We’re approaching the darkest, coldest, most brutal part of the Wilmington, NC winter season where temperatures will sometimes dip into the high 40s, but mostly linger under cloudy skies in the 50-70 degree temperature range. The beautiful town that I call home sits on the coast of the Tarheel State and is flat as you’d expect a coastal town to be. In fact, you won’t find much of a hill anywhere in Eastern NC until you get up around Jason Torchinsky’s neck of the woods in the Piedmont area of the state (150 miles northwest). And even there, you may need a 1hp Changli to get around all the hilly treachery and formidable weather conditions.
It was under these dangerously balmy conditions late this fall that I received a text from a longtime colleague and friend who is presently in the tow business named Todd: “Blue Jeep; runs. They’re getting rid of it today or tomorrow if you’re interested, my dude. Cheap.”
You see, The Port City of Wilmington is home to my alma mater, The University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and since ’47, has been known as a college town. This means that there is a consistent source and market for cheap, bottom-end, often-beat-up College Kid Rides. UNCW is an awesome school, but it is a state school, so there is a good mix of rich kids and not-so-rich kids. I fell into the latter category while I was there, and this was evidenced by the ‘84 Cougar that I drove while I attended — it featured rust holes large enough to stick your hand through at the bottom of the doors and an engine that I rebuilt myself in high school (in Upstate NY, hence the rust). It was recently shown on “Mercury Monday” a couple weeks back here, still sporting its UNCW parking sticker on the rear glass on the day we parted ways and said goodbye at the local junkyard. Sadly, the car was in great shape by the time that day came, except for the blown engine and the penniless owner’s emotional state
A First Look At The Jeep
The Jeep seemed to be owned by a college kid of similar economic background, as its previous owner told me that she was a working class gal who was hustling after class each night as a server at a local restaurant. She had come all the way from Alaska (with her mom) to escape the cold and enjoy life at the beach. Their ride of choice was a beach-buggy blue Jeep. She told me later that she drove it on-road, to work and school.
We had agreed to check it out in her apartment parking lot, in the dark, after a long, hard day of freelance work at The Autopian. As car-legend Bruce Meyer told The Autopian Podcast, checking a car out in the dark is a bad move, but time was of the essence – I’ll explain below. The seller’s mother was with her and I brought along a scan tool and flashlight. Up until this point, I didn’t even know which model of Jeep it was, I had just texted that I was interested and set up a showing without being that annoying guy who asks a million questions via text during every car sale. I just knew that it was cheap and that it was an opportunity to save a Jeep. You gotta move fast if you wants to wins, I says.
[Editor’s Note: Good god. What kind of man buys a random Jeep of unknown model just because it’s cheap? SWG, you are sicker than I! -DT]
Why I’ve Never Owned A Jeep
At this point in my career of rescuing shitboxes from demise, I had about 114 cars under my belt and none were Jeeps. This makes little sense, as they’re cheap, busted and everywhere, but they’re also popular. That’s what makes them different and what has kept me from getting my hands on one up until this point. There’s competition with other prospective buyers when it comes to Jeeps, and that just doesn’t exist for the colorful J-Bodies I that recently fixed or for that sweet-ass Dodge Stratus Coupe or Dubya Bush-era Grand Am.
Growing up in Utica NY, my parents drove a ‘94 XJ Cherokee “Country” that they bought in about ’97 due to the ridiculously nasty Central NY snow/winters. It was our family’s “nice car” while my dad drove a rusted $500 beater Celica. An ex-girlfriend had a Liberty and constantly complained how bad it was on gas, while maintaining that she thought it was “still cute”. My little brother (and fellow Autopian) Michael always has had a Jeep of some sort for the past 20 years as did my stepdad Paul (also a fellow Autopian). I’ve had the requisite exposure to them, but they just never hooked me and they were just never really my thing.
