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A Burley Jeep From the Psychedelic Seventies

Posted in Features on October 29, 2015
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Photographers: Courtesy of FCA

The ’76-’83 Cherokee Chief was an offshoot of the Wagoneer line and a sporty revival of the two-door Wagoneer body. When the Wagoneer debuted in ’63, among the options were two or four-doors, but by ’68s, the two-door was gone from the lineup. It reappeared for ’74, when AMC decided to create the Cherokee line.

The ’76 Cherokee Chief was one of the earliest big-tire SUV iterations. You can’t see them in this image, but in the first part of the ’76 model year the Chief had “Rallye” style wheels rather than the more familiar white spokes.

A couple of years into the ’74-’83 Cherokee run, the Cherokee Chief debuted. It was the sportiest package in the ’76 lineup, above the base Cherokee and the Cherokee S. It had some go with the show that included wide-track axles (65.5 inches vs. 59.2 inches), along with big 10-15 Goodyear Tracker all-terrains on 15x8-inch wheels and metal fender extensions. The wide-track chassis was only available with the Chief package. From ’77 on, it was also available in the rest of the Model 17 Cherokee S line.

The ’78 model year was the last time you could get the 360 four-barrel and 401 engines. The Chief sat on a 108.7-inch wheelbase and weighed 4,580 pounds with a 401 and Quadra-Trac. The GVW was 6,025 pounds, which kept it from needing catalytic converters until later. Quadra-Trac was available with or without a low range. They didn’t offer the limited slip (Trac-Lok) with Quadra-Trac or with the 4.09:1 ratio.

The Chief package also included a two-tone paint scheme with one of nine available colors combined with a black rocker stripe and “Cherokee Chief” showing through in body color, rear “Cherokee Chief” decals, low-gloss black roof sides, Cherokee Chief medallions, a color-keyed Wellington vinyl interior (there were eight available color options, plus the Levis interior), and full carpets. Also part of package were rear “flipper” windows, bright exterior package (bumpers, trim, etc.), the light group package (which includes all the extra interior lights and dual horns), and the Chief medallions.

The exterior package changed a little in ‘79, with the black side appliqué moving up to near the beltline from the rocker. The buck-toothed grill went away as well and was replace by a plastic grille. Assuming it’s as well equipped as it looks, this Saxon Yellow Chief would have cost you $11,500 in 1979.

The Chief was available with any of the four engines for the Wagoneer/Cherokee lines, including the base 110hp, 258ci single-barrel six, 175hp 360ci two-barrel V-8, 195hp 360ci four-barrel V-8, and the 215hp, 401ci four-barrel V-8. In smoggy California, the 360ci four-barrel was the standard engine, with the 401 as the only option.

Starting with the ’81 model, the Chief was offered in a four-door, which “gentrified” it, and it did not even get the wide-track axles. For ’81 the grill also changed again, to another nice looking plastic grill that resembled the older, more Jeepy style but in black. It had similar styling but wasn’t very “Chiefy.” The four-door was available in ’81 and ’82. This four-door is in Oriental Red.

The transmission options followed the rest of the SJ line as well. Standard was a three-speed T-14 or T-15A manual with a Dana 20 transfer case, but this combo only came with the six-cylinder engine or 360ci two-barrel V-8. A close-ratio four-speed T-18, Dana 20 combo was optional with all engines but the 401, for which the TH-400 automatic/Quadra-Trac was the only option. Quadra-Trac full-time four-wheel drive was optional with all engines, again only with the TH-400 automatic transmission. Quadra-Trac came in two variations, as a single speed (no low-range) or as a two-speed. For some reason we don’t know, the two-speed Quadra-Trac was not available with a six-cylinder. Axle ratios were 3.54:1 standard, with a 4.09:1 optional.

It seems inconceivable that someone would pay the $360 price for the Chief package (about $1,500 in 2015 money) and opt for the “3.2 beer” 258 six-cylinder, but they are out there. Most Chiefs are found with 360s, but a select few are seen with the 401. What was the difference in performance? A ’76 401 with 3.54 gears and Quadra-Trac cranked out a 10.4 second 0-60 and a 17.6-second quarter-mile at 77 mph, while a ’79 360 two-barrel V-8 with Quadra-Trac turned in a 12-second 0-60 and a 19-second quarter-mile at 72 mph. A six-cylinder four-speed took 19.9 seconds on the 60 mph run and 20 1/2 seconds at 66 mph in the quarter. We didn’t find any 360 four-barrel times but they would be near the 401. The difference between the two- and four-barrel 360 was felt mostly in the upper rpm ranges.

The last year for the Chief was also the last year for the Cherokee. The stripes shown originated in 1981. Starting with the ’80 models, Jeeps had begun using Chrysler automatic transmissions and New Process transfer cases.

Beginning in ’79, the 401 and 360 four-barrel engines were gone forever, leaving only the 258 (now with a two-barrel at least) and the 360 two-barrel. This was an indicator of a combination of the fuel crisis, tighter emissions controls, and AMC’s growing financial crisis. This engine combo would remain the same to the end of the Chief in 1983.

In ’80 model year, AMC-Jeep switched over to Chrysler 727 automatics. For the part-time option, they ditched the Dana 20 geared transfer case for the New Process 208 chain drive. The full-time options, still called Quadra-Trac, came in the form of the NP-219. Axle ratios also changed, with the 4.09:1 ratio going away after ’78 and 3.54:1 being the only option regardless of engine. From ’80, the 3.31:1 ratio replaced it with no options. The other big Jeeps had 2.73 or 3.07:1 ratios in this era, but the 10-15 tires needed lower cogs for adequate performance. The entire fullsize Cherokee line went away after ’83 and was replaced by an XJ-based Chief two-door that carried on the line. Well, you could look at that as an indicator that the big Chief had been a popular package, but the little guy just didn’t carry off that broad-shouldered look all that well. The package carried on into the late ‘80s, but is best not spoken about.

The AMC 401 four-barrel made a Cherokee Chief powerful but thirsty. It made 215 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque. The 360 four-barrel was 20 hp and 20 lb-ft behind the 401, but still potent. Many people find the two four-barrel engines hard to tell apart from behind the wheel. The 360 2-barrel was slower but still pretty torquey down at the low end. The AMC engines can be counted among the best things that happened to Jeeps.

Cherokee Chief enthusiasts focus on the ’76-’78 era as the best of the breed because they had the options to uphold the hairy-chested reputation. A 401-powered Chief with 4.09 gears will not only wheel, it will scoot, and under 10-second 0-60 times are possible. Don’t expect to pass many gas stations and you’ll be lucky to stay in low two-digit mpg, but fuel economy was not what the Chief was about! Some 105,000 Model 17 Cherokees were built, but not all were Chiefs. That category took in the standard-track Cherokee S, wide track Cherokee S, Cherokee Chief, ’80-on Golden Eagle, and ’80-on Laredo, both of which also had wide track axles.

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