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Blending Disco Design With Modern Reliability in a Fullsize Jeep Package

Transforming Mr. Unreliable Into Old Reliable

Christian HazelPhotographer, Writer

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 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.