OG Jeeps (not FWD car-based Jeeps) are handsome machines for sure, and their capabilities are stuff of legend. They have also always struck me as heavy, fuel inefficient, hard-riding, more complex (4WD), and less reliable than the other 114 cars that I have chosen over them up until this point. And that says a lot considering the flaming piles of garbage that I’ve chosen over the years. Literally flaming. Everyone has their own decisions and opinions and I never said that all of mine were the best.
Buying The Jeep Liberty
Ok, so back to the plot. Here we are, in the dark apartment parking lot with the seller, her mom, and me walking over to a corner of the lot where there seems to be a really, really clean blue-green Jeep Liberty just like the one my ex-girlfriend had. It looked wicked good, especially in the dark. A quick once-over was all that I needed before asking the seller why she was selling and what she was asking for it. But really, I knew I was hooked.
She told me that there was an “occurrence” of sorts (and obliquely left it at that) that had the Jeep slammed into a curb hard enough to bend the right front wheel and break the lower ball joint. I didn’t ask for any further details on that situation — not my business. She said she wanted $700 for the Jeep and that it had to be gone in 24 hours. She had already placed the spare wheel on the front right and replaced the ball joint to get it to roll. She said the shop that did that work quoted her an exorbitant amount to fix “additional damage,” although she didn’t remember what that even meant.
After receiving a tow notice, she had reached out and was quoted at about $400 from the local parts yard for them to come get it. Feeling pretty sorry for the position she was in, I agreed to pay full asking price and told her I’d have it removed from the parking lot in time. I probably could’ve offered anything over $400, but that just ain’t how we roll. The still-incredibly-cheap $700 deal was struck, and that was it: I had bought my first Jeep.
I messaged my buddy Todd The Tow Guy back to tell him that I snagged the Liberty. He then informed me that the young lady that was selling it had left it in that corner of the apartment parking lot long enough for the registration to expire and the tow vultures to start circling with their boots-of-prey. It’s clear that a series of unfortunate events that had led to this beautiful Jeep making its way to me, Lemony Snicket-style. Was it the greatest set of circumstances under which to buy a car? Hard nope, but everyone is held to the outcomes of their decisions and my decision here was to save a cool Jeep.
Honestly the first person I thought about once I got it home was David Tracy. You see, I’ve been following David’s writing and adventures ever since he left Chrysler, and I count myself as one of his biggest fans. He plucked me out of complete car-culture writing obscurity and did a piece on my fleet and shitbox rescues here a couple years ago which ended up bringing me here to The Autopian. I owe him, big. [Ed note: Just keep blogging about your wrenching endeavors so I can tone mine down and have an actual, normal life. Please! Also, I’m gonna need you to fly to Mongolia and fix something. -DT].
DT is into Jeeps in a way that is intimidating for a guy like me who has but a little more than a layman’s understanding of them. DT can literally rattle off engineer-level performance, capabilities and specs regarding most Jeeps off the top of his head at any moment (remember, he doesn’t drink either). Now that I have one, how the heck am I going to be able to write a cool Jeep rescue story and get it past The JeepMaster editor and boss? Luckily, DT is the Good Dude that DT is. Upon getting the truck back to my Evil Wrenching Lair (underneath that volcano) and sharing the news and a photo with the rest of the Autopian staff in our Slack channel, the first thing he did was ask me if I wanted to do an off-road comparo piece with the Liberty versus his $700 Tracker versus whichever of the 22 cars Mercedes owns. Didn’t see that coming, but it sounded awesome! The only problem was that he lives in MI (at the moment) and I’m here in NC. The logistics didn’t pan out, but my worries about presenting a new-to-me vehicle to those much-more knowledgeable than I were quelled. He said that he was “slowly coming around to the KJ Liberty,” which I’m guessing is a good thing. I was too.
Being as jazzed on my new Jeep as I was, I joined the FB group, read through the forums and started thinking about my first Jeep tattoo. I found a really cool image of XJ->KJ->KK production numbers and told DT it was a cool tat idea. Surprisingly, I didn’t get a response. Admittedly, a few past tattoo ideas have been on par with past car ideas (see above flaming Cougar).
