The hot sun beamed unrelentingly onto my face as I lay on gravel at a sketchy impound lot in Fontana, California, wrestling a crappy contraption made of tube steel off the back of a dilapidated Jeep Grand Cherokee. How the hell did I get here? The answer to that question is simple: The Jeep gods sent me to pick up the Holiest of all Jeep Grand Cherokee parts: the coveted spare tire carrier. It was offered as a dealer-installed option in the 1990s, but few Grand Cherokee owners opted for it. Now it’s so rare that only a handful of images of it exist on the internet, and you can forget about hoping to see one in-person. Somehow, though, I just bought one, and I’m now going to give you an exclusive, up-close look at the rarest, most highly-sought-after part ever available for the first-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee. Prepare your souls.
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Why The Spare Tire Carrier Is So Useful For A Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ
This information you’re about to read is nowhere else on the web, because by the time the internet hit its stride in the early 2000s, there were probably only a dozen or so of these MOPAR spare tire carriers left in existence. The spare tire carrier is the ultimate optional accessory for a Jeep Grand Cherokee, in large part because of what 1990s auto journalists considered the “ZJ” Jeep’s greatest flaw: Lack of cargo space. When New Car Test Drive reviewed the 1996 model, it wrote:
The spare tire, stowed on the side of the rear storage compartment, cuts into the cargo space. The Grand Cherokee’s key competitors have moved spare tire stowage underneath, operating on the theory that tire changes will be extremely rare since so few 4-door sport-utilities ever venture into off-road regions filled with sharp rocks and the like.
Car and Driver’s review of the first model-year Jeep Grand Cherokee (1993) even mentioned the coveted tire carrier that is the subject of this article, writing:
If station-wagon capability is important to you, make sure you get the outside spare-tire mount. The inside mount stands the spare up on the left, just behind the second seat, where it hogs too much of the load floor.
Watch this Motorweek review and you’ll hear John Davis decry the ZJ’s upright spare tire sitting in the cargo area, saying:
The somewhat narrow Grand Cherokee has about 2.5 cubic feet less total cargo space than an Explorer, and the spare tire mounted back there takes up a lot of room. Jeep says they kept width down and the spare inside for better offroad maneuverability.
It’s one of three “misses” that Motorweek mentions in its conclusion, along with less-than-optimal braking stability and engine NVH issues:
The reasoning that Jeep gave Motorweek for packaging the spare in the cargo area makes sense. By mounting the spare there, as shown above, the floor remains relatively high, which is important since the fuel tank sits below.
In 1999, when Jeep replaced the ZJ with the “WJ” Grand Cherokee, the company changed its tune, appeasing car journalists by moving the spare under the floor. The result? The fuel tank dropped; look at how low it sits in this picture from aftermarket-bumper manufacturer Paramount Automotive:
The fuel tank is so low that a number of off-road enthusiasts have actually cut out the spare tire well integrated into the Jeep’s rear floor just so they could move the gas tank up and away from off-road obstacles.
But neither the ZJ’s upright spare nor the WJ’s tire well in the cargo area is the proper solution to Jeep’s spare tire packaging conundrum, because as I wrote in a headline a few years back, “The Proper Spot For A Spare Tire Is On The Rear Door.” Let’s quote that article’s main point:
Packaging the tire on the back door is simply the best solution. It doesn’t eat into cargo space, it doesn’t compromise ground clearance or departure angle, it doesn’t limit how big the spare can be (though it may require some reinforcement of the door if you put 40s on it), it doesn’t get too filthy during off-roading, it’s easily accessible and, most importantly, it’s downright sexy.
Seriously, show me one SUV that doesn’t look better with a spare tire on the back? Hell, even the tiny Ford EcoSport looks better with a big cylinder hanging off its tail.
Plus, you can customize these tire carriers with political opinions or funny off-road-y text, so that’s always fun.
I do mention that there are a few downsides to a rear tire carrier such as reduced visibility, fewer rear door options (hatch and tailgate are out), more difficulty opening that door (which has to be fairly stiff to handle all that weight), and a few more. But regardless, the rear spare tire carrier is the best spare tire carrier, especially for an off-road vehicle. There’s no question about it.
