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1979 Widetrack Jeep Cherokee - $3K Thrill Rides

Posted in How To on March 1, 2011
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Our editor-in-chief gave a command: Three of us needed to go find cheap trucks or 4x4s and build them for $3,000. But there was a catch. Each vehicle had to be something that would not only be fun in the dirt, but also be able to hold its own on today's busy freeways.

This means building something that is comfortable enough to drive to work, and able to keep up with other off-road toys in the dirt.

He didn't care how we did it, as long as we kept our activities legal (there goes my free truck idea), and kept the vehicles emissions-compliant (or emission exempt if it was a pre-'76 vehicle). Insurance and registration costs didn't have to be included in the $3,000 build cap, but oil changes, bolts, windshield wipers, etc., all had to be included in the cost. Bartering was fair game, but it needed to be documented. Also, it was legal to sell unused parts off the vehicle, and subtract that amount from the total price tag.

Was there a winner? Well, it depends who you're asking. We didn't really start it as a competition, and all three builds ended up differently-but with one theme in common: multi-purpose use for less than $3,000.

In the next couple months, we're going to try to find a day when we can all go out and have a $3K Thrillride adventure day. If you want to join us in Gorman, California, at the Hungary OHV area, email and send us pics of your low-cost thrillride!

PhotosView Slideshow

What A Little Under $3,000 Got Me

If you ask me, I think I made the best score. I got a real classic that I'll probably end up holding onto-and for less money than my diesel truck registration costs. If I'm correct in my assumptions, I scored a rare first-year package Golden Eagle fullsize Cherokee. I'm not positive that my find is a real Golden Eagle package, as the hood's eagle sticker is no longer there and a few other decals like the "Golden Eagle" lettering on the gold sticker striping have been removed, as well. It could be that one of the past owners made a replica Golden Eagle Cherokee out of a Widetrack Cherokee Chief. But I don't think so. I've checked original Jeep photos, and mine does in fact have the denim rear bench seat that was signature to the Golden Eagle models.

If it sounds like I'm geeking out a bit on my new score, it's because I am. I haven't been able to stop researching how to make the cool fullsize Jeep platform even better.

It all started when I got a call one day about a '79 fullsize Cherokee-one that my friend had owned and sold. It turned out that the then-owner didn't want it anymore. It wouldn't pass smog and he didn't have a place to keep it. Believe it or not, I got this one for $200. Yeah, that seems crazy-low for a running vehicle, but I've personally bought two other fullsize Cherokees-one for $300 and one for $600-that needed only a few things to be running vehicles. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending if you're buying or selling), fullsize Cherokees and Wagoneers can be picked up for a song. Many of them have emissions issues, and I've seen many sold off in desperation on for well under $1,000. "Need the space-going to be towed-must go-any reasonable offer taken," are what the postings usually say. If they're running, registered, and pass smog, the price goes up quite a bit. But it seems like these precious Jeeps are only sold if they don't run, don't pass smog, or aren't registered.

My new buy wasn't passing smog when I got it, but it did have a lot of great parts on it that I would have paid $200 for without the vehicle being included! This was definitely my best score on a used vehicle yet, and I can't wait to finish it with a sort of resto-mod.

Initial Inspection
I remembered my new '79 Cherokee from when my friend first owned it. In fact, I snapped a shot of it before anything was started. Before the most recent previous owner bought it from my friend, it still had more of the original Golden Eagle striping, and it was driving a little more poorly. The last owner had added some new shocks and done a lot of the maintenance that was necessary. It still looked to have a bad oil leak, and of course it didn't pass smog. But most everything was working on the vehicle, including the rear power window in the tailgate.

The engine had been replaced, but with another tired, old engine. Yes, it looks like Pep Boys threw up under the hood of most fullsize Jeeps. They came from an era of terrible emissions equipment that was not only restrictive, but also barely effective. You can often find these fullsize Jeeps for cheap with poor-working smog equipment. Instead of trying to fix all this, I figured I'd put a Howell EFI kit on and pass smog that way.

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The Plan
Fortunately for me, this fullsize Jeep already had a lot of what I wanted on it. It had a small suspension lift, new Bilstein 5100 shocks, an upgraded fuel tank, and even a banjo-style axle truss.

My plan was more of a resto-mod. I wanted this fullsize Jeep to perform better than it did stock while retaining, and even restoring, its look.

There is a very cool 50-state legal fuel injection retrofit kit offered by Howell for these vehicles that I'd like to add, but it'll cost the bulk of my $3,000 budget. And after purchasing some new tires as well, there won't be much money left for incidentals. I think I've already decided that fuel injection and new tires are mandatory, so I'll just have to figure the rest out later.

