Constantly evolving, owner-built Cherokee
Sometimes we here at Jp take building Jeeps for granted. We've modified so many project vehicles over the years that sometimes it is hard to remember what it was like to dive into our first project. Eric Zappe bought his '00 Jeep Cherokee new off the showroom floor and built it part-by-part over the years from a combination of readily available products and custom fabrication. He is the guy who wrote the book on how to build Cherokees—literally. Eric's High-Performance Jeep Cherokee XJ Builder's Guide 1984-2001 has 144 pages of information on how to turn a stock XJ into a capable wheeler worthy of the Jeep name. But instead of being one of those Internet armchair quarterbacks who spout off “advice” without ever turning a wrench, Eric has built his own Cherokee through trial and error in order to pass his knowledge along to others.
Eric knew that he was going to subject his Cherokee to extreme conditions, so the unitbody was reinforced with TnT Customs frame stiffeners, TMR front frame plates, a TnT Customs belly pan, and a six-point interior cage. Once the platform was beefed, Eric turned to the suspension. The front uses Rubicon Express 5.5-inch coils and Rubicon Express monotube shocks with JKS bar-pin eliminators. Adding this much lift to the front of a Cherokee can create issues if used with the stock control arms, but Eric remedied that with TnT Customs Y-Link long-arm kit and a Rubicon Express HD adjustable track bar. The leaf springs over the axle of the Cherokee made the rear relatively easy to upgrade, and all that was needed was a set of Rubicon Express 4.5-inch leaf springs, TeraFlex shackles, and Old Man Emu shocks.
The drivetrain on this Jeep is fairly vanilla, but not that cheapo vanilla that your mom used to bring home in 2.5 gallon buckets. It's more like Häagen-Dazs, made from premium ingredients. The 4.0L engine was left untouched internally, but uses a 60mm throttle body from Jeepers and Creepers and a 2.5-inch exhaust with a Magnaflow muffler for improved breathing. Eric built a custom intake that mounts the Airaid cone filter inside the cowl to allow for deep water crossings without a plastic snorkel to get ripped off the A-pillar. An AW4 automatic with a Hayden tranny cooler and an NP231 fitted with a Rubicon Express slip-yoke eliminator and double cardan driveshaft route power to the axles.
The front axle is a high-pinion Dana 30 from a '98 XJ. It's said Jeep switched production to low-pinion Dana 30s in 2000 to match the TJ Wrangler and streamline production. We say it knew the Cherokee was dead, and when the supply of high-pinion Dana 30s dried up, it just started pilfering from the TJ line to finish the last models that were to be produced. The tubes and control arm mounts have been reinforced and the axle has been upgraded with 4.56 gears, an ARB Air Locker, and Warn chromoly axleshafts with manual hubs. This ensures that the axle will live a long life, even when capped by 35-inch Goodyear MT/R tires. Steering the axle is a stock Saginaw box that is aided by a Currie Currectlync tie rod and drag link, GoFerIt tie rod flip, C-Rock steering box frame plate, and Rusty's Off Road steering box brace.
The rear axle is also a factory Jeep piece in the form of a Chrysler 8.25. Much stronger than the Dana 35 sometimes found in the back of Cherokees, Eric only needed a few aftermarket components to ensure reliability from his rear axle. These include 4.56 Yukon gears and an ARB Air Locker to match the front axle, along with Yukon chromoly axle shafts and a TeraFlex rear disc brake conversion.
Body and Interior
Unlike most jungle gyms, the exocage isn't the first thing that you notice about Eric's Cherokee, and that is a good thing. Instead of adding tube outside of the factory front fenders and hooks and ladders around the cab, he ditched the front fenders and skinned tube fenders for added strength without added width or Mad Max looks. The 1.5-inch, 0.120-wall DOM tube then ties into a roof halo that is tied in directly to the six-point interior rollcage. Plates and silicone sealer were used to keep the roof leak-free after the cage was added. If you want to wheel with the doors off your Cherokee and plan to have them fit back on afterwards, consider doing something similar.
Other protection comes from the Tomken gas tank skidplate, BPI front bumper equipped with a Warn 9.0Rc winch and KC SlimLites, and the rare AEV rear bumper and tire carrier. Eric trimmed the rockers and tied 2 x 6-inch box tubing into the unitbody for greater strength and ground clearance. Inside the Jeep was coated with Herculiner and a Viair 400C air compressor sits in the back to power the lockers and fill tires.
Good, Bad, and What It's For
The photos were shot with Eric's custom tube doors on his Cherokee, but the factory doors have been trimmed to work with the boat sides and allow for comfortable wheeling all year round. Like any Cherokee, glass and sheetmetal are the biggest things working against Eric's XJ, and we are amazed that it is still as straight as it is given the places he has wedged the Jeep over the years. Never one to leave his vehicle alone for too long, Eric plans to add coil springs to the rear suspension and upgrade the T-case in the future.
Vehicle: '00 Cherokee Sport
Engine: 4.0L I-6
Transmission: AW4 four-speed automatic
Transfer Case: NP231
Suspension: TnT Customs Y-Link long-arm (front); Rubicon Express leaf springs (rear)
Axles: Dana 30 (front), Chrysler 8.25 (rear)
Wheels: 15x8 Cragar black steel
Tires: 35x12.5R15 Goodyear MT/R
Built For: Cherokee product testing
Why I Wrote This Feature
I am not a fan of exocages, but the tube work and flat tan paint on Eric's XJ were love at first sight for me. I appreciate that he upgraded the stock running gear instead of tossing it for a GM Gen III engine and 1-ton axles. And the fact that he is a heck of a nice guy and willing to share his experiences and hard work with other Jeepers sealed the deal.