Picking Up The Rare Part From An Impound Lot In Fontana, California
The photo you see above popped up on my screen as I scrolled through my daily (okay, hourly) Jeep search on Facebook Marketplace. “Holy crap, it’s a factory spare tire carrier!” I exclaimed before jamming my phalanges hard against my keyboard until the seller and I had set up a time for me to snag the rare contraption the following day.
[Editor’s Note: Look, I am no one to judge anyone’s automotive fetishes, but damn, this contraption is so half-assed. Look how the re-located license plate covers half of the Jeep badge:
Someone saw this and said “ah, good enough.” Do people really covet these things? Really? There’s plenty of aftermarket options. I’m a little baffled. That said I’m not here to yuck David’s or anyone’s yum. – JT]
Unfortunately, the seller only had the following night after 8 P.M. available, but — realizing that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity — I jumped on it, and wrenched on that Jeep in the dark that Tuesday night.
I only managed to snag the hatch that evening, but I returned back on Sunday to snag the main swing-out carrier:
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I thought I was paying $250 for this thing, which was already absurdly high, but after yanking the hatch, bumper cover, bumper, and the main tire carrier (which is part of the hitch), the seller began thinking I was ripping him off. “Why do you need all of those part just for a tire carrier?” he asked as he jacked the price up another $100. I wasn’t thrilled with this, telling him the tire carrier doesn’t work without the hatch, and that bumper isn’t going to be much use to anyone with a hole in it.
Anyway, I threw him another $40, because I kind of understood where he was coming from. The way Jeep mounted this tire-carrier required modifications to quite a few parts, and it was clearly an afterthought. Let’s have a look at the engineering behind this crude contraption.
An Exclusive Close Look At The Jeep ZJ Spare Tire Carrier
Okay, get ready for some hyper-exclusive content. Here’s how this super-rare tire carrier works. It all starts with a regular, run-of-the-mill Reese hitch [Editor’s Note: Who else just learned the official name of this thing right now? PS I read the comments and realized it’s a brand name, so okay, I get it no need to yell at me more. – JT], which is held to the bottom of the Jeep via six nuts that thread onto studs sticking straight down from the Jeep’s main structural rails:
Here are two of the three studs on one side of the Jeep (in the image, I’m actually removing the studs by jamming two nuts against one another, then putting a socket over top of them and twisting. The tension in the threads between the two nuts locks them into place, allowing for the stud, and not the nuts, to rotate, thus releasing the stud from the Jeep):
The Reese hitch that forms the basis for the tire carrier has been modified in three main ways. First, this bracket, which includes a wedge to slow down and pinch the swing-carrier when it closes, has been bolted on:
Then, on the passenger’s side of the hitch, the flat face perpendicular to the outside of the Jeep has had one hole drilled into it to hold the end of the pipe that the spare tire carrier rotates about:
Also supporting that same pipe is a bracket made up of a piece of square tube that slides right into the hitch’s lateral square tube. You can see that the internal square tube that clamps the tubular tire carrier is fastened to the hitch’s square tube via two bolts:
Okay so now that we know how the main tube (about which the swinging carrier rotates) is mounted to the vehicle (via the hitch), let’s look at the swinging carrier itself, which is shaped like a figure eight.
You can see in the photo above that the aforementioned stationary post that’s fastened to the hitch (and that bends into a vertical orientation as shown above) has some nylon bushings around it; those are there to reduce the friction as the main swinging tire assembly (which is shaped like a “figure 8”) spins about the post. If you look carefully at the photo above, you can see a bolt on the bottom flange near that lower white bushing; that’s there to act as a “stop” to prevent the tire carrier from opening too far.
The swinging assembly’s lower tube (the bottom of the “figure eight”) contains a little bracket that slots into the wedge I showed before, slowing the tire carrier down as it closes, and holding it in place so that when it unlatches there’s still a bit of friction.
