Building a rig for Cheap Truck Challenge is addictive. You want all the goodies and you keep pushing for more and more, but you still have to limit yourself to what makes the most sense on a vehicle build due to the budget. It’s just like how you want that expensive beer with the fancy label, but the case of Bud Light in the back does the same job at half the cost. I’m a cheapskate at heart, but I know a bargain when it bites me, so I started looking for the best deal around: the Jeep XJ Cherokee.
Traction, suspension, and tires would make it a formidable contender
The famed XJ was produced between 1984 and 2001 in a variety of flavors. A zillion of them are still available on the cheap, and they work great off-road. Sure, they are scarce in some areas, as the government’s Cash for Clunkers car-killing campaign took a slew of perfectly good vehicles off the market, and of course the rust maggots have claimed their fair share as well. But in my neck of the woods you can still find a 4x4 version with everything you need for under $2,000, and that’s in decent shape with relatively low miles. I say “relatively” because an XJ with 250,000 on the ticker can still be stout and reliable, as the 4.0L straight-six engine is good for 350K if taken care of. That’s what I started with, and I figured that if I got into the beast at the right price then adding some traction, suspension, and tires would make it a formidable contender for winning Cheap Truck Challenge.
1989 Jeep Cherokee purchase price... $1,300
- LT285/75R16 TreadWright Guard Dog tires ($154 x 5)... $770
- Type 98 Pro Comp wheels ($70 x 5)... $350
- Spartan lockers ($350 x 2)... $700
- Daystar lift with shocks... $400
- OMC rocker guards... $90
- OMC steering brace... $120
- OMC used taillights... $100
- Daystar motor mounts... $85
- Shaeffer’s 700 engine oil... $44
- Schaeffer’s gear oil... $60
- Schaeffer’s trans and tranny fluid... $122
- Fram oil filter, with drain kit... $12
- Used tires and wheels sold!... -$200
Total Upgrades... $2,653
Total Build... $3,953
Step By Step
1. I started on a Thursday morning looking at Craigslist, and by the afternoon I had found an old-man-style ’89 XJ with a 4.0L engine that had some strange rattles and shakes and a front end that went clunk on bumps. But I needed a vehicle built and on the road to the event in Arizona by Monday, so I took it to Jason Bunch at Tri-County Gear in Pomona, California, for a once-over. Bunch and I checked it out and figured that the $1,800 asking price was fair but still hurt the overall budget. After explaining to the seller some of the finer points about horse trading, it was mine for 1,300 bucks.
2. The whole concept of CTC is to build a vehicle on a budget, like a teenager. To make this as real as possible, I enlisted Aaron Eaton at OMC Offroad for help, and we set up shop in his driveway to rebuild and rebirth the Old Man XJ with his teenage son and the rest of the family. In the next two days, with handtools and ingenuity, we made the transformation happen. OMC specializes in XJs, has years of experience, and makes cool parts to upgrade the Cherokees for tough use.
3. Since the bushings in the suspension were shot and the spark plugs were loose, I figured a good tune-up and some Daystar bushings would solve the knocks and shakes. A quick dousing with Gunk to remove 24 years of grime was easy, as this XJ exhibited a large proportion of old-man touches: clean mechanically, strange add-ons, and body color bumpers and flares. Someone had taken care of this girl until it was recently sold, but the smog equipment was suspect—another reason it was cheap.
4. The motor mounts were totally hashed (the sleeve on the left is supposed to be bonded to the rubber on the right). I changed both sides to the Daystar poly mounts, $85. The passenger side needs the oil filter and housing removed to slide the bolt out of the mount, but an oil change never hurt anything. The spark plugs were tightened, which smoothed out the engine at idle, and the oil filter and such was $12.
5. The entire Jeep was an unknown commodity, so Eaton and I changed all the fluids. The Schaeffer’s oil we used isn’t your bargain basement stuff but holds up better in the long run. I fully plan to abuse this beast and also had to drive it to the event and back, so treating it to fresh fluids was considered an investment. While we didn’t change the filter in the tranny, we did swap out the skanky fluid for fresh stuff from Schaeffer’s, as well as in the transfer case. Engine oil, tranny fluid, and transfer case lube was $162.
6. I figured 33-inch tires were the smallest I wanted to run, since the stock 3.55 axle gears could still make them move. That meant a suspension upgrade to fit the rubber, and the most economical lift is from Daystar with its Scorpion shocks. Consisting of polyurethane pucks on top of the coils and extended shackles in the rear, the kit retains the factory ride and suppleness for better wheeling. Eaton only had to trim a bit of the sheetmetal for tire clearance. He also showed us the trick of lowering the brake lines by swapping out the retaining screw location, which saved us from spending money on new extended brake lines. The Daystar kit with shocks was right at $400.