Fun Side fact: The KJ Liberty outsold the XJ. See above chart.
[Editor’s Note: The Jeep KJ Liberty was, in diehard Jeepers’ eyes, the beginning of the end for Jeep, in that it took the tried-and-true formula of solid front and rear axles, and replaced it with independent suspension for the first time in 50 years (even then, the old SJ Jeeps with independent suspension sold in ridiculously low numbers). Independent suspension is great for steering and handling, and even certain off-road conditions like dune bashing, but for what diehard Jeepers want (the ability to lift their vehicle, great articulation for a variety of uneven terrains, durability and replace-ability of universal joints), it was a major downgrade. Plus, that suspension downgrade was appended with a huge engine downgrade: The legendary 4.0 gave way to a boring, completely-unremarkable 3.7-liter V6 that was gutless and not as reliable as it could have been. Add the “soft” looks of the KJ Liberty, and compare it to the legendary XJ, and it goes down in history as one of the worst Jeep debuts ever. Is it one of the worst Jeeps ever? I don’t think so; it’s got decent geometry, and I love rear-mounted spares. But the KJ is embattled in the annals of Jeep history, just know that.
Note #2, in the plot above, that should say “I6 upgrade at 1991, when the INLINE-six got Chrysler fuel injection to replace RENIX fuel injection. -DT].
The Daylight Analysis
Here’s what I did know after inspecting the Liberty in the daylight for the first time: it was a really clean, solid machine. The paint looked great, although the front bumper was cracked from the impact mentioned above.
Who cares. One cheap used bumper was added to the Pick ‘n Pull list. The washer pump runs right under that section of the bumper, and it took a hit as well.
Not a problem; wicked cheap, easy, and added to the list as well. The interior was super clean, but had strange electric blue-colored floor mats that didn’t really match the rest of the truck:
Pulling up the driver’s mat revealed a wet floorboard. Wicked bummer. Let’s put that on the list as well. Getting behind the wheel and spinning the Jeep around the block immediately showed a steering wheel that had to be turned 90 degrees to the left for the Jeep to travel in a straight line: not good. The windows were up at that moment and the cabin then became hot with frustration; I was getting worked up, as this repair list was growing longer and longer. An attempt to turn on the AC yielded a bad blower motor resistor. Dammit.
What really worried me was how greatly the steering/alignment was off. Especially considering that the seller was told that it needed further repairs as well as considering the nature of the “occurrence” (curb whaaack). Looking underneath, at the front suspension, I noticed a new lower ball joint on the right side, but the joint on the left side looked like it had been through The War of 1812 and was the original from the Toledo, OH assembly line in ’04 .
That was going to have to be the first order of business, since that’s a huge safety item. Once that was done, I could look into the alignment issue. A few wrenching buddies of mine swear by MOOG suspension parts over the cheap Chinese-made alternatives at the parts chain stores, so that’s the first thing I bought. $56 bucks, not bad.
The blower resistor was ~$15 online. Damn!
I know DT is a self-proclaimed “cheap bastard, but I didn’t realize Jeep parts were this dirt cheap.
Jeeps Are Cheap And Easy To Fix
The wet floorboard issue turns out to be a wicked easy fix just like the one shown above. The A pillar and lower kicks panels removed, a few shots of compressed air in the moonroof drain lines, and Bob’s your uncle.
The blower resistor was also a simple 20 min job like the one shown above. Pop the glove box off, two fasteners, a wiring clip and that’s it. As you can see, there were plenty of resources to help me solve my problems, because Jeeps are so ubiquitous.
At this point my admiration and appreciation of this thing was hitting an all-time high. Parts were cheap and everywhere, I didn’t have much money or time into it at all and the repairs were all going swimmingly.
I then popped the torn driver’s seat out to be sent to my buddy Brian at Port City Custom Upholstery. Good dude. We filmed a reality show pilot about drag racing together back in the day. It never saw the light of day. The seats in Libertys are probably the easiest seat to remove and replace out of any I’ve seen. They sit high above the floorboard, so access is great, and there are just four bolts, a couple wiring connections and five minutes needed to yank the thing out. Brian got the seat stitched up nicely a couple days later, and back in the Jeep it went.
