A Pre-Road Trip Inspection Might Have Just Saved My Thanksgiving

Last night I was wrenching on the $600 Jeep Cherokee in my ice-cold driveway, preparing for a road trip, when I decided to track down a little squeak I had heard in my front suspension. What I found was a major mechanical fault that could have left me stranded on the highway—or worse—this Thanksgiving.

Today I’m headed 650 miles to Virginia to hang out with my brothers for Thanksgiving. Because Michigan is already a wintery hell-hole, and roads are covered in salt, my plan was to take my $600 Jeep Cherokee winter beater to save whatever metal I have left in the rest of my fleet.


But Project Swiss Cheese needed some work before it was ready for a long haul. I had three things planned: First, I had to replace its rotted out muffler (shown below). Second, I wanted to track down a little squeak coming from near my front suspension, which I could hear fairly well thanks to my lack of floorboards. And last, I needed to go to the junkyard and snag a front sway bar, then come home and extend its links via bolts and a welder, and install it into the lifted 1995 Jeep Cherokee.

The muffler job was fairly easy, especially since I just used some clamps instead of welding it all together. A new muffler was $13.33 on Amazon, and—with the adapters and clamps—the whole job probably came in at under $30. I rented an exhaust cutting tool from O’Reilly, cut the pipes to length, bolted it all together, and called it good.

Then I raised my front axle to check for that little squeak. Here’s what I found:


I discovered the noise instantly when I went to wiggle my front left wheel. There should be very little play in a wheel when a vehicle is jacked up; too much can be caused by a worn steering box, bad ball joints, screwed up tie rod ends, or a ruined wheel bearing.

After noticing that my steering knuckle has very little play, but that my wheel was flopping around in all directions despite the lug nuts being tight, I concluded that my wheel hub is completely shot. This is a shame, since I replaced that sucker three years ago before heading to Moab.


Though I will admit that I subsequently did this, which could have contaminated the bearing:


Needless to say, I will not be taking this Jeep to Virginia today, since I frankly have no desire or time to swap a wheel bearing right now. And also, the Jeep is a bit of a shitbox, so the drive would be pretty miserable anyway.

I haven’t done much to the 1995 Jeep XJ since I sunk ~$1,400 worth of parts into it and took it to and from Moab back in 2015. I’ve fixed the rear brakes when they sprang a leak at a wheel cylinder, and I’ve changed the oil, but that’s about it. Otherwise, the rustbucket has been good to me. Well, sort of.


Somehow, despite having either a cracked head or a slight head gasket leak thanks to me overheating it a few years ago, the Jeep has just kept on going. The oil level hasn’t increased, and there’s no steam coming from the exhaust once the engine has warmed up, so it appears the issue is minimal.

But are other problems besides the toasty muffler that left the tailpipe hanging by a single exhaust hanger, the bad wheel bearing, and the lack of sway bars make the car’s steering feel useless for about 20 degrees of rotation. The HVAC blower stopped working, meaning I only get heat when I’m moving, and even then, I need to keep my jacket on if it’s under 40 degrees. The windows don’t work. The doors, except for the rear hatch and driver’s door, do not function. The radio broke. The dash lights broke. The dome lights ceased operating.


The taillights work, but only because the reverse lights are on all the time after I hot-wired the neutral safety switch, and then screwed the neutral bulbs into the taillight sockets. Sometimes the left light flickers on and off. And the floors have somehow gotten worse, leading to really dumb situations like this one:


But the four-liter engine still makes great power, the AW4 transmission shifts beautifully, the $120 lift kit I put together still makes for a nice ride, and the brakes and tires are in decent shape. Plus, the seat hasn’t fallen through the floor yet, which is a true blessing.


Anyway, that crap-can is staying here in Michigan where it belongs (more precisely, it belongs a few miles down the street in a junkyard), and my chariot for today’s journey will be a lovely 1992 Jeep Cherokee, which isn’t mint, but is definitely in better shape than the green XJ by simple virtue of the fact that three out of four floorboards still exist. Everything, for the most part, works on it other than the electric antenna, including the cruise control and the dirt cheap Craigslist replacement engine I installed a few years ago after my hydrolock.

The roads are salty, but dry, so hopefully I can make the drive without too much rust catalyst making its way in the cracks of my Jeep’s body panels. I’m just a bit paranoid, since the red Jeep was my first vehicle, and as you can imagine, I’ve seen some things when it comes to rust. Things that have left deep scars in my psyche.


Still, even behind the wheel of my trusty red steed, reaching Virginia on time is far from guaranteed, but I have faith in that $140 engine I bought out of someone’s front yard. Worst case, I’ll be eating turkey in an O’Reilly Auto Parts parking lot. Which could be a good time.

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About the author

David Tracy

Writer, Jalopnik. 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle, 1985 Jeep J10, 1948 Willys CJ-2A, 1995 Jeep Cherokee, 1992 Jeep Cherokee auto, 1991 Jeep Cherokee 5spd, 1976 Jeep DJ-5D, totaled 2003 Kia Rio