7a. Rear suspensions on XJs are simple and stable. The longer shackle and poly bushings make an effective lift but needs to be supplemented with a short add-a-leaf for a full 3 inches of lift. I may even add a long add-a-leaf later due to the amount of junk I feel the need to carry along on trips! We were very lucky with this Jeep, as the rust was minimal and a liberal dousing of Schaeffer’s super Penetro sauce made the bolts slide right out.
7b. I may even add a long add-a-leaf later due to the amount of junk I feel the need to carry along on trips! We were very lucky with this Jeep, as the rust was minimal and a liberal dousing of Schaeffer’s super Penetro sauce made the bolts slide right out.
8. Trimming the sheetmetal is an art, and Eaton has done plenty of art projects. A steady hand with a grinder on the front after removing the factory flares and marking a line leaves the opening big enough for taller tires. On the rear, slots are made around the arch with the grinder before the tabs are folded under and beaten elegantly into submission.
9. Taller tires make for better wheeling, but tires are not cheap. My best budget buy was finding the TreadWright Guard Dog in a LT285/75R16. The mud terrain pattern is reminiscent of the old-pattern Goodyear MTRs, which means these tires would work great. With a heavy Load Range rating and a full 33 inches in diameter, this was a great bargain. These remolds are all matched on the casings so you can’t even tell, and the sidewalls are as nice as the tread. I mounted them on Type 98 steel Pro Comp black wheels for the stealth look and an economical package. The tires are $154 each, while each wheel is $70.
10. OMC Offroad offers bumpers, sliders, racks, and a host of other XJ armor. I decided that due to my budget, only the rear corner Body Armor would be installed to save bucks for traction adding devices. The Jeep came with a factory tow hitch, which protects the rear and has the receiver hole for a recovery shackle. The front bumper was replaced with a plate from the scrap pile that had a receiver in it, so we got a recovery point on both ends on the cheap. Total cost, $90.
11. An oft-overlooked upgrade on XJs is the steering system. Because of the unibody design, the steering box and mounting area flexes quite a bit with the rest of the body when larger tires are swapped on. OMC offers a steering box brace, which clamps around the steering box sector shaft exterior and runs to the opposite side not-frame area. The kit includes a sandwich plate and new F9 mounting hardware (stronger than Grade 8) for the box as well as the plates. The passenger-side exterior plate bolts on after the template is used for marking the holes to drill. We used the OMC bumper bracket as the brace in this case, as wrenching at midnight is cause for strange happenings. The whole steering brace kit is only $120.
12. The final mechanical upgrade was to install mechanical lockers in the front Dana 30 axle and rear Dana 35 axles. I chose Spartan lockers due to their reliability and price and because they are true lockers that are easy to install. The units simply replace the spider gears in the stock carrier for low cost. A quick call to Poly Performance and they were in our hands in two days. We could have welded the spider gears or found a mini spool, but the front axle would not have been happy on turns, and we have to use this as a daily driver to get to work just like you. Both lockers cost $700 total.
13a. The Spartan lockers are very simple to install. They can often be installed while leaving the carrier in the housing and just pulling the axleshafts.
13b.With the Dana 30 in a 3.55 ratio the new cross pin wouldn’t clear the ring gear, so the carrier and ring gear came out. However, we simply ground a tad of excess gear tooth material off the ring gear to push the old pin out. Properly done, this modification will not reduce the effective strength of the gear tooth. If you are worried about it, take off the ring gear to install the locker.
14. With all the mechanical mods finished in time for the 600-mile Arizona drive, Eaton rattle-bombed the lower half of the XJ for a finished look to his sheetmetal work. We still had to ratchet-strap the spare to the roof rack and tidy up the interior, but for the most part it was finished. We didn’t have a press, torch, friends, or the cash to replace the control arm bushings, which made us feel like a couple of 16-year-olds. Next round I plan to install the Daystar poly bushings like adults, but for now the Old Man XJ is ready to win the Cheap Truck Challenge.
15. The final upgrade was the used Rusty’s taillight housings with new LED inserts. For $100, it was about $100 more than what I wanted to spend, but the old units need replacing anyway and this style of box looks better and is bright as all get out. After loading for bear in the back, I headed out on a 600-mile trip just to the start of CTC, and that break-in cruise went perfectly. The tires were phenomenal, the suspension appropriately firm yet comfortable, the steering precise, and the lockers virtually unnoticeable except in a parking lot. As far as I was concerned, I had already smoked the other guys on CTC simply by driving my ride to the event, and my total outlay was only $3,953.