Last week, I wrote a post telling you, the glorious readers of Jalopnik, that I was beginning my seemingly-impossible 1,800 mile journey from Michigan to Utah in a $600 Jeep Cherokee. Here’s how that turned out.
The Project Swiss Cheese build began last fall, when I decided to buy the cheapest Jeep Cherokee I could get my hands on. The intent was to build the XJ using junkyard parts, and take it to Jeep’s 50th Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah.
The whole idea behind the project wasn’t to out-”wheel” people in $100,000 HEMI-swapped rigs on 40-inch tires. No, the real point was to show readers that you don’t need a fat wallet to go to Moab and enjoy Jeeptopia.
Jeep culture is so much more than just high-dollar Wranglers, but you wouldn’t know it if you attended the Easter Jeep Safari. At Jeep’s most renowned annual event, cheap-Jeep guys like me are hugely underrepresented, and that’s a real shame.
I think many junkyard-hunters think it’s too expensive to build a rig, drive it out to Utah, and take a week off work. I also think many budget-Jeep owners are intimidated when they look at pictures of the Jeep Safari and see all the heavily-modified Wranglers. “My puck-lifted WJ Grand Cherokee doesn’t stand a chance,” they think.
Well, let me just say: you can do it.
I just did.
I’ve put about $500 into my Jeep Cherokee getting it ready for the trip (plus tires, which I had sitting around). But despite that, and the fact that I had tons of parts and tools in the trunk, when it came time to hit the road to Moab, I had very, very low expectations.
Sure, I had changed the entire cooling system, braking system and suspension. And I had done a tune-up and changed all my fluids, but surely something would go wrong. After all, this was a Jeep that I had bought for $600 from a high-schooler. This kid beat the crap out of this poor little box-on-wheels.
But as the odometer rolled higher and higher, I began to realize that this Jeep Cherokee wasn’t as fragile as I feared. On the contrary, the thing was a beast.
The first leg was completely uneventful. The XJ drove through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri with no issues whatsoever. It seeped some fluids here and there, and sucked gas like a C-130 aircraft, but it just kept on moving—and at a fairly good clip, too.
Project Swiss Cheeese cruised along at 75 MPH with the loud 31-inch tires droning through the perforated floorboards. Those tires, the copious body rust, and the aerodynamic properties of a barn, culminated in a deafening ride.
But it didn’t matter. We were just happy not to be stranded on the shoulder of a major highway. The Jeep drove 800 miles in about 13 hours with no drama. No blown radiator hose. No bad crankshaft position sensor. No bad fuel pump.
Good job, little rusty XJ.
The second leg from my former home of Kansas City to Colorado Springs was the one I dreaded most. I-70 runs clear across Kansas in what I’d describe as an experience akin to watching RTV dry.
The wind blew hard against the Jeep’s starboard side, so the driver had to turn the wheel into the wind to compensate. Ten hours of that made our forearms ache. Aside from that, the Jeep did nothing to break the monotony. It kept cruising past giant fields and grain silos, the four-liter inline-six purring under the hood, AW4 shifting seamlessly in the transmission tunnel.
After the struggle through Kansas, we arrived in Colorado Springs for the night, beaming with pride for the rusty-but-trusty XJ.
After my friend’s parents graciously let us crash at their place in Colorado Springs, we drove through steep mountain passes on our way to Moab. The Jeep downshifted to third, then to second. Revs climbed to 4,000, as the engine started rejecting many, many Kilowatts of heat into its coolant.
But the cooling system didn’t waver. The engine temperature remained pegged right in the middle at 210. Everything was on point.
Then I got a call from the support car, a 2007 Dodge Caliber (yes, the same one that went 12,000 miles between oil changes). Steam billowed from the engine bay.
Upon further inspection, the plastic piece connecting two radiator hoses had cracked, and coolant just gushed out.
A few zip-ties and some JB-weld later, and the Caliber was sealed and climbing seven-percent grades without issue.
The Jeep took the lead, and drove through the canyons into the sunset until it finally made its glorious arrival in Jeep Mecca.
None of us could believe this junky Jeep made it over 1,800 miles without any major issues. It’s a true miracle, and it makes me wonder just how reliable this Jeep is. The best way to find out? Go wheeling.
The next #projectswisscheese update will give you an idea of how well this rust-bucket does off-road. So far, we’ve done a night run on Fins ‘n Things and a gorgeous seven-hour drive on Seven Mile Rim. While those aren’t particularly difficult trails, the XJ took even the hardest obstacles on either trail with ease.
Even with open diffs, the XJ found traction on loose, steep grades. The suspension was soft, and articulation was excellent (especially now that we’ve removed the sway bars).
More updates are on the way, but feel free to check out my Twitter, as I’ve been tweeting off-road pics like a madman.