The engine was running, but I didn't know for how long. It doesn't sound too healthy, but I've already taken it on a 100-mile road trip with no problems, save for a bad oil-burning smell. The oil smell was expected after first checking the condition of the undercarriage and finding all the oil.

I decided that the best (and most mandatory) upgrade I could make was to add the Howell EFI retrofit kit. It costs $1,100 for my vehicle, but is 50-state legal and will be much easier than trying to follow vacuum lines and poor smog equipment to get this truck to pass smog. Not only that, but the Howell EFI kit is more reliable, more responsive, and better performing than the factory carb.

Besides that, I pretty much poured in some high-end Amsoil engine oil, bought a K&N air filter element, and called it quits. I didn't want to put anything on the engine that would strain it, and I didn't want to add parts to an engine that I wasn't sure was going to hold up. The fuel injection was basically a throttle body on the top of the factory intake manifold, so it wouldn't be hard to fit to another engine should I have problems with the engine later.

The Howell EFI retrofit kit was worth every penny. At $1,100, it was considerably more than I paid for the entire vehicle, but I don't think I would have been able to get this Jeep to pass smog without it.

I wish I could have said I performed this entire fuel injection swap myself, but I ended up going to Jeeps R Us since the crew there knows these AMC V-8s really well, and the shop was down the street from a smog check place. I installed the main portions of the fuel injection before trailering it over to Jeeps R Us. The crew there checked everything over and completed the fuel injection install before sending it down for smog.

They charged me $400 to finish up the EFI then joked that they would have charged me less if I hadn't touched it first.

PhotosView Slideshow

The drivetrain on my era of fullsize Jeeps is pretty good, actually. I have two Dana 44 axles, both offset to the passenger side. They were in good condition, the bearings were good, as well as all the seals. Since I planned on putting 35-inch Hankook tires on, a gear change would have been nice, but it wasn't mandatory and was definitely out of my budget.

The '74-to'79 fullsize Jeeps had larger steering linkage than the '73-and-older fullsize Jeeps, and it all seemed to be in excellent condition, and preserved well with the coats of oil that the engine had poured out over the years.

For now, the entire drivetrain would remain as it is.

PhotosView Slideshow

I got lucky in my purchase. My vehicle already had a mild suspension lift on it, and newer shocks. The shocks were in great condition, and the springs were broken in but not sagging at any corner. All I felt I needed was the addition of a steering stabilizer to replace the clearly worn-out one on the vehicle. Some vehicles benefit more than others from steering stabilizers, and this was one that definitely benefited.

PhotosView Slideshow

The exterior and interior of this vehicle were dirty, but in extremely good condition considering the age and the price I paid. There was a little bit of rust on the fender flares over the tires, but otherwise was rust-free. The interior looked mostly original, but redone where necessary. The back seat still had the signature denim material covering the bench, but the front seats had been recently recovered with new vinyl instead. I wish one of the past owners hadn't swapped out the original denim for vinyl, but I'm sure the seats were wasted and that was the reasoning behind the reupholstery job.

The paint was oxidized and dull, but a good buffing-wheel-and-wax job really brought out the paint's original shine. Yes, it has scratches, chips, and even a few rust spots, but it looks great from 10 feet away. I think I'll leave the original bumpers and keep the stock look to it.

After a good cleaning with a vacuum and some degreaser, the interior was looking great. The front seats had been reupholstered in vinyl, but the rear bench still had the signature denim fabric exclusive to a Golden Eagle Cherokee.

The headliner was falling down and hitting me in the head, so I trimmed it out of the way with a pocket knife, and will be looking for a new headliner in the near future.

How It Turned Out
I'm extremely pleased with the way my fullsize Jeep turned out, and I've been driving it to work occasionally to prove its road worth.

With a good wax job, most of the paint's oxidation was buffed off. It wasn't a show winner, but I ended up with a great example of a real classic.

In the future, I'll probably put in a new headliner and possibly add a locker, but otherwise this vehicle seems to be ready to go on an off-road vacation trip!

Price of Vehicle $200
Hankook Dyanpro MT 35x12.50R15 $840
Sold old 33-inch tires -$60
Howell EFI kit $1,200
Labor help to install EFI at Jeeps R Us $400
K&N air filter $40
Used Edelbrock air cleaner lid $10
Amsoil synthetic oil and filter $60
MBRP muffler $60
Catalytic converter on Craigslist $100
Exhaust installation $100


Superior, WI 54880
MBRP Performance Exhaust
K&N Engineering
Riverside, CA 92507
Hankook Tire
Wayne, NJ 07470
Jeeps R Us
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Howell Engine Developments
Marine City, MI 48039
Rough Country Suspension
Dyersburg, TN 38024

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