“I think I’m going to fly home. I can’t take this anymore,” Brandon mumbled as he sat slouched in the corner of a Denver bar. It was approaching midnight, and my friend was in shambles, his spirits having been crushed by 12 straight hours of extreme, high-intensity wrenching on the rare, manual transmission Jeep Grand Cherokee that I’d foolishly purchased sight unseen for $700. We were 1,300 miles from home, and I’d clearly made a grave mistake.
To understand how we’d arrived at such a pathetic situation, read the first two parts of “The Holy Grail Rescue” series. The short of it is that, earlier this year on Black Friday, I bought for $700 a rare (roughly one of 1,500 ever built) manual transmission Jeep Grand Cherokee that was sitting in the middle of nowhere, 1,500 miles from my house. The Jeep had a bad clutch, a faulty steering system, 260,000 miles of wear, and who knows what else might have been wrong with it. So I devised an utterly idiotic plan for my wrenching buddy Brandon and me to transport tools/parts on a Spirit Airlines flight so we could fly to the Holy Grail, fix it, and drive it home.
Transporting tools and car parts to Denver worked out remarkably well. Driving from the airport over the Rockies during a snow storm wasn’t too bad either, thanks to a generous reader lending me his glorious, beat-up 1993 Chevy pickup. Somehow, the first two questionable parts of my stupid plan had worked out swimmingly, but things were about to change.
After spending the night in a cheap motel in Grand Junction, Brandon and I stopped by Anthony’s house. Anthony is the reader (and former Ford engineer who used to work with my former colleague at Chrysler) who had kindly purchased the Jeep on my behalf back in November. He was also offering to help Brandon and me with the rescue mission by lending his garage and wrenching skills. Anthony grabbed the key to the Jeep, and the three of us—crammed onto the bench seat of the borrowed Chevy pickup—headed southeast to the ridiculously remote town of Olathe, Colorado, where The Grail sat.
On our way there, we met up with a guy I’d discovered on Facebook Marketplace selling a rare, vacuum-disconnect front axle for a manual Jeep Cherokee. This was a part that I’d been looking for for over a year to repair my salvage-title dream Jeep Cherokee XJ. That I ended up finding a nice, rust-free one out in the middle of nowhere was pure luck.
With that absurdly heavy axle lifted from one GM pickup bed into another, the three of us continued our 50-mile trek out into the high desert of Colorado—a place filled with endless expanses of brown grass and barren trees in the foreground and mountains and beautiful red rocks in the background.
After about an hour cruising down the empty, glass-smooth roads, we arrived in Olathe, where Anthony directed us to a home with horses hanging out in its front yard. That’s when I first laid eyes on the Holy Grail:
It was...fine. I guess I expected the clouds to part and send a bright beam of sunshine onto a mint condition example of the world’s first fully coil-sprung Jeep. But no, there was no sun anywhere, and the Holy Grail Jeep was in pretty average condition. And if I didn’t live in The Land Of Rust, I’d probably use a term less generous than “average.”
The paint is absolute trash, having been rattle-canned by a previous owner; Even when I peeled some of the black outer layer, the original Hunter Green paint job and clear coat looked badly sun-faded.
The interior was filthy, some of the steering wheel’s outer layer had peeled away to reveal red plastic underneath, the rear bench’s headrests were missing, the glovebox latch was broken and the lid kept falling, both door panels had cracks, the dash also looked crunchy, the center stack trim surrounding the ugly aftermarket radio was broken, and there was a layer of grime on everything.
The Holy Grail Jeep—a vehicle that I had glorified for its rarity, and that I had thought was in decent overall condition—was hideous both inside and out.
But what made this particular Jeep so special in my eyes was never its looks, it was its mechanicals. And in that area, the Jeep exceeded my expectations. For one, the body structure looked literally 100 percent rust free to the point where the original underbody anti-rust coating still appeared in great shape. As someone who normally buys vehicles with more square feet of floor missing than present, this blew me away.
Then it came time to start the Jeep. I hopped into the gross interior, pressed the clutch (it felt a little squishy, but not terrible), and turned the ignition switch. The engine cranked for a few seconds, but didn’t fire. I gave the starter a break, turned the key again, and the 4.0-liter, AMC-designed inline-six sprang to life, its lifters ticking loudly and its serpentine belt squealing. Within a few seconds, the belt got up to speed, the pump circulated oil throughout the motor, and the engine ran as quietly and smoothly as the best Jeep four-liters I’d ever heard. I found this remarkable for a 260,000 mile motor.
But I didn’t have time to ogle at this Jeep’s rust-free body or beautiful-running inline-six, I had to get the machine to Anthony’s heated garage 50 miles back in Grand Junction. And given the fact that the clutch apparently slipped badly according to Anthony, I was worried we might have to flat-tow the Jeep using a nylon tow strap and the borrowed Chevy 2500.
