How I Finally Got My Glorious 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle Back On The Road

Illustration for article titled How I Finally Got My Glorious 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle Back On The Road
Photo: David Tracy

I’ve owned my 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle for almost three years, but I’ve only ever driven it a total of five miles. For far too long, the Jeep sat in my driveway bothering my neighbors’ blight-sensitive eyes, but this weekend, that changed. Here’s how I got my glorious Golden Eagle back up and running, and what it was like driving such an epic vehicle for the first time in what feels like forever.

The story of my Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle starts in December of 2017. “Yesterday I drove over 500 miles to take a peek at a 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle and a 1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer—both of which Jalopnik reader Tammy offered me as a package deal for $3,400” I wrote in my article. “Somehow I resisted buying them on the spot, so now I come to you—my dear readers—for advice.”

The overwhelming majority of readers suggested that I buy the Golden Eagle, shown below, because even though it had a hideous bumper, a cracked grille, severely oxidized paint and a motor that cut out under acceleration, it was still beautiful. I heeded that advice, dropping $2,000 and dragging the heavy SJ-platform (shared with the Grand Wagoneer “Woody” that we all know and love) Jeep through an ice storm in a 707- horsepower Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. It was a harrowing ordeal.

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After polishing the Jeep, its paint job “popped,” transforming the machine into something truly beautiful (aside from the hideous bumper and cracked grille). See below. Unfortunately, in one of the most idiotic wrenching moves I’ve ever made, I decided to take the AMC 360 engine’s passenger-side cylinder head off to address a broken exhaust stud.

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The problem was that, after removing the head, I noticed markings on the cylinders that concerned me, plus deep grooves telling me the engine was worn out. After returning from a trip to see my family in Germany, I noticed that the cylinders had rusted a bit, solidifying my decision to just pull the motor and try to rebuild it.

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The Jeep sat motor-less and hood-less for over a year, with a tarp draped over the engine bay. My city eventually told me I had to get my cars into shape to comply with a local ordinance. This, along with my plans to disembark from my home in the near future, prompted me to get to wrenching.

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I briefly tried to refresh the engine with new rings and bearings, but in the end, I just bought a recently-rebuilt AMC 360 for $849, changed a few accessories and seals, and installed it just in time to meet my city ordinance and just prior to my diesel manual Chrysler Voyager trip to Europe.

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I returned from Europe a few weeks back and began working. I stepped things up a gear after learning that this past Sunday promised to bring three to five inches of snow (and the inevitable rust-catalyst, salt). I resolved to get the Golden Eagle on the road by Saturday at the latest. This meant wrenching. Lots of it.

I had installed the new engine before my trip to Europe, but that was about it. The engine was only loosely hooked to the transmission, the torque converter wasn’t bolted up, the accessory drive (the water pump pulley, power steering pump, alternator, etc.) wasn’t in, there wasn’t a radiator, the bumper was missing and the grille was still broken — basically, I got the car Inflated and Plated to appease the city, and that was it.

My friend Brandon, the wrenching genius who helped me rescue the Holy Grail Jeep Grand Cherokee from Colorado last year, came over on Friday and we toiled into the night. A few days prior, we’d installed the radiator, hooked up the wiring, bolted up the carburetor and tightened up the accessory drive.

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With the engine all buttoned up, and with the transmission and exhaust all fastened together, it was time to fire the Jeep up. We burned through one newly-rebuilt starter motor after our initial attempts, but after sourcing a new one, the Jeep fired up! (Check out the video above).

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The engine burned off all the automatic transmission fluid I had poured into the cylinders to keep them lubricated while the motor sat, sending a huge cloud of smoke over my neighborhood. There did seem to be some kind of ticking noise, which Brandon and I attributed to an exhaust leak, but otherwise, the engine sounded healthy.

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The following day, I set the engine’s ignition timing (i.e. when in the engine’s four-stroke cycle the spark event occurs) and adjusted the carburetor. I also measured the oil pressure (see above), and found it to be excellent.

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Before I hit the road, I had to install the bumper. The problem was that my frame horns had been cut off by the dealer back in 1979 in order to fit a winch bumper meant for pre-1979 full-size Jeeps, which did not have frame horns.

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Luckily, I found a Grand Wagoneer at my local junkyard, and though its frame was rusty, the horns seemed to have enough metal left in them to hold up the lightweight aluminum stock bumper that I planned to buy.

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Thanks to a fun electrolysis experiment, I managed to get the rust off the horns, and then I was ready to weld them to my frame.

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Half an hour with my $100 Harbor Freight welder, and I had frame horns solidly in place.

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Then I bolted on the Bumper that I’d bought all those years ago from the chicken and bumble bee-infested junkyard in North Carolina that I’d visited as part of a Toyota Camry review.

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That bumper, as you can see, needed some polishing:

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In short order, though, I had the bumper adjusted and shined up reasonably well. I also installed a nicer, non-cracked grille that I’d polished using a Dremel and some chrome polishing compound. The Jeep’s paint still needs some buffing, but the new bumper and grille look awesome:

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I headed out to fabled Woodward Avenue on Saturday night, realizing it was likely my last chance to drive the Jeep before salt began ravaging Michigan’s roads and vehicles. The Jeep’s AMC engine wasn’t running perfectly and there was quite a bit of smoke emanating from the exhaust, but I didn’t care. The Golden Eagle was driving, and looking damn good doing it:

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I still have quite a bit of work to do. After polishing up the paint, I’ll weld shut a little hole in the driver’s-side floorboard and then undercoat the body to keep rust away. I’ll also install some nice, shiny wheel center caps and new tires, plus I’ll fix the two vent windows since they’re broken.

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I also have to tune up the motor, which is making a strange noise (listen below) that I fear may be a bent pushrod or collapsed lifter. It may also be something related to the accessory drive, so I’ll remove the belts to see if it goes away, and take it from there.

Now that the Jeep has returned to America’s roadways, I feel the same way as I did when I finally revived my Jeep J10 pickup after it sat for four years: I wasted time.

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Even though I strongly prefer driving vehicles with manual transmissions, driving the Golden Eagle is a special experience. Looking over that aggressive hood as the big, brawny V8 underneath spins up those big tires hiding under the wide, tough fender flares — it’s just epic.

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It’s slow (but significantly faster than my old Grand Wagoneer), it doesn’t handle well, and it sucks gas at an alarming rate, but if the Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle doesn’t move you with its motor, it certainly moves you with its sheer presence. You can feel that from behind the wheel.

I wish I’d been feeling it for years, and not only just now. I may have to sell this machine in the not-so-distant future since my fleet is out of control, but before I do that, I need to make up for lost time. I need to take this beast on a road trip.

Sr. Tech Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from engineers—email me. Cars: Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94), Chrysler Voyager Diesel ('94)

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DISCUSSION

halftrackelcamino
Half-track El Camino

Why would you sell this one? This is one of the best vehicles in your fleet, and would be genuinely worth restoring. I’m not talking about a concours-level job or anything, just a nice reliable driver that can get you around and look good doin’ it. This is the one that I’d be pouring my energy into, if I were you. You never see these on the road anymore, but they’re very handsome vehicles and American as all hell.