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The Monkey Bus - 1978 Jeep Cherokee Chief

Posted in Project Vehicles on August 1, 2011
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We did it a bit bass-ackwards. Normally when we buy a new project vehicle we regale you with tales of the search, purchase, and retrieval. But last issue we simply dove right in with the vehicle’s biggest problem—a completely fried electrical system. The new wiring harness from Z&M Jeeps is now snuggled under the 31-year-old sheetmetal and the fresh MSD ignition system makes the engine go vroom, so now we can fill in some of the gaps regarding our ’78 Cherokee Chief.

After searching in earnest for a clean, running XJ or ZJ on which to do a super-quick build, we bought this SJ that needed everything. Naturally. The seller told us it was a daily-driver until a year ago when the wiring harness fried, but the registration sticker that expired in 2005 suggested otherwise. Had we noticed, we wouldn’t have chucked a battery in the tray and force-fed the Motorcraft two-barrel gas trying to remove it from the seller’s father-in-law’s yard. The engine fired, but quickly died as the shorted-out wiring harness killed any remaining life in the Duraspark ignition. Lots of pushing and winching ensued. Dumping fuel down the carb and instantly cranking up an engine that has sat for years isn’t ideal. But the stock 360 has its own string of issues. Even if we hashed the rings it’s no biggie: It’s on death row.

The good news? It’s clean, completely original, and nearly rust-free. There’s one silver-dollar-size spot of surface rust on one of the rear flares that’ll easily sand away. The interior was professionally redone sometime in the late ’90s with new black carpet and seat vinyl. It’s disco-tastic. Pretty much every option available for a Cherokee Chief is there, including cruise control, A/C, and the factory eight-track. The only thing we have to do for ourselves is roll up the side windows. Everything else happens via push-button magic. The few aftermarket options were installed cleanly, with the exception of the fog lights, which met their demise at the bottom of a trash can. The vehicle was originally owned by one of the cast members of the “Our Gang” Little Rascals film shorts. We resist the urge to call the project “’Li’l Rascal” or “Spanky.” He towed a camper with it, so in addition to the factory tow hitch there’s an auxiliary transmission cooler (that’s been bypassed), auxiliary fuel tank (that’s been bypassed), and a Hayes mechanical/electric brake controller (that works perfectly).

Like most of our projects, the ’78 Chief rode home on our greasy trailer. The seller insisted it’d start up and drive onto the deck. Wrongo. It rode the winch cable. The Chief had sat under a tree in the seller’s father-in-law’s L.A.-area backyard for between 1-6 years. The layers of algae we scrubbed from the door jams suggest the latter.

So, what’s the plan? Hack the fenders and stuff 37s under it like Cappa would do? Wire in a coffee maker and self-massaging seats like Trasborg? Rip all the wiring and HVAC and cut the roof off like Hazel would? Not sure. For now we’re simply getting it in shape to cruise the highways and byways in factory trim. The vehicle will tell us what to do with it after we gel with it a while. After going Comman D’oh, it’ll be a welcome change of pace to have roll-up windows and a heater. Who knows, we may just use it to replace the family SUV!

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