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Blending Disco Design With Modern Reliability in a Fullsize Jeep Package

Posted in Project Vehicles on January 21, 2019
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I bought this 1978 Cherokee Chief roughly nine years ago, and by my count I think every single factory part has been replaced at least once. True, the vehicle is 41 years old at this point, but it’s only got 117,000 original miles on it. When I went to buy it as a “ran when parked” all-original project, I brought my trailer and a battery. The Jeep fired right up, but died seconds later amid a puff of electrical smoke, so out came the trailer winch. According to the stack of receipts in the glovebox the previous owner had the front ring-and-pinion replaced, the TH400 rebuilt, the engine bottom end rebuilt, one head gasket replaced, a valve job on one cylinder head, a valve job on the other cylinder head, the front seats reupholstered, carpet installed, and the stock fuel tank boiled out. That’s the partial list, the big-ticket items.

Once I got it home I completely rewired it with a harness from Z&M Jeeps, upgraded the distributor and ignition with parts from MSD/Holley, installed a new cooling system and brake system, and ground out a bunch of factory welds on the frame that had porosity in them. I also added a 4-inch BDS suspension system, rebuilt the factory BW1339 T-case, installed an MTS fuel tank to replace the leaky factory unit, and upgraded to an Edelbrock Performer intake and carb. I have battled a continuing vaporlock issue.

The factory 360 has had the bottom end and both cylinder heads rebuilt by the previous owner, although each separately for some reason. The reasoning is probably as shoddy as the mechanic’s work because a few of the cylinders have low compression and it’s just tired. It also has a chronic vaporlock issue, which I’ve mitigated by installing a low-pressure fuel pump inline between the tank and mechanical pump. It works—sometimes.

The factory AMC 360 V-8 is desperately tired, leaks a ton of oil, and doesn’t always start after it has been driven awhile. I’ve been stacking parts for an engine and transmission swap for a while now, but here’s the kicker: Although it’s somewhat unreliable, it’s reliable enough to be my backup vehicle when one of my other rigs goes out of action and I need a means of transportation that can seat my entire family of six. And Murphy’s Law: As soon as I park it on the side of my garage and start fishing out my engine hoist, it’s pulled back into service. But I’m not sure how much longer I can limp the 360 along, so I’ll definitely be stabbing in a 5.3L GM engine from Chevy Performance and backing it with a 4L65E from Gearstar that is already fitted with an adapter to mate to the factory BW1339. And to finally kill those vaporlock issues I’ll be installing a sweet 20-gallon aluminum fuel tank from BJ’s Off-Road.

The interior was replaced by a previous owner at some point, but the roof rack gaskets and window weatherstripping leak, so parts of it have already began rotting away. I’ll have the factory seats rebuilt with new foam, springs, and black vinyl, and I will replace the carpet and weatherstripping. I’ll probably leave the cracked dash pad for character.
When I bought the Jeep, the BW1339 T-case leaked like a sieve. I discovered that the chain had slackened enough to eat a hole in the aluminum case. I hit it with JB Weld while I collected parts from two other BW1339 T-cases, one of which had a good factory chain. I brought it all to M.I.T. Drivetrain Specialists to be rebuilt into one good BW1339.
The all-aluminum LC9 from Chevy Performance boasts 315 hp and 330 lb-ft. I installed the Chevy Performance FEAD kit with high-amp alternator and A/C compressor, which I intend to make work in conjunction with the rest of the factory A/C components.
Gearstar makes fantastic transmissions. For a worry-free, no-drama way to mate the modern GM engine to the BW1339 T-case I ordered the company’s 4L65E and had the company build it with an Advance Adapters unit on the tail end. It should pretty much bolt in place of the factory TH400. I’ll retain the factory column-shift linkage, but Gearstar supplies everything else needed for the installation, including transmission fluid, a cooler, and a dipstick.
This 20-gallon aluminum fuel tank from BJ’s Off-Road is designed to fit under the cargo area where the factory spare tire mounting location is. You’ve got to mark and drill a couple holes in the frame and crossmember. You can either hook it to your existing filler neck or use it in conjunction with the factory FSJ coffin tank that sits astride the rear driveshaft. This one is about to get fitted with BJ’s high-pressure in-tank fuel pump kit to work with the GM injection.

Sources

Gearstar
330-434-5216
www.gearstar.com
MIT Drivetrain Specialists
El Cajon, CA 92020
619-579-7727
http://www.mit4x4.com
Bj's Off-Road
253-320-7604
http://www.bjsoffroad.com
BDS Suspension
517.279.2135
www.bds-suspension.com
Edelbrock
Torrance, CA 90503
800-416-8628
www.edelbrock.com
MSD Ignition
888-258-3835
www.msdignition.com
ZM Jeeps
419-893-4453
zmjeeps.com
Chevy Performance
chevrolet.com/performance

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