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Great White: 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee WJ

Posted in Project Vehicles on March 1, 2011
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For years, the XJ Cherokee was shunned by its short-wheelbase, ladder-framed brethren. Eventually the Cherokee earned its street cred, leaving the XJ's rich uncle, the Grand Cherokee, to languish in relative obscurity. Considering that there are more upgrades available for the JK than for the three generations of Grand Cherokees produced in the last 15 years, it speaks volumes that Chris Stoner did not let the lack of aftermarket products dissuade him from building a '99 WJ.

Talking about a "chassis" on a Grand Cherokee is a bit of a misnomer, but Chris has done plenty of work to ensure that the Unitbody on his WJ withstands the rigors of hard trail use. The framerails were reinforced with 0.250-wall box tubing tied into 3/16-inch-thick steel boatsides to provide strength and act as a foundation for the custom coilover suspension. Chris started with an off-the-shelf suspension for his Grand Cherokee, but the drive for more articulation led him to entirely redesign the suspension with a custom 61/2-inch lift.

All four corners use 14-inch-travel, 2-inch-diameter Fox coilovers with 250lb/in-over-300lb/in QA1 coils, but Chris plans to swap out all of the current springs for Eibachs in the near future. The coilovers work in conjunction with a front three-link and track bar that push the axle forward 2 inches. Out back a triangulated four-link locates the rear axle and adds another 2 inches to the wheelbase. The upper links are constructed from 1.5-inch, 0.250-wall DOM tubing while the lowers use 1.5-inch, 0.250-wall DOM sleeved with 2-inch, 0.250-wall DOM to support the Grand Cherokee's 6,000 lb curb weight. Midwest Controls 7/8- x 3/4-inch rod-ends are used with high-misalignment spacers on the axle end, while 7/8-inch Ballistic Joints from Ballistic Fabrication insulate the Unitbody at the other end of the links.

"One of the reasons I chose the WJ was the excellent 4.7L V-8," Chris explains. This meant that he did not need to worry about an expensive, time-consuming engine swap and gamble with emissions issues. Chris did add an electric fan from a Ford Taurus to keep the engine cool regardless of conditions. Behind the engine, the factory 45RFE four-speed automatic was retained, but the NVG247 transfer case was replaced with a more-common NVG231 equipped with a slip-yoke eliminator and a 4:1 low range planetary gearset.

Downstream from the transfer case the Jeep components come to an end. The WJ comes with a funky Dana 30 front axle that uses CV joints instead of standard U-joints (for smoother running with the full-time T-case) and an aluminum Dana 44 rear with virtually no aftermarket gearing or locker options. Chris liberated a Dana 60 and a Sterling 10.5 from a Super Duty to provide stability and strength to his Grand Cherokee.

The front ball joint axle uses an Off Road Unlimited steering knuckle for an improved drag link angle, 5.38 Motive gears, and a welded differential. Steering with the Lincoln Locker is made easier by a driver-operated switch that Chris wired to a vacuum pump to control the automatic Ford hubs, essentially turning the welded diff into a selectable locker. A PSC hydraulic ram used with a tapped factory steering box takes care of any other steering issues. Out back, the Sterling axle benefits from a Detroit Locker, 5.38 Motive gears, and a custom differential cover.

Body and Interior
The interior of Chris' Grand Cherokee is largely stock, and provides a comfortable cabin when wheeling with his wife Shawna and their two daughters. The exterior of the Grand received plenty of attention though, the most prominent of which is the black Plasticote that was added to the lower half of the body. The color scheme ties in with the Lone Star Racing front bumper that Chris modified for more tire clearance. The bumper holds a Smittybilt winch, protects the radiator, and has an improved approach angle when compared to the stock plastic piece.

Even with 61/2 inches of lift, the fenders were cut and bead-rolled to fit the 37-inch Pitbull Rockers mounted on black Raceline Monster beadlocks. With an overall track width of 86 inches, the tires stick way out from the body. To keep the fuzz off his back, Chris uses quick-release mudflaps when he drives his WJ on the street. The mudflaps attach to the Chris-built rear bumper he cut and welded from 3/16-inch steel in his garage. The bumper holds a full-size spare tire, since there is no way a 37-inch tire is going to fit in the factory location under the cargo area. With the spare moved, Chris was able to cut and fold some sheetmetal and move the low-hanging factory fuel tank 6 inches skyward.

Good, Bad, and What It's For
Believe it or not, Chris used his huge WJ to commute 120 miles between his home in Reno and Sacramento, where he was attending WyoTech. After graduating with honors, he is now utilizing the Grand Cherokee as a mobile resume to show off his fabrication skills as he looks for a job in the automotive industry. Perhaps he will start his own business to cater to other Grand Cherokee owners who suffer from the same lack of aftermarket product options.

Hard Facts
Vehicle: '99 WJ Grand Cherokee
Engine: 4.7L V-8
Transmission: 45RFE four-speed automatic
Transfer Case: NVG231
Suspension: Custom long-arm, Fox coilovers
Axles: Dana 60 (front), Sterling 10.5-inch (rear)
Wheels: 17x8.5 Raceline Monster Beadlock
Tires: 37x12.50R17 Pitbull Rocker Radial
Built For: Family Wheeling
Estimated Cost: $14,500

Why I Wrote This Feature
This is somewhat of a unique story in that I actually met Chris a couple of years before I shot this feature. Shortly after meeting Chris he mentioned, "I am going to put Super Duty axles under a Grand Cherokee." Never mind the fact that he didn't even own a Grand Cherokee at the time. I hear "plans" like this from guys all the time, so I just dismissed him as another dreamer. Well, Chris was one of the rare few who actually did it instead of just talking about it, and he created a feature-worthy Jeep in the process.
-Harry Wagner

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