The top “O” of the figure eight includes the cube(ish)-shaped bracket that holds the wheel and tire; there’s also a handle, latch, and rubber bump stop:
Here you can see the handle, which, when pulled, yanks on a little nub (via a cable) under a horizontally-oriented face of the tire carrier, actuating the latch directly above, on the other side of that horizontally-oriented face (this little metal cable needs repair):
Here is a top angle showing how that handle just pivots on a horizontally-oriented bar that’s welded to the two sides of the figure eight’s top “O.” You can also see the back side of the main bracket that the wheel and tire assembly bolts to (see the three lug studs, which here are just bolts). Also, there in silver (with a little bit of rust on top) is the latch, and on the left is the rubber bump stop:
If you look at the image below, you might have some concerns about this spare tire carrier’s structural integrity. Specifically, you might wonder how that single tube mounted to the hitch is going to hold up the whole figure-eight-shaped swinging tire carrier, especially with a heavy wheel and tire mounted up.
Well, where the hitch-mounted tube becomes vertical — I’m talking about the upright post with the nylon bushings about which the carrier swings — is actually reenforced by a steel bracket that ties into the rear bumper. Here’s a look at the bracket, which is simply bolted to the top of the bumper:
And here’s where it grabs that vertical tube (you can see a little marking where the bracket has held on for 30 years):
Here’s a look at the whole bumper, with the bracket mounted on the passenger’s side. The bumper is made of cheap, cheap sheetmetal:
In fact, because the bumper is made of such flimsy sheetmetal shaped into, essentially, a “C,” Jeep’s procedure for installing the tire carrier at a dealership involved fastening a metal strip between the bumper and the bumper bracket that holds it to the vehicle. Here’s a look at that stiffener meant to reinforce this side of the bumper, which is going to see loads from that bracket on the right that’s helping hold up the tire carrier via that vertical post:
I also found a reinforcement on the body of the Jeep itself, where the weight of the tire carrier and spare might push the bumper bracket down on a thin flange:
Here’s the steel bracket, which mounts via those two bolts you see on the flange above. It’s not exactly clear how effective this strip of steel would be at reinforcing this thin flange, but it’s there:
You really don’t want to get rear-ended in a ZJ, because the gas tank is just a few inches behind the cheap rear bumper, and the plastic bumper cover isn’t going to help you, either. That cover, by the way, features a rectangular hole to accommodate the bracket mounted to the bumper on the other side:
For context, here’s where that hole is located when the spare tire carrier is mounted up:
Okay, so now that we’ve discussed the hitch and the bumper-mounted bracket, let’s talk about the third location where this hyper-rare tire carrier is held down: The hatch.
I mention in the embedded Instagram video near the top of this post that this whole thing feels very much like an afterthought — it’s hardly an elegant bit of engineering — and nowhere is this more apparent than the hatch:
The hatch is where the swinging tire carrier latches when closed. You can see the latch in the image above just below that wiper arm; it’s part of a steel bracket that’s simply bolted to the sheetmetal hatch, crudely. Look at those allen screws just exposed! To the right and a bit below the wiper you can see the rubber bump stop where the carrier hits when you slam it.
Because this carrier covers the ZJ’s license plate location at the center of the hatch, opting for this now-rare bit of packaging brilliance required dealers to relocate the plate. They did this by drilling four holes into the left side of the hatch — two to receive rubber plugs and two to receive threaded inserts to fasten the plate. Oddly, it seems those rubber plugs are there to elevate the plate above the Jeep emblem; was Jeep okay with obscuring its badge? That seems a bit odd to me.
Just above you can see a small light. Mine appears to be missing some kind of cover/lens. I’ve been trying to find a photo of what this should look like so I can track down the parts (since I strongly doubt Chrysler developed a custom license plate light, this should be something I can find off the shelf), but so far to no avail.
Luckily, I thought to look at where the spare tire normally mounts on a Jeep Grand Cherokee. You can see that space above; there are two rubber bumpers on the driver’s side of the cargo area; the spare is squeezed against these bumpers via a J-bolt that hooks to the wall via the bracket shown above. You thread a big nut against the wheel, and it pulls the tire tightly against the wall, where the tire rests against the rubber mounts.
Vehicles equipped with the coveted-but-janky spare tire carrier don’t need that J-bolt mount, so dealers installed the black rubber cover you see above. Now that’s a random and absurdly rare part!
