15 rigs that make for great projects
It’s the precursor to the four-door JK Wrangler, only the Cherokee is a lot less expensive. Almost any ’91-up Cherokee is a good buy unless it’s been poorly maintained or beat to death by a pack of freshly licensed teenage kids. But even then these Jeeps still insist on not dying. The cream of the crop is the later ’97-’01 Cherokees with swoopier styling and a more reinforced Unitbody. The 4.0L inline-six is commonly mated to the AW4 four-speed automatic. When maintained it’s a 250,000-mile-plus drivetrain combo. Manual-trannied versions exist but they are few and far between. Aftermarket support for the Cherokee is unmatched. Most ’91-up Cherokees have a Chrysler 8.25 rearend which is good for tires up to 33-35 inches. Up front you’ll find the high-pinion non-disconnect Dana 30 which is also a decent axle. As high-pinion axle supplies dwindled, some of the last Cherokees received a low-pinion TJ Wrangler Dana 30 front axle. All of these Cherokees came with the durable NV231 T-case, however not all Cherokees are 4x4s. In the later years many were two-wheel-drive. The good news is that the 2WD Cherokees can be converted to 4WD with bolt-on junkyard parts.
- Extremely durable engine and tranny
- Low price
- Common HVAC problems
- Abused Cherokees may have door problems
Be on the lookout for:
The ’97-’01 4x4
’92-’96 Ford Bronco
It’s perhaps one of the most versatile modern 4x4s ever built. You can take the top off (although not very easily without the help of a few buddies), haul a trailer, wallop over some relatively difficult trails, and sleep inside of its cavernous interior. The ’87-’91 fourth-generation Broncos featured similar drivetrain components but slightly less-appealing body lines. The fifth-generation and final years of the Bronco were offered with three different engines. These included the 300 inline-six (’92 only), the 302 V-8, and the 351 V-8. All are relatively reliable but the 302 and the 351 should be top on your list. They should be easy to find since the inline-six was not all that common. The E4OD automatic had long since replaced the venerable C6 auto in fullsize Fords and unfortunately the new four-speed auto tranny is not as durable as its older three-speed counterpart. The E4OD is also difficult and expensive to rebuild reliably (lots of people can screw it up). Be sure to work a rebuild into your budget if the tranny is slipping or not shifting properly. Under this final generation of the Bronco you’ll find a leaf-sprung 31-spline Ford 8.8 C-clip rear axle. Up front is the Dana 44 Twin-Traction beam axle and suspension. The ’92-’96 Bronco enjoys lots of aftermarket support. It’s a great all-around vehicle for many different kinds of off-roading but it really shines in the high-speed stuff while still being really comfortable on long road trips.
- Great all-around 4x4/daily driver
- Solid ½-ton truck drivetrain
- Expensive, complex auto transmission
- Electric windows, switches, and gauges can be problematic with age
Be on the lookout for:
The 351 V-8
’73-’87 GM K-series
These are quintessential 4x4s. The V-8 engines found in these trucks enjoy a warehouse full of aftermarket power adders. Since all of these trucks have solid axles front and rear the available lift kits are numerous, inexpensive, and easy to install. Pretty much every part on these trucks has been repopped in one form or another. Rebuilding, modifying, and repairing couldn’t be any easier. Most of these trucks came with the small-block Chevy V-8. Some came with a big-block V-8. Later years came with a problematic electronic carburetor that can be swapped out for an aftermarket TBI kit. They came in ½- and ¾-ton versions. The solid-axle 1-ton didn’t show up until 1977 and remained in production through 1991.
The 10- and 12-bolt ½-ton rear axles are less than ideal, especially when coupled with the factory Gov-Loc locking differential and larger-than-stock tires. This combo often proves fatal to these light-duty C-clip rearends. Fortunately, swapping axles between the ½-, ¾, and 1-ton models is a bolt-on deal. Look for the revered 14-bolt (10.5-inch) rear axle found in ¾- and 1-tons and the Dana 60 front axle found only in the 1-tons. It’s not at all uncommon to find the 1-ton axles in a ½-ton truck because it is such an easy swap. Most of the early versions of these trucks and nearly all of the 1-tons enjoyed the bombproof NP205 transfer case. The full-time NP203 is less desirable but is great to have if you plan on adding a doubler (dual transfer cases). The NP208 can be found in the ’81-’87 ½- and ¾-ton GM trucks.
The TH350 and TH400 three-speed automatics found in these trucks are still the backbone of the off-road world today. The TH700-R4 (’82-’87) isn’t quite as durable as the TH350 or TH400 but it did come with an Overdrive gear. Keep the fluid cool and it should survive fine in all but the most abusive applications. The SM465 four-speed manual can also be found in these trucks and is very desirable, although well-worn versions will tend to pop out of gear. The solid-front-axle 1-ton truck production ran three years longer than the solid-axle ½- and ¾-ton trucks.
- You can almost build an entire truck with aftermarket parts
- Incredible parts interchangeability for all years
- Weak steering box mount on all years and models
- 10- and 12-bolt rear axles are marginal with larger tires
Be on the lookout for:
’90-’91 1-ton truck with a Dana 60 front axle, fuel-injected 454, TH400 or SM465 transmission, and an NP205 transfer case