first XJ was a 3-door wagon with a carburetor, no amenities, a fiberglass lift gate, and the crash safety performance of the two stacked shoeboxes that inspired the studio’s clay model.

The very last XJ was a 5-door wagon with full ameneties, and featured a modernized powertrain including fuel injection, coil-on plug ignition, and three cats to meet latest CARB requirements. It still had the crash performance of the two shoeboxes, but now there was a steel lift gate and dual front airbags to make your untimely death much more secure and comfortable.

A weight gain was unavoidable, but remarkably, they kept the same uniframe chassis for the entire 17-year run.

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
11 months ago
Reply to  Aaron Vienot

The very last XJ was a 5-door wagon with full ameneties, and featured a modernized powertrain including fuel injection, coil-on plug ignition, and three cats to meet latest CARB requirements. It still had the crash performance of the two shoeboxes, but now there was a steel lift gate and dual front airbags to make your untimely death much more secure and comfortable.”

David’s ZJ is equipped with more than three cats, thereby exceeding CARB requirements as a PZMV (Partial-zero Meows Vehicle).

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
11 months ago

David is out here in the bargaining phase of addiction, and we are all here supporting him. I can see though these words, you want nothing more then to go out to Tennessee. Spend three weeks in this dudes yard like a hermit monk getting this thing to turn over long enough to call it driving. Then drive this thing home, hopping it makes up the Divide, then you can coast it downhill the rest of way home. Maybe when you inevitably buy the ticket to Knoxville. Consider a detour to Passages Malibu. Or getting into respectable junk like BMWs.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
11 months ago

“Or getting into respectable junk like BMWs.”

Given what a POS money pit my stepdads X5 was I’d still go with the rusty XJ.

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
11 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

An X5 rotting on your lawn is prestigious. It tells the world that this person is of class. You know who else has a BMW rotting on their lawn, The Sultan of Brunei. He may not get democracy, but he gets cool cars to let rot on your lawn.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
11 months ago

If a Jeep falls apart in the forest, does anyone hear it? Yes, David Tracy, apparently.

Icouldntfindaclevername
Icouldntfindaclevername
11 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

If a jeep falls in the the forest, David will help it up

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
11 months ago

If the decision is made to not rescue it, for the love of Automotive Jehova, please save those wheels. They’re GORGEOUS and easily my favorite XJ wheels, ranking highly in the Jeep wheel pantheon.

Ryan L
Ryan L
11 months ago

The holy grail for me was the 91 2 door, five speed with the inline six. My buddy had one and that think was an absolute blast.

Dar Khorse
Dar Khorse
11 months ago

first really high-volume civilian four-wheel drive unibody “crossover” SUV
Wow, we’re really playing qualifier bingo in an effort to get us to care about an old rust-bucket. I’m gonna have to side with the majority of the commenters (as of this moment) and say: Let it return to the earth from whence it came.

Dar Khorse
Dar Khorse
11 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

<Squeal!> Look Ma, DT responded to my comment! 🙂

Yeah, I get it. And I don’t disagree. I’m just saying that having to add qualifications out the wazoo diminishes the impact of the statement. “First unibody SUV” means something. But “first really high-volume civilian four-wheel drive unibody “crossover” SUV” just carries a lot less weight. And to your point – they sold millions of them so letting a few examples return to Mother Earth isn’t a tragedy, IMHO.

But to quote one of my favorite cartoon characters: Thanks for noticin’

Elhigh
Elhigh
11 months ago

The proportions of the two-door are so much better than the four. Not the overall conformation – external dimensions are the same. But the window lines are better. The bigger doors on the two-door are way better when it’s just a couple of people, while being only slightly more inconvenient for rear-seat passengers, as the rear doors on four-door models are garbage in any case.

If it’s the four-cylinder AMC 150, knowing where this thing is might not be a good thing for me. I’m in Tennessee, and I like the 150 and two-door first-gen Cherokee.

Rusty S Trusty
Rusty S Trusty
11 months ago

They made almost 3 million XJs over the years. We’re never going to run out of them, there are plenty left and there’s no need to go around saving every.single one that’s rotting in a field.

Unclewolverine
Unclewolverine
11 months ago

After being raised on a succession of early xjs and owning about a dozen of later ones I can say that although it’s interesting, it’s not really worth saving. These did not really get ironed out until the HO 4.0 debuted in 91 I believe. From there until the crack prone 0331 head came about in 2000 is the sweet spot of xj ownership. My 95 rhd is faithfully covering 132 miles a day, 6 days a week at 376k.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
11 months ago

“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.”