I never understood why anyone would ride around with cheap set covers over ripped seats when upholstery (with leather alternative or cloth) is such an easy thing to fix. [Editor’s Note: Really? I always thought it was prohibitively expensive? I’m gonna wanna learn more about this. -DT]
The bumper and washer reservoir were picked up that weekend from a junked donor Liberty. There were quite a few available to choose from in the local parts yard, as these trucks are now at the age where there’s a Great liberty Die-Off. Seriously, you won’t believe how many Liberties there are in your local junkyard.
For the bumper and reservoir, I removed a few fasteners on a junkyard Liberty, and I was all set.
“Man, this Jeep rescue is so frickin’ easy, cheap and fun, I totally get why DT is into this!” I said to myself, before realizing that I was indeed talking to myself and nobody was around to listen. This was also without having spent much time behind the wheel, mind you.
Well that last sentiment started going downhill when I realized how slightly less easy and semi-annoying the ball joint replacement was going to be. You have to remove the caliper, axle shaft (because 4WD Jeep), then re-angle the knuckle to pop out the joint. Not the worst job in the world, but not that much fun either.
Not having a good press, my plan was to remove the knuckle and take it to a buddy’s shop to be pressed in/out. Sure, you can utilize the caveman hammer method as shown here, but that doesn’t always work, and plus we’re a bit more civilized in our approach. [Editor’s Note: Actually, a ball-joint removal tool that you can rent from your local O’Reilly is the move, here. SWG, you should have called me! -DT].
That repair was going to take a whole afternoon, and honestly those are hard to come by these days of 4:45pm sunsets and holiday madness. It’ll have to wait for a free weekend.
I Decided Not To Fix It Completely
That free weekend never came and the Jeep ended up sitting in my driveway for a few weeks. This scenario led me to begin to doubt if keeping it was the right call. After all, as you can see in my profile, I have a fleet about 50% of the size of the Mercedes Streeter Grand Fleet, and new backyard shitbox rescue opportunities arriving each month.
Parking is at a premium at The Evil Shitbox Wrenching Lair and insuring, inspecting, registering and maintaining my fleet is a part-time job that pulls me away from my Autopian duties. Serious, important stuff too! Recently, I attempted (unsuccessfully) to help Torch out with some brand reference research in our team’s Slack channel; this led to an article he did about a cream cheese Mitsubishi.
Plus, I’m one of those weirdos who loathe inefficiency. DT is always voicing his firm belief that modern EVs are carrying around huge batteries stuffed with cobalt and nickel when a smaller, more eco-friendly battery would suffice for most use cases. The same can be said for lugging around an extra axle and transfer case on flat, dry ground here in Wilmington for 99+% of use cases. Local sidebar: Yes, I’m aware that there is an off-road scene on the North End of Carolina Beach and in the rural inland, but most of the Jeeps that are on the roads here never see them.
The added weight of the Dana 30a front axle and transfer case and driveshaft and other ancillary bits is 135lbs, per Edmunds (both below figures are for the 3.7 6cyl engine):
4×2 Curb, 3,898 lbs
4×4 Curb 4,033 lbs.
…I honestly was shocked to see it was only 135lbs! I figured it would be much more, as axles are, to quote my favorite protagonist of all time, “…heavy, Doc”.
Fun Sidebar: The 3.7V6 was made from the same design architecture and engine family as the 4.7 V8 found in my Durango. Setting the timing on both these engines is a flaming bitch.
And this mildly warm take isn’t just specific to Coastal NC. I mean, is 4WD needed for commuting in the South in general? Most Jeep buyers don’t go off-roading nor use them in any way near their capabilities. I know there are millions of DTs around the world that just absolutely love Jeeps because they’re Jeeps and you know what, that’s all that matters. Hell, as I said above, my ma dailied a Jeep with the 4WD on from Dec-March in Utica, NY in the late 90s.