This Spare Tire Carrier Will Soon Adorn The Ultimate Jeep Grand Cherokee
Anyway, that was an exclusive the Jeep Grand Cherokee’s absurdly rare MOPAR external tire carrier is built. It’s not exactly a marvel of engineering (and I could just buy an aftermarket one that doesn’t hang so low and ruin my departure angle, though those tend to require a whole new rear bumper, and that changes the Jeep’s entire look), but it solves one of the ZJ’s biggest problems, and I’ve been drooling over it since I was just a kid; I can’t believe I actually found one only 90 minutes from me.
The tubular contraption will be a key ingredient in my quest to build the Ultimate Jeep Grand Cherokee, which will be based on a rare, base-trim (with crank windows and manual locks!) manual transmission model. The plan is to use OEM parts to build the ultimate overlanding Grand Cherokee, and given how important cargo space is for overlanding, this spare tire carrier is coming in clutch.
What a find.
- Scary Indy 500 Crash Sends Tire Past Fans And Into Parked Car (UPDATED)
- Someone Imported A 2005 Toyota Camry From Japan And I Just Don’t Get It
- Only One Industry Can Tell You What To Stick In Your Hole: COTD
- Studebaker K10 Tow Truck, Lancia Hyena Zagato, Harley-Davidson XR1200: Mercedes’ Marketplace Madness
Tell me you found someone to disassemble the whole thing, sandblast and powdercoat
Of course there is also the option of having a front-mounted spare tire…
Another idea for spare wheel placement, from Porsche.
Of course cooling issues would have to be figured out.
So maybe the old Land Rover way is better?
That is such a pile as others have said. Why not go for an aftermarket bumper with built in carrier? Are those just some self tappers holding that plate on the rear hatch? Sounds like a great way to get more water inside.
I’d love to see the dealer installation instructions for this. They have to be epic.
I guess the company sponsored Rust Rehab program didn’t work for David.
Moves to LA to get away from the Rust scene. Immediately tries to buy Rust on the streets of LA.
Bonus: Spreads rust from rented superfund site to shiny corporate office space full of unsuspecting workers.
Half-assed yet involved engineering kludges are my favorite things. Especially when it is done to solve something that shouldn’t have been a problem to begin with. Citroën took it even further with their old slogan: “Complicated solutions to non-existent problems.”
If there wasn’t a “free” tow hitch bar included, that would really be a lot of complicated metal for such a small job.
Since the fuel filler flap seems to be on the left side, I would just find a way to bolt the holder to the right side of the car (of course with some sturdy plate on the inside as well) between the rear light and the wheel well under the window. Of course also with a hinged corner like this one. But it wouldn’t compromise the off road breakaway angle so much with all that low hanging metal.
Actually it could also be kind of a tribute to the really old Jeeps with side mounted spare wheels, that the bracket is secured there on the car, even though the spare wheel is on the back.
Or you could go REALLY oldscool and just have the whole spare wheel on the side! Just make some signal stick on the outside of the right mirror to remind yourself of the extra width.
But you’ve bought the contraption already so good luck with that.
I get that you want to use OEM parts, but being someone with an engineering background, you should see what a half-arsed utter piece of s**t that contraption is.
If you want to see a properly engineered part for the same application, check out the OEM tire carrier for the LWB Opel/Vauxhall Frontera (Isuzu something in the US, I think)
It was the Isuzu Amigo (3-door) and the Isuzu Rodeo (5-door) in the US. I had no idea they were ever sold globally as an Opel, super interesting! We also got them as the first-gen Honda Passport here in the states, 5-door model only.
I misread the headline and thought the “janky contraption” was the Jeep Grand Cherokee itself.
If this carrier is an example of Jeep’s engineering prowess, I stand uncorrected…
When I was a kid, my mom bought a brand new 1994 Honda Passport, sporting the rear mounted tire and vinyl cover proudly proclaiming “PASSPORT”. It was loaded with dealer accessories, including a brush guard on the front, fog lights, tubular side steps, and aftermarket mag wheels. It looked so badass! I definitely had the “cool mom” in the school pickup line. She really wanted a Discovery but the nearest LR dealer was too far away, so she got the most macho looking suv she could find locally. Unfortunately that Passport was only a 2wd model so it was 100% for looks only, not that my mom was ever going to leave paved suburbia anyway.