Despite this risk, I sent Brandon off in the Chevy to stop by the Advance Auto Parts store in a nearby town to pick up a flywheel that they apparently had in stock. If our clutch replacement job took too long, I figured, we may not have time to have the flywheel machined. And even if we did, the flywheel may be in bad shape, so I figured having a good flywheel on hand was a smart move, just in case.
Brandon drove off to the store, and Anthony and I buckled up in the Jeep’s front seats. I’d never piloted a vehicle with a slipping clutch, so this was going to be interesting, especially since Anthony and I might soon end up stranded in the middle of nowhere waiting for Brandon to bail us out. Sitting in the ridiculously comfortable cloth seats with integrated headrests like pretty much all cars from the 1990s had (for some reason), I pressed the clutch and yanked the five-speed shifter what felt like a quarter mile to the right and down into reverse. I slowly released the clutch, and the Jeep moved!
Then I shifted up, to the left, and up into first gear, noting the wonderful notchiness of the shifter. I let off the clutch slowly, and the Jeep progressed forward! I drove up to about 15 or 20 mph, then shifted into second. It shifted great, and we were now doing over 25!
I’d been worrying all week about the Jeep’s clutch possibly being too broken to drive to Anthony’s from Olathe, so I’d devised a plan-of-attack: I’d rev the motor up, and shift late so I could avoid pressing the throttle too hard and sending lots of load through the clutch.
This trick worked beautifully. I usually made sure to let the 4.0-liter hit 3,000 RPM before maneuvering the beautifully-shifting five-speed to its next gear, and the result was that, even on the admittedly moderate hills between Olathe and Grand Junction, the only times I saw a slip involved climbing the steepest grades in fifth gear.
I babied the Jeep all 50 miles to Grand Junction, averaging around 55 mph on what was a remarkably smooth (aside from some vibration at around 65 mph), drama-free drive in a shitbox that I’d purchased for only $700, and that I’d expected to be undrivable. It was not, and I was amazed. But then Brandon and I entered wrenching hell.
Though I managed to limp the “ZJ”-generation Grand Cherokee over 50 miles to Anthony’s house, and only slip the clutch once or twice, there was no way in hell I was going to get the 3,600-pound SUV over the Rockies with a bad clutch. What’s more, as Anthony had told me after his initial test drive, there was something severely wrong with the steering. During my time behind the wheel, I’d heard lots of clunking, and felt a distinct looseness and wandering in the front end. Brandon and I clearly had some wrenching to do.
But we were prepared. We’d brought every tool we thought we’d need, I’d ordered parts and tools online and had them shipped out to Anthony’s garage in Grand Junction, we’d asked the nearest car parts store to place a bunch of loaner tools aside so we could pick them all up as soon as we got into town, and we’d studied what it was going to take to swap out the clutch. Not to mention, Brandon and I had previous removed and rebuilt transmissions and engines together, so neither of us were worried about the job being above our skill level. What concerned us was time.
Between snagging the Jeep from Olathe, picking up the tools from the parts store, and borrowing a transmission jack from some friends of Fred Williams of Dirt Everyday (big thanks to Fred for hooking us up), Brandon, Anthony, and I really didn’t start wrenching until about 3 p.m. on Sunday, and Brandon absolutely had to be back in Michigan by Thursday afternoon to catch his flight home for the holidays. This meant he and I had to leave Grand Junction by Tuesday afternoon at the very latest.
We had 24 hours to do this clutch job, fix the steering, and mend whatever else was broken—an incredibly daunting task.
We got really lucky with the steering issue, because after I turned the steering wheel back and forth as Brandon observed from underneath, he figured out the problem: The track bar bracket on the unibody was loose.
This is a big deal, because the track bar is what keeps the axle from moving laterally. If the bracket is loose, turning the steering wheel will actually tend to move the axle away from the center of the vehicle instead of turning the front wheels and steering the body of the vehicle, as intended. This issue ultimately yielded an extremely odd steering sensation during my test drive. If you’re still not convinced this is a huge deal, consider that the new “JL” Jeep Wrangler had to be recalled because its track bar bracket welds could come undone and possibly cause “a reduction in steering response” and “a vehicle crash without prior warning.”
Luckily, we didn’t have to weld anything, since the ZJ’s track bar is bolted to the main structure. All of the fasteners were loose, so we simply put some threadlocker on the bolts, and tightened the nuts to spec.
With the steering fixed, we turned our attention to the clutch, which sits between the engine and transmission. The engine is held to the vehicle’s body via the engine mounts, while the transmission sits on a cross-member; it’s generally assumed that it makes more sense to remove the trans than it does to yank the engine, so that’s what Brandon and I did.
First, we had to take off the transfer case that’s bolted to the back of the transmission. But to do that, we had to undo the rear driveshaft. It was held onto the rear axle by four fasteners, and it just slid into the transfer case’s slip yoke. Removing the shaft took under five minutes.
