Neal Hancock has owned a handful of off-road rigs over the years, including a CJ-5 and a rock buggy he built. His build formula has typically been to install V-8 power on a stretched wheelbase with 1-ton axles and big tires. When it was time to build a new rig to accommodate his family, he wanted to stick with an open-top configuration but with added seating capacity.
He went about the build a bit unconventionally by taking a ’84 XJ Cherokee and chopping the entire top off, leaving only the windshield. The entire vehicle was gutted and in came another one of those torquey V-8s, a stout drivetrain, linked suspension, 37-inch tires, and a whole lot of fabrication and massaging of metal. In the end, Neal got another capable rig with full seating for four. It sees regular use in the Arizona desert and in the sands of Mexico.
As we all know, the Jeep XJ is a unitbody design, so to accommodate the linked suspension and drivetrain Hancock wanted, he had to supplement the existing chassis structure. He started with a pair of C-ROK Rock Skins to protect the rockers, and he then further plated these to the factory unitbody in order to provide a platform on which to weld link mounts to hang his own suspension.
Up front is a custom 3-link with track bar attached to the axle using a modified Blue Torch Fab truss. 14-inch-stroke, 2-1/2-inch bore Sway-A-Way Racerunner coilovers support the front of the rig and 4-inch-stroke, 2-inch bore nitrogen bumpstops halt the upward travel of the axle. The rear triangulated 4-link also uses 14-inch travel Racerunner coilovers. All four coilovers are attached to mounts tied into the cage under the hood or at the tail of the rig, and each carries a remote reservoir. The wheelbase has been stretched to 104 inches.
The factory drivetrain was completely eliminated and Hancock started from scratch with a solid powerplant. He filled the gaping hole under the hood with a GM LQ9 6.0L Vortec V-8 salvaged from a ’05 Cadillac Escalade with an LS6 intake and injectors. However, before it was slipped between the frame rails, it was updated with a Competition Cams bump stick with aftermarket valve springs and pushrods. Hancock fabricated the stunning TIG-welded stainless exhaust headers from tube sections. The 1-3/4 to 1-7/8-inch step headers efficiently route the exhaust gases from the engine, and they exit the tail of the Cherokee through a pair of Magnaflow mufflers. A K&N air intake was added as well, and the ECM was sourced from a ’00 GM truck.
C-ROK frame-stiffener plates were added to beef up the chassis for the larger engine and to resist flex fatigue from trail use. A custom Ron Davis aluminum radiator helps keep the engine cool on the highway and when ’crawling on trails. Transmission of choice was a ’02 GM 4L60E 4-speed automatic, and it's shifted using a B&M Megashifter. From there, an Atlas 2 transfer case with a 4.3:1 low range is mated to the transmission using an Advance Adapters adapter.
Axle needs were addressed up front with a full-width Ford Dana 44. But first, it was modified with 4:88 gears, a Lock-Right, Moser chromoly ’shafts, and CTM joints. In the rear, the XJ got a Ford 9-inch with a Currie Enterprises 8.8 high-pinion third member, matching 4.88 gears, 35-spline ’shafts, and a spool.
Direction changes take place using an AGR steering box assisted with a 1-inch bore Surplus Center hydraulic ram. Finally, traction is provided with 5-lug Pro Comp beadlocks turning 37x12.5R17 BFGoodrich KM2 Mud Terrains. A matching spare sits on the tail of the rig on a custom carrier that lifts upward using gas struts to allow access to a cooler and a storage box below.
Body and Interior
Hancock wanted to retain the street legal status of the XJ but improve visibility and gain the open-air feeling of a topless type rig. So out came the reciprocating saw and he loped off most everything above the hood line, save for the windshield frame and windshield. He capped off the windshield frame and the top bodyline of the two-door Cherokee with sheetmetal. He even eliminated the doors for improved visibility and ease of access.
With a load of 1-3/4-inch tubing and some time spent on a bender, he had the pieces to fabricate a full-length eight-point rollcage. He sparked the welder and burned the tube together, then plated it down to the floor to provide a safety ’cage for all occupants. An aluminum sheet roof provides further protection and shade. C-ROK bumpers front and rear provide armor and recovery points. Up front, a Warn HS9500i winch was added in case trail extraction is needed.
With the factory interior also stripped bare, Hancock applied Lizard Skin thermal barrier in place of the stock carpeting. A Renegade rear bench and front bucket seats were mounted to the rollcage tubes, as were the five-point safety harnesses. The dash was also tossed and a custom replacement fabricated using aluminum sheet. It was stuffed with a compliment of Autometer gauges to monitor engine vitals. Hancock also bolted in a modified factory steering column and topped it off with a Grant steering wheel.
Good, Bad, and What It's For
XJ Cherokees are plentiful and versatile, so the donor vehicle provided a good starting base. What they do lack is a body-on-frame design easily suitable for major suspension mods. Hancock wanted a rig that was much like a CJ, while maintaining the identity of a Cherokee. He ended up changing the entire powertrain and drivetrain, chopped the top, and reworked all the interior. Then he built his own suspension to arrive at a full four-passenger rig with plenty of power and the ability to competently tackle a variety of trails and play on the rocks.
Why I Wrote This Feature
Living in the Southwest means we have the luxury of running open-top rigs much of the year. Typically this is accomplished in a CJ, YJ, TJ, or JK. I like tastefully top-chopped SUVs, and Hancock did a great job of turning this XJ into an open rig that's fun on the street and awesome on the trail.
Vehicle: ’84 XJ Cherokee
Engine: ’05 LQ9 6.0L GM Vortec V-8
Transmission: ’02 GM 4L60E 4-speed automatic
Transfer Case: Atlas 2 (4.3 low range)
Suspension: Custom 3-link front with track bar and custom 4-link rear, Racerunner coilovers
Axles: Front: Ford full-width Dana 44, 4:88 gears, Lock-Right, Moser chromoly shafts, CTM joints
Rear: Ford 9-inch, Currie Enterprises 8.8 high-pinion third member, 4.88 gears, spool
Steering: AGR steering box with ram assist
Wheels: 17x9 Procomp beadlocks
Tires: 37x12.5R17 BFGoodrich KM2
Built For: Running Southwestern rock trails and backcountry exploring