Bet she’d have been a shoo-in for an original Honda Crossroad had they sold it anywhere outside of Japan.
Some folks put the spare on the roof. It seems simpler than all this mishegoss.
++1 for “ mishegoss”
It’s much easier, but raises the center of gravity. Besides, when you’re goin for OEM, pain & jankyness is a small price to pay
This is peak David Tracy, lacking only rust because it’s in California
Personally I think the coolest looking spare tire mounts are on the hood like a Landrover and on a headache rack over the cab like a Case Unimog. Admittedly neither is very practical. The most convenient is probably the hydraulic carrier behind the cab of an LMTV
I assume this will be sandblasted and painted (or powder coated). Or is he actively adding rust to his vehicles to make up for the California climate?
While I agree the rear mounted spare is the best spare.
Runner up would include the front mounted spare, and the fender mounted spare.
Tied for 2nd to last would be the roof mount and the subfloor mount.
Dead last would be no spare.
“The carrier doesn’t work unless I also take your cat. Here’s another $40.”
This is the longest, most detailed review of a obscure part I never heard of, for a car that hasn’t been made for 25 years that I have ever read, and that includes articles regarding the thermostatic actuator for the SPICA mechanical fuel injection system on my 1971 Alfa Romeo.
There is probably a warehouse with piles of the unsold ones of these soon to be sent for scrap
I’m sure it looks just like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
David, thank you for posting this! I’ve been trying to figure out how to design/fabricate a spare carrier for my lifted AWD Astro Van, and the factory location is under the van, which is not great. Most of them I find online either bolt onto the rear door, or use the rear hinges somehow, but neither will work in my situation because Astros have “dutch” doors, where the upper half is a giant hatch, and the lower half is split into two smaller doors.
You need to open the hatch BEFORE you open the lower doors, so mounting a tire directly onto the door won’t work, not to mention how weak it would be in supporting the weight of a decent offroad wheel/tire.
I would have likely purchased this as well, I think you got a great deal. I’ve been trying to find a “bumper” mounted tire carrier for a while, but maybe building something like this onto the hitch makes more sense. Are you aware of the name of this style of carrier, or if it was common on any other vehicles?
As someone who looked in to this HEAVILY for an 2004 lifted astro camper… you’re better off just fitting it in the spare location underneath. If the wheel/tire doesn’t fit in that location then you’ve gone too big on wheel/tire overall diameter. I think I ended up with ~31″ tires on it after a 4 in lift (with new rear leaf springs) and I had to do a lot of trimming and hammering of sheet metal to make them fit…long story short, it was a tad too large… but still did fit in the spare area underneath (fully inflated) and with an aftermarket rear sway bar installed.
Lifted Astros can have so much clearance under them that removing the spare tire from it’s factory location shouldn’t be that much of a problem. And there are limits on how far off road you can take an Astro with the stock IFS and tiny front differential without it blowing up.
My replacement van was an AWD chevy express 1500 and I did put the generic mount that a drilled holes for on the rear door… it wasn’t the most sturdy setup either.
Alternative option is the hitch-mounted type… but those are either real cheap and shitty or crazy expensive.
Not trying to sound like a smartass… I just want other people to learn from my dumb mistakes!
Oh… side note… the best money I ever spent on that Astro was adding the rear sway bar. Oh man, it makes a massive difference in cornering (especially when lifted). It went from my wife not feeling safe driving it to feeling super confident taking the Astro anywhere.
Oh yeah, for sure man I put a Belltech rear sway on within 3 weeks of ownership, did the whole front end too. Actually want to mount it to the back because of the tongue weight on my …. uh… Astro Trailer. To tow behind my astro.
I need as much weight as far behind the axle as possible to help w the balance of the trailer itself.
This is incredible. Love your work! Man…. now I REALLY miss my Astro…
I love mine, going to v8 swap it soon!
You sure that the Astro unibody/subframe is gonna play nice with the additional weight, torque, AND going offroad? I know it’s been done, and kits were (are?) available..
Ah screw it, I wanna see what you build, go for it man.
Trailering kills one of my favorites, which was a full width rear rack that lowered like a tailgate and had spring assists. Haven’t seen it on an Astro, but it was awesome looking on a full size van. Held 2 tires and acted as a step when down.