The 5 Coolest Features of a Classic Cherokee Chief Jeep
These are a few cool design elements you just won’t find in a modern vehicle
Born in the days of disco, loud leisure suits, and walnut and brass bedroom furniture, the 1978 Jeep Cherokee Chief employs a mix of classic and '70s-modern pizazz. Although the super-stylized ornamental design laid into vehicles of the golden age of autos in the '20 and '30s waned after World War II, it did enjoy a brief resurgence in the 1950s with huge fins, gargantuan grilles, and chrome geegaws and gadgets festooning interiors and exteriors alike. Then in the early 1960s the design throttle was once again pulled back, with smoother, squared-off lines, less exterior bedazzlement, and cleaner panels in step with the high-and-tight hairstyles of the Mad Men era.
But anybody who follows trends knows nothing in fashion and design stays static for long, and sure as sugar, the pendulum swung the other way, with wavy-gravy colors and groovy curves of the late '60s and early '70s making an impact and influencing the bulging muscle cars and devil-may-care graphics festooned across fenders, decklids, hoods, and other exterior panels. Ralley stripes, cartoon animals, and bombastic terminologies like "Judge" or "Super Bird" or "Road Runner" helped these four-wheeled creations stand out from a sea of similar sedans and coupes.
Then came the oil embargo, long lines at the pumps, and federal emissions standards. And adding to that double-whammy of fuel and emissions stringencies, the mid- to late '70s were an evil time for fashion and music in general. Disco was here. And not just the good disco we hear on satellite radio stations nowadays. All sorts of chaff that the passage of time didn't yet have the opportunity to separate from the airwaves assaulted our eardrums. And then there was fashion. Plaid polyester, wide ties, and mutton-chopped hairstyles underscored the frenetic lack of clarity of vision that earlier fashion and design trends had. And that's where we find our 1978 Cherokee Chief.
The styling of 1970s Jeeps is all over the place. They're Wall Street meets Laugh In with a little Studio 54 thrown into the mix. Originally designed in the early 1960s, the straight, boxy lines are right in step with the squared-off handkerchief a businessman would keep in his suit pocket as he adjusted his pencil-thin black necktie. The "Cherokee Chief" name emblazoned large and in charge across the tailgate and lower doors lets everybody know in huge, shouty letters exactly what is being crammed through the roadway. And discotastic design cues like a faux brushed aluminum gauge surround add that homage to the John Travolta dance floor that everybody was looking to get a piece of. So as a culmination of design from the infancy of auto design to the point where everything went plastic fascia and blah, here's our five favorite features of our 1978 Cherokee Chief.
If you thought brushed aluminum only came on 1977 Bandit Edition Trans Ams, you're wrong, partner. Many parts found on Jeeps, including the ignition switches, steering columns, wheel hubs, and more, were sourced from General Motors parts bins. We're not sure if some astute Jeep designer noticed a sheet of adhesive faux brushed aluminum when walking the GM parts aisles, but whatever the reason, the Cherokee Chief blings it up with a disco-era brushed aluminum overlay around the gauge cluster. Higher-end models made do with a phony wood grain overlay, while base-model pedestrian Jeeps of the era were just black and silver paint.
Try to culturally appropriate any Native American name, reference, or image today, and you'll be immediately shunned from society. Elizabeth Warren jokes aside, the SJ Jeep model not only liberally associated itself with the name Cherokee, but it also made itself a whole Chief, replete with headdress-wearing badge and all. Whether the Cherokee really wore plains-style feather headdresses isn't even important here—the three-dimensional Cherokee badges on the Cherokee Chief are simply rad and evoke memories of the hyper-styled period from the '30s.
Jeep Cherokee Chief Styling
The boxy lines of a Cherokee are slightly less aerodynamic than a cow. No, really. It's funny that in a modern vehicle, the aero is designed to swoop over the length in as smoothly a manner as possible. This is one of the reasons you hardly need windshield wipers in a modern vehicle: The laminar flow of the air will peel the raindrops gently away. Try to drive a Jeep Cherokee without your wipers, and you'll crash. The front end is such a barn door that it redirects the aero completely past the windshield, resulting in a bubble where rain just accumulates on the windshield more and more. So with absolutely no thought at all given to aerodynamics, it's little wonder the Cherokee Chief features not one but two sets of wing windows per side. We love front wing windows because you can screw them all the way forward to act like little air scoops to direct air right on you for those really hot days. But the Cherokee ups the ante with crackable rear wing windows on the side glass for the rear occupants. They honestly do very little to help cool the interior of the vehicle (the rear glass rolls down for that anyway), but damn if they're not neat.
Our favorite scene in the movie Vacation is when the Griswolds get lost in the mean streets of St. Louis and one of the nice gentlemen who give them directions can be heard exclaiming "luggage rack" as they pull up to the curb. Indeed, a luggage rack is a huge product of days gone by. When you've got a six-passenger vehicle with a rear cargo area large enough to carry enough luggage for essentially eight people, we can't see where you'd really use a luggage rack all that much, but damn if the Cherokee Chief doesn't have a really cool-looking chrome rack packed with some neat features. The bars that run side to side are adjustable, allowing you to vary the width of the roof rack inner bars. That's pretty handy if you're trying to tightly sandwich luggage or other objects to prevent them from sliding fore or aft as the vehicle charges down the trail. The crossbars feature a threaded fastener that, when loosened, allows the crossbars to slide forward or back inside the machined rail channel. It's a pretty ingenious solution to something that probably was never a problem. And we have to admit to using this feature to space our rails to match the width of our Yakima roof rack when we have additional cargo to run up high.
Smoke 'em if ya got 'em
Smoking is bad, mmmmkay? It really is. It's a disgusting, filthy habit that nobody should undertake. That said, it's a free country. And nothing says "I'm free" more than slowly killing yourself with tobacco one cancer stick at a time. The Cherokee Chief was built back during a time before a health and safety warning label was plastered on every blank surface. Seriously, what's next? A sticker on your toaster oven that says, "Don't lick surface when hot"? Not only does the Cherokee Chief not care about your longevity, but it also gives you a cigarette lighter with a picture of a lit cigarette right on it, plus not one, but three ashtrays. No power ports here. Smoke up, Johnny! Merry Christmas.