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1989 Jeep Cherokee XJ - $3K Thrill Rides

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Jay Kopycinski | Writer
Posted March 1, 2011

Building A Breezy Jeep XJ

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!


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1989 Jeep Cherokee XJ

When our editor-in-chief posed the idea of building up a $3,000 'wheeling rig, my mind started spinning with possibilities. To some, that sort of budget is a princely sum, yet to others it's a really cheap custom paint job. To work to a budget requires some planning, and it pays to pull out a pencil and paper (or an Excel spreadsheet) and give the build some thought before diving in. It's of little use to buy the cheap monster tires your buddy is selling if you lack the means to combine them with the proper lift or drivetrain components. You'll quickly have a dead project. Instead, it may make the best sense to put together a compatible choice of parts to get it rolling, with a planned upgrade path for the future.

When it came time to pick a vehicle for this project, I decided on a Jeep XJ for the buildup I had in mind. There are lots of these available at cheap prices; the fuel-injected 4.0L inline-six and AW4 auto are a reliable combo; I liked the simplicity of the coil-sprung front straight axle; and I figured an XJ was a good candidate for a budget build.

After watching Craigslist for a few weeks, I found a decent-running, bone-stock '89 Cherokee that fit the bill and picked it up for $650, plus the seller had it trucked to my house. So...the idea was to build up a basic daily driver weekend 'wheeling rig for about $3,000.

Initial Inspection
The Jeep ran but the brakes were pretty lazy. I was able to drive it up and down the street, and it seemed to run decent, and the tranny shifted OK. The current owner had bought it from the estate of a deceased woman and was planning to build it up, but he quickly ran short of funds. To this point though, he had installed a new fuel pump, thermostat, water outlet, and had all the fuel injectors cleaned and bench checked. The engine ran fairly smooth, but the battery looked to be shot and the seller commented that he thought it may need a head gasket as he had seen some temperature issues.

The Plan
I had tossed around a lot of ideas for a vehicle I wanted to build. Ultimately, I decided I missed having a topless off-road rig to use when the weather was nice. Living in the Southwest, I have the chance to ride open-top a fair portion of the year. After running through a number of vehicle ideas, I decided I might do my own top chop and that opened up the possibilities. I soon converged on the idea of building this unibody Cherokee. The XJ would quickly see some major sheetmetal trimming, installation of a 'cage, some tube work, and lift and tires.

When I got the Cherokee, the 4.0L I-6 engine was running fairy well, though the idle was a bit high and bumpy. It had a fresh oil change and new oil and air filters, and the ignition components were all near new as well. The vehicle had not been registered recently, so it needed an emissions test before it could be licensed.

The Jeep passed emissions test easily and was running well. I did see some strange water temperature behavior, but it turned out to be due to air in the cooling system. This year XJ uses a closed system that can be a little tricky to bleed, but once I got the air out of the system, it seemed to run without overheating.


Crow Enterprizes
Anaheim, CA
Durabak Company
Aurora, CO 80014
Top Gun Customz
Alcoa, TN 37701
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