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Badass in Black - 1998 Jeep ZJ Grand Cherokee

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on December 29, 2004 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Chris Calus

It seems about this time last year when we ran across another Grand Cherokee in Moab that we liked and featured in "SLC Thrashers" (Jan. '04). That's sort of a weird coincidence, but one we hope continues as Grands get a little cheaper and more feasible to build into hard-core wheelers. And why not? Take a look at Mike Demarco's '98 Grand Cherokee for example. This ZJ was built to rock, but is also able to drive home without fear of the local fuzz. Mike resides in Orem, Utah, and therefore finds Moab to be his natural choice for stomping grounds.

We caught up with Mike as he and Dave Cowley, a friend who was integral to the buildup of the ZJ, were tooling around at Dump Bump before the crowds got too big. Mike's ZJ is what we'd call a sleeper since on first glance it just looks like a ZJ with a lift and a set of tires, but upon closer inspection, we saw the trick little touches and extensive mods that Mike and Dave came up with. They did an impressive job, especially for Mike's first try at a rig. When asked why he decided to build a ZJ, of all Jeeps, Mike answered, "Cherokees look like boxes on wheels, I don't like the WJ's dash, and Wranglers are for cheerleaders." We want to resent that comment, but our XJ is admittedly a little boxy, and one of our girlfriends owns a Wrangler...and she was a cheerleader.

Mike's suspension is an amalgamation of pieces modified to be used in a different way than originally planned. His front end uses TJ long arms with a custom subframe made to mount the links, while at the same time protecting his swapped-in NP231 transfer case. His ZJ gets its height from Rubicon Express coils and 2-inch spacers, while Rancho RSX shocks help keep his Electrac-locked Dana 44, poached from a Wagoneer, from cycling up and down too quickly. Mike got the bracketry on it with little worries using Rubicon Express' axle bracket kit. He also made sure that he gets every bit of flex possible by using long shocks custom placed above the original fenderwell-mounted shock hole.

With some pushing and prodding from his friends [Thanks, friends!--Ed.], we got some great shots of Mike giving a good effort at one of the biggest hot tubs on Hell's Revenge trail. He almost made it out, but decided to cut it before he got any closer to going over. Smart move, considering that this picture was snapped after a couple guys jumped on the frontend as it started to lift over. Lucky for Mike, he had a good tube bumper on the back that his ZJ stood up and stopped on just short of being over-easy. We strapped it and held on as he came up and out of it, stopping at the top to change his shorts.

The Dana 44 rear was scavenged from an Isuzu that really didn't need it, and was packed with a Detroit Locker and 4.56 gears to match the front. Mike linked it, again using Rubicon Express TJ long arms and connecting them to the back of his custom subframe. We really like Mike's ingenuity of using existing misapplicated parts to get what he wanted, while modifying and building necessary components like that subframe that sits right behind the built tranny and doubles as a transfer-case skidplate. To stop all the extra weight he added, Mike utilized the existing Isuzu disc brakes in the rear, while swapping on 1/2-ton Chevy discs in the front.

Look closely at the top rounded corner of his rear bumper in front of his fuel filler. Mike and Dave cut the bumper and threaded the shanked knob into the cut piece so that corner of the bumper could be removed for fuel filling. Mike's been really happy with the extra clearance the 37s provide his ZJ over the smaller 33-inchers he used to run. He doesn't have to worry about stacking stuff on top, or sliding tools and junk back and forth across the roof. Just another handy use of spray-on bedliner that we hadn't thought of yet.

Mike and his buddy Dave Cowley built these custom bumpers to keep the ZJ's unibody as safe as possible at all corners. This was only done after the entire body was dented and then Bondoed and repainted with a dark gray metallic. You might also notice his custom ghost flames done by a guy called T-Bagg. As for T-Bagg's work, it looks pretty good, but we don't wanna know where he got his nickname. Mike and friends ride in style while cruising Moab with a DVD player running inside, hooked to an amplified stereo system and Pioneer monitor. Yeah, we were gonna go that way with our stereo too, but we just couldn't get away from the quality-sounding eight-tracks in Pw's rigs. The custom hoodscoops on the front are fiberglass Lund units that help keep the stock 5.2L V-8 cool during hotter Moab excursions, and he'll definitely need that extra cooling once he's finished with his current 5.9L swap.

Tech Specs

Vehicle: '98 Jeep Grand Cherokee
Engine: 5.2L V-8
Transmission: Factory stock
Transfer Case: NP231
Front Axle: Wagoneer Dana 44, Electrac locker, 4.56 gears, Chevy 1/2-ton discs
Rear Axle: Isuzu Dana 44, Detroit Locker, 4.56 gears, factory Isuzu discs
Suspension/Wheels/Tires: 37x12.50-15 Goodyear M/TRs, 15-inch Ultras, Rubicon Express coils, TJ long-arms, custom crossmember/subframe, Rancho RSXs


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