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1989 Jeep Cherokee XJ - $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

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.

Being an Arizona vehicle meant this '89 XJ was free from rust, and this one was probably never 'wheeled. The body was pretty straight and the blue cloth interior was in decent shape, as well. Shown here as the blank canvas.

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.

A refurbished Optima battery replaced the aged liquid acid one. I cleaned the throttle body and did a little checking of the engine, and found the high idle was due to a poor ground coming from the throttle position sensor. This is a common issue on these Renix engine control systems and a fresh ground wire run to the firewall smoothed the idle considerably.

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.

As I mentioned, the brakes were somewhat sketchy, but nowhere was there leaking fluid. I deduced that the master cylinder seals were worn, so I replaced it and bled the system with new fluid. All the pads and other components were in good shape, so now I had good stopping power. The Jeep has the AW4 four-speed auto backed by an NP242 transfer case. The front axle is a Dana 30, and the rear is a non-C-clip D35. Axle gears are 3.55:1. Evidently someone had kept up the maintenance on this vehicle as the transfer case and axles showed they were properly filled with quite clean lube. The driveshaft U-joints all looked and felt fine.

The stock suspension was also in good shape, save for the loose panhard bushing that was replaced with an aftermarket urethane piece. Steering components were tight, as well. I decided to go with a mild spring lift and some new tires to quickly upgrade looks and off-road capability.

PhotosView Slideshow

This is where I really put the bulk of my work in to make something a little out of the norm. I did major metal cutting on the body and spent a good bit of time putting some new sheetmetal back on to end up with the final product.

PhotosView Slideshow

What's Next?
I now have a vehicle that's a lot of fun to drive and is capable of getting out in the dirt for some play. It's got nice seats with harnesses, and a 'cage for safety. The Rough Country lift added clearance and travel, plus room for the 33-inch BFGs. The 4.0L engine turns the narrower tires well with the 3.55 gears, and it steers and tracks smoothly. Cruising on the highway at 65-plus mph is no problem.

I have plans to adapt a Jeep CJ bikini to the roof and 'cage and already have front bumper tabs for a set of 6-inch KC Hilites Apollo lights. From here, I could look to hardware upgrades such as swapping in a late model Ford 8.8 rear axle with a locker, or similar, which could offer disc brakes. I could also consider swapping in lower gears for a bit more acceleration and lower cogs in the dirt.

Don't want an open-air rig or don't live where you need to stay dryer or warmer? Then back up about $500 or so in materials and a lot of sweat equity out of this build, and don't do the top chop and 'cage work I did. Instead, put the cash into some other goodies, such as a locker upgrade or rear axle upgrade, or you may consider going with fatter tires than I did. Hopefully I've given you some ideas for a fairly low buck rig, and you can change it up to suit your own terrain and needs.

1989 Jeep XJ $650
Stock parts sold -$450
Brake master cylinder $24
PRP Seats (used) $80
Refurbished Optima battery $81
Rough Country lift & stabilizer $639
Panhard bushing $12
BFG All Terrain tires (33x10.50) $741
MB Chaos wheels (15x7) $416
Locking lug nuts $45
'cage tubing & steel sheet $331
Aluminum sheet $34
Steel tabs & bolt hardware $37
Paints & supplies $58
Welding wire & shop supplies $85
Durabak bedliner $120
Fluids, hoses, electrical $36
Ammo cans $12
Spare tire & wheel (used) $25
Total Money Spent $2,976


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

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