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1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee - Zebra

Posted in Features on November 1, 2003 Comment (0)
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John Mesko of Mena, Arkansas, has owned and modified several 4x4s over the years. His love affair with 4WD pickups began with a '78 Chevy Silverado. When the kids came along, however, the Mesko family moved on to a '89 Mitsubishi Montero, dubbed the school bus. John cranked the torsion bars, welded the front differential, installed a rear ARB, and bolted up 33-inch Mud Kings. He was ready to 'wheel.

Needless to say, the soccer-mom SUV didn't last long. After a particularly grueling weekend of four-wheeling in Poteau, Oklahoma, that left the Montero with body damage and John with some aggravated nerves, he sent it on its way and picked up a Samurai. According to John, he learned two things from this purchase: It's possible to lift a vehicle too high; and big tires require power steering. He moved quickly to trail-rig number three: an '88 XJ Cherokee with 6 inches of lift and 35-inch tires. Unfortunately, the XJ fell victim to a towing accident that basically destroyed the entire drivetrain. The Jeep was being flat-towed and somehow the T-case was knocked into gear. John didn't realize this until it was too late.

When it was all said and done, John decided to move to what he hoped would be his ideal trail rig: a '98 ZJ Limited that he picked up at a salvage auction for $2,400. He analyzed the problems of his previous SUVs and studied the most capable 4x4s at rockcrawling competitions. He then designed his rig for excellent off-road performance, as well as reasonable driveability on the road.

John reinforced the unibody framerails with 3x4-inch angle iron and fabricated new upper spring perches, which he moved back 3-1/2 inches to center the rear tire in the wheelwell. This, plus moving the front axle forward 1-1/2 inches, extended the wheelbase 5 inches, for a total of 112 inches. John had all the welding on the cast-iron differential housings done by experienced welders using a nickel-welding rod.

He selected tough '78 Ford F-250 axles, which came with excellent brake setups. The F-250 axles are 11 inches wider than a stock Grand Cherokee in front and 9 inches wider in the rear. The wider axles work well with a 10-inch lift on off-camber trails. John tilted the rear differential for better clearance and had a driveshaft built using High Angle Driveline's slip-yoke CV joint. He fabricated the lower spring perches and the upper control-arm truss on the front axle to match Skyjacker's 8-inch Rock Ready truss. He moved the lower control arm brackets up, however, to be even with the axle-tube centerline.

John used a custom five-link front suspension with Skyjacker's 8-inch Rock Ready springs and 2-inch spacers. He also used the company's coil springs because the XJ and ZJ have similar front axle weights. Rusty's Off Road helped find the proper rear prototype springs to match the front springs. The reinforcing trusses were welded on the axles and spring perches. For maximum flex, Heim joints were chosen for the control arms, even though they are much noisier than rubber bushings. John relied on a high-mount AGR hydro-assist Rock Ram setup to help steer the big tires.

Chevy 1-ton antisway bars keep the lifted SUV stable on curves at highway speeds. John designed unique antisway bar disconnects from air-hose quick-connect couplers - they are strong and easy to use. When they are disconnected, by pulling a pin, the bottom half can be removed and stored inside. For more information and lots of fabrication photos, check out John's Web site at www.voltage.net/zebra.

The Grand Cherokee had been rolled (it was salvage), so it needed 'glass, a roof, and fenders. Because so much bodywork was needed, it seemed the ideal time to whack off all the excess sheetmetal around the wheels. John fabricated bumpers from 4x6x3/8-inch angle iron, which only weighs 7 pounds per foot.

John wanted boulder bars to protect the rocker panels and sides without costing too much ground clearance. The remedy was novel but simple: He cut holes through the rocker panels, which allowed custom 2x2-inch steel-tube boulder bars to pass trough the stock rocker panels to the frame.

John left the Jeep's interior and 4.0L H.O. engine stock, but he installed a Mile Marker Hydraulic system plumbed to the AGR Rock Ram Steering. He plumbed the high-volume hydraulic system to implement quick connectors on the rear bumper. With the huge tires, low gears, and hydraulic connectors, the big Grand Cherokee can pull the hay rake and power other farm equipment.

We rendezvoused with John at Byrd's Adventure Camp on the Mulberry River near Cass, Arkansas, on a cold December day. Many of the boulders in the 4x4 rockcrawling course were snow-covered, and the trenches in the woods course were filled with ice. It was obvious that the Zebra - with its tall tires, excellent suspension articulation, and superior construction - could compete with the hard-core rockcrawling rigs. Yet it remains a safe, comfortable, family friendly SUV.

Balancing Big Tires
The problem with running huge tires on the street is that they are hard to balance. John tried rim weights, but every time he went 'wheeling, rocks knocked them off. No matter what he tried, he couldn't achieve a perfect balance. Finally, he tried putting the Zebra up on jackstands and running it at about 30 mph. He discovered that the tires were about an 1/8-inch out of round, which isn't bad for 38s. The solution turned out to be the Amermac Tire Truer (www.amermac.comtiretruers.html). This machine allowed John to true up the tires, taking care of any vibration.

SPECIFICATIONS
Owner/hometown: John Mesko/
Mena, Arkansas
Year/make/model: '98 Grand Cherokee ZJ
Engine: 4.0L HO
Transmission: Stock
Transfer case: Stock
Frontend: {{{F-250}}} truck axle
with Detroit
Rearend: F-250 truck axle
with Detroit
Ring-and-pinion: 5.13
Suspension: Custom 10-inch,
Skyjacker coil springs
Wheels/tires: 38x12.50 Super Swamper
TSLs/16x10-inch
American Racing Bajas

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