1998 Jeep Cherokee XJ: Long Arm...
...Of The Law (And The Suspension)
Normally when you see flashing lights in your Jeep's rearview mirror, you know that you can expect a lecture on mudflaps, fender coverage, and side mirrors. Or worse, you'll be getting a ticket. If Geoff Marshall pulls you over in Douglas County, Nevada, and you aren't driving like a blockhead, he probably just wants to check out your Jeep. Geoff has owned five Jeeps in the last ten years, and all of them have been modified to tackle trails like the nearby Rubicon. His last Jeep was a CJ-5 on 42s, but when he found out that his wife Brandy was pregnant with their first child, he traded the CJ for a four-door Cherokee.
After owning a Jeep with a real frame, Geoff knew that his first order of business was strengthening the Unitbody on his '98 XJ. He plated the Unitbody rails with 0.375-wall angle iron that was rosette- and stitch-welded to the Unitbody. A Rubicon Express three-piece crossmember mounted with 3/4-inch bolts provides further rigidity and support. The 2-inch, 0.250-wall chromoly control arms fitted with Rubicon Express Super-Flex joints are mounted to the crossmember, although only one 1.5-inch DOM upper control arm is used. It's mounted on the Rubicon Express axle truss in order to allow greater articulation and less binding. A 1.5-inch DOM track bar is capped with 3/4-inch rod ends and mounts to a Rubicon Express track bar bracket to control lateral axle movement.
Cherokees aren't known for accommodating the largest tires, and most guys run a 4.5-inch lift just to fit 33s. Since Geoff runs 38.5-inch Super Swamper SXs, he needed a whole lot of lift to fit them. The front is lifted 7.5 inches thanks to the Rubicon Express coils, Teraflex coil spacers, and Rancho shocks. Out back, Off Road General Store 10-spring leaf packs are used with 4-inch blocks and Teraflex shackles. "I know that the blocks are hack," Geoff admits, "but they let me match the height of the front end." High on the list of future modifications is a traction bar to help prevent axlewrap, and keep the leaf springs, Doetsch Tech shocks, and rear driveline alive. The leaf springs have been flipped so the centerpin is offset to the rear, resulting in a 113-inch wheelbase that allows Geoff to gobble up steep climbs like doughnuts.
The big rubber is turned by a stock steering box which was drilled and tapped to work with the PSC power steering pump and 8-inch hydraulic cylinder ram. The ram is mounted on the 1.5-inch DOM drag link. A master cylinder from a Ford E-350 van provides additional stopping power for the Swampers.
Vehicle: '98 Cherokee XJ
Engine: 4.0L I-6
Transmission: AW4 four-speed automatic
Transfer Case: NP231
Suspension: Rubicon Express long-arm (front), Off Road General Store leaf springs (rear)
Axles: '78 F-250 Dana 44 (front), Ford Dana 61 (rear)
Wheels: 15x10 steel US Wheel
Tires: 38.5x14.5-15 Super Swamper TSL/SX
Built For: Family wheeling
Geoff knew that the stock Dana 30 and Chrysler 8.25 axles weren't going to cut it for the wheeling he had planned, so they were sold to offset the price of other components. Up front, Geoff added a full-width, high-pinion Dana 44 out of a '78 F-250. The eight-lug axle has 5.38 Yukon gears, a Lock-Right locker, Warn hubs, and stock shafts with tack welds to keep the 760X U-joints from spitting out the caps until Geoff can afford Superior chromoly shafts and Longfield U-joints.
In the rear, Geoff thought that he nabbed a Dana 60 from the junkyard, but it ended up being a Dana 61. This Ford housing has more pinion offset than a standard Dana 60 to allow the fitment of gear ratios higher than 3.54, and no one makes gears for them lower than 4.10. Unfortunately, Geoff didn't want to run that tall of gears, so he had to use a ring gear spacer to fit the 5.38 Yukons on the welded carrier. The axle still has the stock 1.31-inch, 30-spline shafts and drum brakes, but the good news is that Geoff won't have to bore the spindles to fit 1.5-inch, 35-spline axleshafts.
Above the Unitbody, the rest of the drivetrain was retained. The 4.0L engine breathes easier thanks to a Turbo City cold air intake and Flowmaster muffler. An Optima Red Top battery ensures that it cranks over every time. The NP231 received a slip yoke eliminator, but the AW4 four-speed automatic transmission is bone-stock.
Body and Interior
Even with all that lift, Geoff had to cut a lot of sheetmetal to fit the Super Swampers. After smashing in the rear corner of the cab at Moon Rocks four years ago, Geoff cut off the sheetmetal behind the rear doors with a Sawzall. Fortunately, he already had an eight-point interior cage from T&J Performance to stiffen up the Unitbody. "It would have been a lot easier to install the cage after I cut the top off!" Geoff joked. He added Loud Liquid wakeboard boat speakers to the cage to pump out the tunes without taking up floor space. When the hatch went away, so did the taillights, so Geoff added some boxes from Full Size XJ Gear to keep the Cherokee legal. The front doors come off as well, but they easily go back on and Geoff wired them with connectors so that all of the power accessories still work when the doors are installed.
A naked Durango 4x4 bumper sits up front. "My neighbor let me borrow his winch for years," Geoff explained, "but he recently asked for it back." We have a funny feeling that Geoff's neighbor might find himself getting cited for disorderly conduct before too long, but that is just a hunch. The front bumper was notched and narrowed to allow greater clearance for the tires and extended wheelbase. Custom 2-inch square tube rock rails protect the rocker panels and hold cheapo rock lights, while a gas tank skidplate installed by the previous owner brings up the rear.
Good, Bad, and What It's For
Nobody becomes a deputy sheriff to get rich, so Geoff had to build his Jeep on a budget. Having another mouth to feed definitely doesn't help with Jeep components, but the fact that his brother-in-law C.T. Eckstrom worked at Rubicon Express certainly did. Geoff has done a great job combining low-buck junkyard components with the right aftermarket parts, and turning most of the wrenches himself on his days off. His Cherokee isn't going to win any show-and-shine awards, but it does a great job of safely carrying his family across all of the beautiful and challenging trails that are close to his home in Gardnerville, Nevada.
Why I Shot This Feature
This isn't the prettiest Jeep I have ever photographed, but it is incredibly capable on the trail. I think the thing that stuck with me the most was the fact that Geoff didn't even think twice about giving up his huge CJ in order to ensure that his daughter Faith and wife Brandy could safely enjoy the trail with him. To me, that is what Jeeping is all about.