If you want to see a fascinating collection of Jeep Cherokee XJs, go hang out at a North American XJ Association (NAXJA) event. Over the years we’ve wheeled with members of this club in places like Tennessee and Indiana, and each time we’ve seen something cool.
The NAXJA organization is an Internet-based club that has been around since 2000. They have numerous chapters and they host events across the U.S. We recently tagged along on their Winterfest event at the Badlands Off Road Park in Attica, Indiana, and it was there we found a wide range of XJs from almost-stock to barely recognizable.
And that, friends, brings us to this quartet of heavily modified XJs, which we photographed at Winterfest. One of the obvious commonalities of these rigs is that all of them have had their body structure customized to some degree for reasons ranging from removal of body damage to simply a better idea. Now before you go hacking and chopping on a XJ body it’s a pretty good idea to stop and think about what you’re doing. The XJ is a Unitbody vehicle, so it doesn’t have a “real” frame, thus the body structure is self-supporting. For example, removing the roof fouls up the structural integrity of the vehicle. Thus, if the roof is removed it needs to be replaced with a structural component that reinforces what’s left of the Unitbody. If it’s not reinforced, it can fold like a taco.
Another thing that all of these rigs have in common is that the owners completed almost all of the modifications from the reciprocating saw work to the general upgrades. Read on to see what they did.
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Dan Wheeler had just got his ’91 XJ trail-ready but it wasn’t long before a trail miscue caused the rig to roll one-and-a-half times. It was the ensuing damage that inspired him to break out the saw.
Wheeler cut off the damaged roof and had a friend design, build, and install the eight-point rollcage using mostly 1¾-inch-diameter tubing and 1½-inch-diameter tubing for the bracing. The ’cage ties into four places on the custom 3x5-inch rocker skids and above each rear leaf-spring mount. This ’cage is the only mod on the XJ that Wheeler farmed out. Other exterior mods to the XJ include a TrailReady front bumper, Warn HS9500i winch with synthetic rope, custom rear bumper, and aftermarket lighting. The rig rolls on 38x12.50-15 Super Swamper TSL bias-ply tires mounted to American Racing AR-767 steel wheels with custom weld-on beadlocks.
Most of the stock interior is gone. The original seats have been replaced by four racing seats that Wheeler purchased from eBay. The seats have five-point harnesses to hold him and his passengers securely.
There’s a trailer storage box bolted to the floor in the cargo area, and it serves as storage for the recovery equipment. Other rear-mounted equipment includes a pair of fire extinguishers and a KC HiLites light.
Yep, that’s a fuel-injected 4.0-liter I-6 engine, and aside from an Optima RedTop battery, Rusty’s Airtube, and dirt from scores of trailrides, it’s stock. Power is routed through the factory AW4 automatic transmission to the factory NP231 transfer case, which has received an Advance Adapters slip-yoke eliminator kit.
The Dana 44 front axle is out of a ’78 Ford F-150 and it has 5.38:1 ratio Yukon gears, Yukon chromoly axleshafts, Yukon Super Joint axleshaft U-joints, and a Detroit Locker. The suspension consists of 6-inch-lift Rusty’s Off-Road Products coil springs and Rusty’s shocks as well as a custom long-arm system that includes Ford radius arms. The steering system has also been customized with spherical rod ends on the drag link and tie rod.
Out back is a Ford 9-inch axle that was also sourced from a ’78 Ford F-150. It has 5.43:1 ratio Yukon gears and a spool. The rear suspension is a simple leaf spring setup that uses custom Alcan springs and Rusty’s shocks. To compensate for the weight change after he cut the roof off, Wheeler removed a leaf from each spring pack.
