It’s A Jeep Thing – I’m Trying To Understand

It’s a little known fact that I learned to drive not in a car, but in my mom’s 1987 Jeep Cherokee. I never took it off-road (I’d die if I scratched the paint), but despite my love of fun, zippy, sporty cars, something about that experience must have stayed with me over the years. Yet so far in my driving career the closest I’ve come to embracing the off-road experience is driving and co-driving Jeeps and trucks as sweep vehicles at stage rallies. Not only are gravel roads still, um… roads, the type of driving we do in sweep is the exact opposite of the rough terrain, low speed, high precision driving of off-roading.

My fiancee, Elana, is definitely more of a truck and Jeep person than I am. As a former ski instructor, she was always off to the slopes when the rest of us waited out the storms at home, which is how she learned the proper use of four wheel drive. She’s had a few Ford Explorers, and she credits one of them with giving its life to save hers. When I met her she had a Jeep Liberty, and co-drove for me in sweep at the Empire State Performance Rally last year. (When she was crazy enough to put me behind the wheel of her Jeep to drive it like a nut, I knew she was a keeper.)

Recently, I jokingly sent her a link to a post on the NER SCCA RallyCross/RallySprint Facebook group.

1988 Jeep Comanche

Selling my 1988 Jeep Comanche. Solid frame, new floors front end rebuilt. It’s a 4.0 automatic with the “big ton” package. That means OEM trans cooler and factory Dana44 with a 5000lb tow capacity. Good tires, cap included.
Needs… Interior reassembled, drivers door is rotten (same as four door cherokee, about 100 bucks) and paint to be perfect. (Front bumper not in pic, brand new one included)

I often send Elana “oh look, this car is neat” links. I never really expect anything to happen with them aside from her amusement, or sometimes pining over an inexpensive rally car that we can’t justify buying right now. But she was seriously into this Comanche. I thought it was cool, too, and not just because of their domination of the SCCA RaceTruck Challenge in 1988. My mom’s Cherokee came to mind, and I always liked driving it. Having a truck would be a huge help in our impending move, as well as for general hauling duties after we’re moved in. Even though it has no trailer hitch, it can carry lots more than the Focus, reducing the number of trips we’ll have to make. With four wheel drive it would make a great winter daily driver for me. It would also make an excellent rally sweep vehicle once properly equipped. I’d feel right at home driving it after many miles in my mom’s Cherokee. The automatic transmission means that Elana could enjoy it as much as I would. Shifting her own gears in my BRZ literally causes her pain.

Though the Jeep Cherokee (XJ, in Jeep speak) had a good long run from 1984-2001, the Comanche (MJ), its pickup truck variant, was only made from 1985-1992. Thanks to their age, the utilitarian “use it and dump it” nature of pickup trucks, and the Comanche’s nasty vulnerability to rust, they’re somewhat rare today. It’s an odd combination of the unibody front half of a Cherokee with frame rails added to attach the bed. It’s not a one piece “ute” design like the El Camino or VW Rabbit truck. Jeep called it, appropriately, a “uniframe.” Chrysler bought American Motors in 1987, just two years after the Comanche’s introduction. Although the Jeep brand was the primary reason for the AMC acquisition, Chrysler already had a solid lineup of Dodge trucks, and had no interest in competition among their own brands (unlike GM). So while the Comanche received updates along with the Cherokee for the rest of its production run (including the 190hp “high output” 4.0 motor), it was soon discontinued to leave the truck market exclusively to Dodge.

Jeep Comanche interior

They say you should never buy someone else’s project car. There are good reasons for that. You never know if they weren’t quite as good a wrench as they thought they were, installing parts improperly or neglecting maintenance that causes more problems later. This Jeep is an unfinished project. It was intended to become a tow vehicle, only to be replaced before it was finished, and finally put up for sale to fund other projects. The important fixes are already done, namely rust repair on the uniframe, rocker panels, floorboards, and behind the doors. The rusty driver’s door is easy to replace, as are the front fenders. The passenger door has already been replaced with a rust free one. It has all it needs to be complete, including the front bumper (and factory tow hooks – important for sweep duty), and the interior which hasn’t been reassembled yet. It’s just a matter of doing it. The seller and I also know each other from the New England rally community, which immediately raised the overall level of trust significantly for all of us.

So we went to see it for ourselves. It looked exactly like what we saw in the many pictures I was sent, both the good and the bad. It needed a jump start, and probably needs a new battery since it’s sat for so long. Steering and braking aren’t as good as what I’m used to driving, but I’m used to modern cars, not older trucks. So keeping in mind that I’ve been spoiled lately, it was fine. The engine is running a little rough, but that 4.0 inline-6 is a beast. It might just be old gas. A simple tune-up may help. There are also a ton of tips on the Comanche Club forum that may help (because every car in the world has its own web site and forum these days).

Jeep Comanche with cap

After driving it, despite its rough condition, we still liked it. So we plunked down a deposit and we’re buying it. Not only am I getting a garage, I’m also getting a project to work on. My first priority will be to do only what it needs to be in good enough shape to move and pass inspection.  That means bolting in the seat, seat belts, and the front bumper and tow hooks. It’s legal to run without the bumper, but it looks a bit sketchy. I’m already scoping out a replacement driver’s door, but replacing body panels and reinstalling the interior will wait until after the move. Fortunately, being a 1988 model, it won’t be tested for emissions, so it should be fairly easy to pass once the obviously rusted body panels are gone.

After that, it’ll be a rolling project through the winter. Instead of moisture trapping, rust enhancing carpet, I’ll probably just spray bedliner on the metal floor and call it done. Headlights will be upgraded to H4s, because I do that on every vehicle with sealed beams I own. I like to see where I’m going. I’ll install a ham radio and antenna for rally sweep duty, as well as general chit-chat. I’ll add an LED light bar at some point, too, to light up those dark back roads and rally stages. The interior will eventually get some way to mount a tablet for the passenger to use as a rally computer, probably RAM Mounts of some kind. Trailer hitches are no longer commercially produced for the Comanche, and the Cherokee hitches are a different design, but there are ways to find or fabricate them. The rear bumper is already a heavy duty looking custom fab job, so maybe I can modify it further to add a step bumper receiver. We already have a D-ring shackle to slide into a receiver that we picked up for sweep duty in Elana’s Liberty, so it would double as our rear tow point. More investigation will be required.

Jeep Comanche

Once warm weather returns in the spring, it’ll be time to attack any remaining rust and make it all one color again. The truck was originally red, but from what I’ve seen under the hood it probably faded pretty badly, and was given a quick respray in black at some point. It’s not the greatest paint job, but that just means I don’t have to worry about scratching it, and it’ll be easy to touch up. I’m inclined to follow the Rolling Stones’ advice and Paint It Black, but that’s open for debate.

I’m excited to try something new, and Elana’s excited that my our latest project is something she can enjoy as much as I do. It’ll help our rally volunteering, and could tow a rally car of our own later. It’ll also let me finally give off-road driving a try, satisfying a curiosity I’ve had ever since being tempted in my mom’s Cherokee years ago. It’s certainly not what I expected to be picking up for my next project, but it’s the right vehicle at (almost) the right time. Now I can finally see what this Jeep thing is really all about.

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(Top photo credit: Bangshift. Other photos by Brad DeSantis.)