I want to be upfront about this: My plan to fly to Colorado with two suitcases full of car parts and tools, repair my $700 “Holy Grail” Jeep Grand Cherokee’s significant mechanical problems and then drive the 260,000 mile SUV 1,500 miles back to Michigan all in a span of four days is deeply flawed. Chances of failure are high, and yet, on Saturday, I’m going for it.
When I wire-transferred hundreds of dollars to a Grand Junction, Colorado resident whom I’d never met so he could buy me a 260,000 mile vehicle I’d never seen, I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I was in some sort of trance, as the synapses in my brain—having been triggered by the sight of an extremely rare manual shifter (it is believed that fewer than 1,500 manual transmission Jeep Grand Cherokees ever made it to production)—created in my head a captivating display of bright, boxy-Jeep shaped lights. That’s all I can remember starting from the moment I first saw the Craigslist post to now. For weeks, I’d been seeing these flashing lights. They just wouldn’t stop.
But now I’ve got my mind right, and though I can still see the silhouette of my 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee every time I blink, I’ve snapped out of the trance, and am now realizing the daunting nature of the task ahead.
Here’s my plan. First, I’ve purchased two dirt cheap Spirit Airlines flights from Detroit to Denver. I’m flying out there with my friend Brandon, my ace-in-the-hole when it comes to ridiculously rigorous wrenching projects because I’m going to need as much help as I can get to pull this off. Joining us will be two check-in bags filled with as many car parts and tools as we can fit without exceeding the 40 lbs weight limit. The two flights, together with the checked bags and a return flight for Brandon should this all go terribly awry (and because Brandon absolutely has to be back in Detroit on Thursday to catch his flight home for the holidays) cost me only $200. Thank god for Spirit Airlines.
We fly out of Detroit on Saturday night, arriving in Denver around 7 p.m.., at which point we’ll rent a cheap economy car, and drive four and a half hours over the Rockies to Grand Junction. That we’ll be doing this late at night and arriving in Grand Junction around midnight isn’t great, especially since that timing is optimistic considering the weather conditions along our route. Here’s what it will look like in Vail:
Assuming we’re able to get through that pass to Grand Junction by Saturday night, the plan is to find a cheap motel, wake up early the following morning to grab the Jeep key from Anthony (the gentleman who was kind enough to purchase the vehicle for me), and then drive an hour out of town to where the Jeep currently sits. On the way, we’ll stop by someone’s house to buy a front driveshaft for $50, because The Grail is missing its, and I have no plans to drive over the snowy Rockies in two-wheel drive.
This is where things get a bit tricky. The ZJ needs a new clutch, but doing the job at the seller’s house isn’t really an option. I need to somehow limp the Jeep somewhere where Brandon and I can spend a full day wrenching, because replacing a clutch is a job. Anthony was kind enough to offer up his family’s garage, which is back in Grand Junction over 50 miles away. That’s a long drive for a car with a bad clutch.
“It’s going to depend on the clutch. There are a few small hills between here and there that could be a challenge,” Anthony told me after I voiced my concerns. “The way the steering felt to me, I’m not sure you want to go [65 mph]...I do think it will make it though. It’s largely just straight flat highway so I think it’ll be fine.”
So, assuming we make it over the Rocky mountains on Saturday night, and assuming we can get the Jeep to Anthony’s garage early on Sunday morning, Brandon and I will spend all day participating in the wrench-fest of a lifetime. If we can get the clutch done by Sunday night, and repair the steering by Monday afternoon, that will give us 2.5 days to make the 1,500-mile, 22-hour drive back to Michigan. Even that is cutting it close.
In the back of the Jeep is a clutch kit that the previous owner never got around to installing, and I’ll be ordering a flywheel from the local Advance Auto Parts just in case the one bolted to the mighty 4.0-liter inline-six is too far gone. If it’s not, we’ll unbolt it and give it to one of Anthony’s colleagues, a machinist who said he’d be willing to come in on Sunday specifically to help us.
This clutch job is going to suck. Brandon and I have been watching videos and reading forum posts to see how to do it on a Jeep Cherokee XJ, since so few manual ZJs exist and we bet the procedure will be largely the same. We’ll have to remove the starter motor and clutch hydraulics, drop the transfer case off the back of the transmission, hold the transmission up with a floor jack as we lower the transmission cross member, unbolt the engine from the transmission while holding the engine’s oil pan up with a floor jack, and a bunch more. Brandon and I will have the full-service procedure on hand for reference, and we’ll label all of our parts.
We have to be very methodical about this because the transmission has to be out of the Jeep by noon, so we can get the flywheel to the machinist. While he’s working on it, Brandon and I will tackle the steering.
We don’t actually know what’s wrong with the steering, but apparently it’s quite bad. “Definitely not a tie rod only issue as there was a lot of free play in the wheel,” Anthony told me of his short test drive. “I’ve felt that before, just like an F-250 we owned that had a bad steering box.”
“Probably 15-20 degrees minimum dead zone in the wheel,” he told me. To fix this, I’ve ordered the full set of steering parts shown above and had it all shipped to Anthony’s house. Brandon and I will check the ball joints, tie rods, track bar, and any other steering or suspension part that may be loose. For Brandon and I to make it back to Michigan by Thursday, we have to be able to drive 70 mph, and to do that safely, there can be no slop in the steering whatsoever (well, beyond the slop that these Jeeps normally have).
I’ll be bringing a set of wheel hubs with me in a check-in bag, as well as a ridiculously heavy steering box that I will soon be extracting from a Jeep in a local junkyard. If the problem does end up being a bad steering box, at least I’ll have practiced removing one under extremely adverse conditions here in Michigan, where it’s ice cold and where every bolt is sure to be rusty.
Ideally, Brandon and I will have the clutch all fixed up by Sunday night, leaving us with Monday morning to finish up the steering repair. We’ll have to leave Grand Junction by Monday afternoon so we don’t have to climb the Rockies at night.
Of course, this all assumes that there are no other major issues with the Jeep, and that’s pretty unlikely for a vehicle with 260,000 miles on the odometer. Brandon and I aren’t going to drive this Jeep on public roads until the brakes, steering, and suspension are in tip-top shape. Plus, we have to change the fluids for good measure, and there are lots of other factors that I bet we’re not considering, so the chances of us getting the Jeep fixed by Monday afternoon are slim.
Even if we do, there’s a pretty decent chance that somewhere between Grand Junction and Detroit, the crankshaft position sensor, fuel pump, alternator, or some other part is going to strand us on the side of the road.
So if you find yourself anywhere along the route shown above, and you see a broken manual transmission Jeep Grand Cherokee, that’s me. Feel free to help. Or just laugh. Laughing is fine, too.