Owner/Hometown: Dan Wheeler/Midland, Michigan
Vehicle/Model: 1991 Jeep Cherokee XJ
Estimated value: N/A
Type: Jeep 4.0L I-6
Aspiration: Fuel injection, Rusty’s Airtube
Output, hp/torque (estimated): N/A
Transfer case: NP231, Advance Adapters SYE kit
Front: Rusty’s Off-Road Products 6-in-lift coil springs, custom long-arm w/Ford radius arms, Rusty’s shocks
Rear: Modified Alcan leaf springs, Rusty’s shocks
Front: Dana 44, Yukon chromoly axleshafts and Super Joints/Detroit Locker
Rear: Ford 9-inch/spool
Ring and pinion: 5.38:1 (front), 5.43:1 (rear)
Wheels: 15x10 American Racing AR-767 w/custom beadlocks
Tires: 38x12.50-15 Super Swamper TSL bias-ply
Wheeler Says ...
Favorite mod: “Rollcage.”
Least favorite mod: “None.”
If I was going to do it again…: “I’d do it almost the same, but chop the rear and use coilovers.”
The catalyst for the significant body mods on Brian Hollingsworth’s ’98 XJ was a collision with a tree that severely damaged the passenger-side A-pillar.
Hollingsworth fired up the saw and cut off everything from the A-pillars rearward. He then created a rollcage/exocage combo from 1¾-inch-diameter, 0.120-inch-wall material and he fastened it in 10 places. Up front it’s affixed to the modified Custom 4x4 Fabrication winch bumper. In the midsection it’s tied to the custom rockers that are made from 2x6-inch, ¼-inch-wall rectangular tubing. These custom rockers are fastened to the XJ’s “frame.” And speaking of the frame, it has been beefed with H.D. Offroad Engineering frame stiffeners. Out back, the rollcage is mounted to what’s left of the factory structure. Other exterior mods include a pair of driving lights and a Warn M8000 winch with synthetic rope. Mounted on the black American Racing AR-767 steel wheels with weld-on beadlocks are a set of 42x14.50-16 Interco IROK tires.
Inside are mud-splattered factory gauges, an aftermarket steering wheel, and plastic racing seats with five-point harnesses. Sprouting from the center of the floor are the custom shifters that control the NP231/Dana 300 transfer case setup.
The 4.0L Six remains mostly stock with the exception of an Optima YellowTop battery to provide current. The factory AX15 five-speed manual transmission is sandwiched between the engine and a D&D Machine NP231/Dana 300 transfer case setup.
Bolted to what’s left of the factory body structure is the factory fuel tank and a storage box for tools and recovery supplies. The large PVC tube affixed to the rollcage holds a spare driveshaft.
Both the front and rear axles came out of a M1008 military truck and they are fitted with spools and 4.10:1 ratio cogs. The disc brake-equipped 14-bolt rearend (shown here) rides on Rusty’s Off-Road Products 4.5-inch-lift leaf springs. Other suspension components include low-buck shocks and H.D. Offroad Engineering shackle relocation brackets. Up front, the Dana 60 has been fitted with Yukon 35-spline inner and outer axleshafts and Super Joint axleshaft U-joints. The axle is located with a custom spherical rod end-equipped three-link system with Rusty’s 6.5-inch coil springs and low-buck shocks.
Owner/Hometown: Brian Hollingsworth/New Albany, Indiana
Vehicle/Model: ’98 Jeep Cherokee XJ
Estimated value: N/A
Type: Jeep 4.0L I-6
Output, hp/torque (estimated): N/A
Transmission: AX15 5-spd manual
Transfer case: NP231/Dana 300 D&D Machine doubler
Front: Three-link, Rusty’s Off-Road Products 6.5-in-lift coil springs, low-buck shocks
Rear: Rusty’s Off-Road Products 4.5-in-lift leaf springs, low-buck shocks
Front: Dana 60, Yukon Super Joints, Yukon inner and outer axleshafts/spool
Rear: GM 14-bolt/spool
Ring and pinion: 4.10:1
Wheels: 16x8 American Racing AR-767 w/weld-on beadlocks
Tires: 42x14.50-16 Interco IROK
Hollingsworth Says ...
Favorite mod: “Cutting brakes.”
Least favorite mod: “No front windshield (‘But only on cold days.’).”
If I was going to do it again…: “Four-link and fuel cell.”