I get that this isn’t specific to Jeeps either, but opening this take up to 4WD trucks and SUVs would be a much larger discussion and today is not that day. This discussion on how much car is really needed has been had since the beginning of car-time. Also, this is purely a take on 4WD Jeeps, and not on AWD, which has different weights/capabilities. All of the above is part of a discussion that is beyond an S.W Gossin Wrenching Tale of Woe and Wonder. Anyway, glad that’s out of the way.
Of course it’s ok to rock a vehicle that has capabilities beyond its typical use case – in fact that is what most buyers prefer – just look at modern pickup trucks. Just because some weirdos like me are out there who prefer to tailor their vehicles acutely to their use cases, it doesn’t take anything away from those who don’t. You may feel otherwise and I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Honestly, I think I just had a moment of realization where I said to myself, “I’m not sure I need to lug around all this off-road capability on my way to work each day.” Twas a Non-Jeep Guy moment of mechanical appreciation, non-necessity and self-awareness.
Selling The Liberty For Good Coin!
I ended up following my colleague Thomas Hundal on Instagram and also following the approach he takes in his new car reviews, where he advises on who a car’s intended audience is. His usual prescriptions for the buyers of newer cars include “DINKs” (dual income no kids), empty nesters and Millennials.
I posted the Jeep under market value and said that it would be perfect for Crypto Bros, Vape Bros, Tech Bros, Mario Bros/Hammer Bros, and Chemical Bros, yet it ended up selling to a sweet local woman and her electrician husband. They told me they planned to drive it around town; on-road. I didn’t realize the <$4K 4WD market was so hot and it sold nearly instantaneously before the additional repairs were done. Buyers didn’t even care — they just wanted it.
The couple planned on taking the vehicle straight to their shop to have that MOOG ball joint installed and to have the alignment done. I told them used wheels were about $50 at the local Pick ‘n Pull and that there were about 15 Libertys there to choose from to replace the bent one slung out back on the rear gate.
I took a few hundo off the price to make it right by them and cover those repairs, and they were happier than anyone who hedged against Carvana this year. Nothing is more sad in my World of Wrenching than sending a car to its death before its time. It’s such a waste of the carbon that was expended to create it. It’s bad for the planet and, as a membership-carrying Autopian, it hurts my soul.
So just like that, the only Jeep I’ve ever owned was saved from the crusher, it was fixed up cheaply and easily and it found a new home with folks that will appreciate and take care of it. I’m super glad, too, since it only had ~140K on it! It was officially time to celebrate a successful rescue with a Stanley Tucci Tuscan Negroni.
Was It Worth It?
The KJ Liberty apparently isn’t the most popular in Jeep circles from what I’ve heard as a person that’s not in those circles. It’ll be interesting to see a line graph of DT coming around (Y-axis) vs time (X-axis), to see how long it will be until the glorious day that he fully warms up to the KJ to the point that he’s a full-fledged KJ advocate. Hmm. Anyway, maybe one day they’ll become more popular in the off-road community. They will certainly continue to become less popular in the on-road community, since they are now almost 20 years old.
In the end, I loved the color, the heated seats were nice and for a person my age (who has no generation – I was born in ‘80) I enjoyed recalling the outdoor adventure coolness vibe that followed vehicles of this ilk (and made them take off in popularity) when I was a teenager in the mid ’90s. Yes, it was $85 to fill up and the ride quality was pretty harsh/bad (solid rear axle) with plenty of head-toss, but it had character and a certain x-factor that came with the seven slots in the nose along with that legendary badge. What really mattered is that it’s still on the road, generating smiles and racking up miles instead of being junked.
Maybe these early aughts DaimlerChrysler XJ replacements are great Jeeps for the breakover and departure angles and other engineering features that make them uniquely qualified for a particular muddy, sandy or snowy task. I don’t really know about all that, since all the roads I travel upon are flat, clear and paved.
Photos courtesy of Stephen Walter Gossin