I’ve no idea what a “vado” is but charging through the washboard rutted trails of the Anza Borrego is how I turned my XJ into a rattletrap.

Also you’d better pray that when it comes time to replace the suspension rubber the welded nuts that the leaf spring shackles bolt into don’t break free. That turns a few hours job into a few weekends job.

Last edited 11 months ago by Cheap Bastard
MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
11 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

EL VADOHistorical LandmarkDescription:
This route was opened by Captain Juan Bautista de Anza and Father Francisco Garcés in 1774. Anza’s expedition of 1775, a group of 240 soldiers and settlers coming from Sonora to found San Francisco, encamped near El Vado (The Ford) for three days and two nights, December 20-22, 1775.

Registration Date: 3/3/1958

Location:
City: Anza-Borrego
County: San Diego

Directions:
6 mi NW of Borrego Springs on Borrego Springs Rd (dirt), Anza -Borrego Desert State Park, ask at Visitor Center

http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/listedresources/Detail/634

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
11 months ago
Reply to  MAX FRESH OFF

Hmmm, so vado = Ford?

Lessee..

…the suspension both resilient and able to soak up 80-mph charges through the Fords of the Anza-Borrego.”

Yeah that works.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
11 months ago

Why put up with Jeep’s stupid shit when you can get a Geo Tracker/Suzuki Sidekick/Vitara? The hardtop version is the XJ Done Right. The convertible is the Wrangler Done Right.

Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
11 months ago
Reply to  Dogisbadob

David tried that already…

notoriousDUG
notoriousDUG
11 months ago
Reply to  Dogisbadob

Right…
Because the IFS, 1.8:1 low are SO MUCH better than the sick axle and 2.7:1 low in the XJ

Data
Data
11 months ago

Just say No, David. You don’t need another Cat Condo sitting on the Galpin lot.

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
11 months ago
Reply to  Data

I hoping Beau will say no for him…

ZeGerman
ZeGerman
11 months ago
Reply to  MATTinMKE

Beau shouldn’t have allowed the first one.

notoriousDUG
notoriousDUG
11 months ago

I’ve had a couple early XJs and not a fan.
Not even the super cool “tilt-a-whirl” seats make up for it’s short comings.
You’re stuck with the CAD front axle.
3spd 904 or a garbage 5spd.
Different core support limits the cooling.

V10omous
V10omous
11 months ago

I do sometimes wonder what the smallest bit of notability/notoriety an old Jeep has to possess before it’s a Holy Grail/worthy of an article.

When we tried the trick for some lever, a really large snake climbed out

Must be the ultra rare Cobra edition.

notoriousDUG
notoriousDUG
11 months ago
Reply to  V10omous

Right?
That thing is a rusty mess that was, at best, a mediocre example of an XJ.

MiniDave
MiniDave
11 months ago

I owned one of the tiny chevy V6 versions, a 2 dr with a 5 speed manual. It was pretty slow but other than that it drove well and I never had any problems with it. I towed a 3K lb boat down to the launch ramp with it, and recovery was so easy in 4wd lo! I also took it all over the back desert roads in So Cal.

notoriousDUG
notoriousDUG
11 months ago

If it is a 2.8 it would have had a badge on the hatch, they can look for that if trying to avoid snakes.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
11 months ago
Reply to  notoriousDUG

If it got parked because it’s a diesel and the motor failed (which a lot of them did, because they weren’t great diesels) then it might be worth saving and doing a swap to another diesel engine and not have to worry about emissions testing in any state… even California.

notoriousDUG
notoriousDUG
11 months ago

Where does it say it was a diesel?
The diesel in those is insanely rare.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
11 months ago
Reply to  notoriousDUG

Ah, nevermind. The gas gauge says unleaded only, so, not the diesel. Super rare, but thought it might be the reason why it was parked.

Ben
Ben
11 months ago

It says right in the article that it was parked due to a bad transmission, but the engine was just replaced before that happened. Honestly, given the rust and bad trans I wouldn’t go near this, but then I’m not as big a fan of the XJ as David, having had my first experience with them in one of the last model years when they were extremely dated.

Palmetto Ranger
Palmetto Ranger
11 months ago
Reply to  Ben

“[N]ot [being] as big a fan of the XJ as David” pretty much describes everyone in the world that is not David Tracy.

Last edited 11 months ago by Palmetto Ranger
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