Yanking the transfer case took considerably more effort. We first had to remove the crossmember spanning the two main unibody rails and holding up the transmission. To do this, we had to support the transmission with a floor jack, undo the bolts holding the transmission and exhaust pipe to the crossmember, and then take two bolts out that were holding each side of the crossmember to the body.
We also detached the exhaust pipe from the engine’s exhaust manifold so it wouldn’t be in the way of the transmission and transfer case that we were about to drop.
In addition to lowering the crossmember, moving the exhaust out of the way, and pulling the driveshaft, Brandon and I unhooked the linkage (that little rod hanging from the transfer case in the photo above) connecting the in-cabin four-wheel-drive lever to the transfer case, and we unplugged the shift light switch and vehicle speed sensor. We also drained the case.
From there, we simply lowered the transmission by twisting the jack handle. This also brought both the transfer case and the rear of the engine (which, again, is connected to the body upfront via motor mounts) down a few inches. The extra clearance was a godsend when it came to loosening all of the nuts holding the transfer case onto the back of the transmission.
Even with the T-case lowered, we still had a hell of a time removing one particular fastener, and had to break out some extensions and a crowfoot socket to finally get it undone. But eventually, we dropped the transfer case onto the transmission jack, lowered it, and pulled it out from under the vehicle.
Next, it was time to separate the transmission from the engine. We’d already drained the trans (you can see the fluid above; notice all the brass from the synchros). From there, Anthony took out the starter motor, I disconnected the shifter (see below), and the three of us undid the many bolts holding the transmission bell housing to the engine.
The top two bolts holding 4.0-liter Jeep engines to their transmissions are external torx bolts, and I won’t get into why they’re such a pain in the ass, but I will just say that there’s a special place in hell for whoever decided that was the right fastener for this application.
We also had to unhook the clutch hydraulics (particularly the slave cylinder) that allow for the force from the driver’s foot pressing the clutch pedal to be transferred to the clutch release fork.
At that point, we moved the transmission jack under the trans, supported the engine by its pan, and I kicked the transmission towards the rear of the Jeep. Eventually, the bell housing separated roughly 18 inches from the engine, revealing the source of our peril:
The photo above shows the pressure plate and flywheel, both of which we removed with Anthony’s excellent pneumatic impact wrench.
This revealed a severely worn clutch that was so thin, the rivets were barely recessed, and it showed what looked like a pressure plate with concentric wear marks around it.
The flywheel, too, had what appeared to be heat marks, though it looked pretty decent overall:
On the transmission housing side of things was the clutch release fork, which gets pushed by the foot-actuated clutch hydraulics to force a throwout bearing (which slides up and down the transmission’s input shaft bearing retainer) against the pressure plate fingers, separating and releasing the pressure plate from the clutch disc and ultimately disconnecting the engine from the drivetrain.
Brandon replaced the throwout bearing in the bell housing, and I worked on the engine side of things, renting a pilot bearing extractor tool to remove the pressed-into-crankshaft pilot bearing on which the transmission input shaft rode:
I then hammered a new pilot bearing (which was part of the Luk clutch kit that came in the back of the Jeep) into the crankshaft using a sledgehammer and some cardboard, and installed the new flywheel.
Unfortunately, Brandon and I had trouble torquing the six flywheel bolts to spec without just spinning the engine over with the torque wrench (we tried jamming things against the flywheel to no avail). So we ran an idiotic “calibration test” on Anthony’s pneumatic impact wrench, tightening wheel lug nuts to see what pressure setting and impact duration corresponded with what torque according my click-style torque wrench.
It was ridiculously imprecise, but, with threadlocker on the bolts, I simply used the silly test results to dial the appropriate pneumatic pressure displayed on the compressor/tank, and to hold the impact wrench’s trigger for the prescribed time. With the flywheel bolted up, Brandon and I went on with our day, realizing we had bigger issues to solve.
I placed the clutch against the flywheel and shoved the plastic alignment tool (which came with the kit) through the former’s splines and into the pilot bearing. This made sure that the clutch was perfectly concentric with the flywheel so that the input shaft could go through the clutch’s splines and into the pilot bearing. I held this alignment tool while gradually torquing the pressure plate, which I’d installed over the clutch disc, down to the flywheel, alternating sides as I tightened to ensure a uniform fit.
With the clutch kit in place, we rolled the transmission back up against the engine. Getting the engine and trans bell housing bolt holes to line up took some effort (upper body strength, and, mind you, at this point we were roughly 10 hours in, wrenching in a groggy slumber on our backs) and some long bolts to act as guides, but we powered through.
Installation of everything else was the reverse of removal, which is a classic Haynes Manual way of oversimplifying an arduous task. And it was arduous. The image above shows the Jeep after we bolted up the Aisin five-speed and used the trans jack to lift the heavy transfer case. But of course, that didn’t really lift it perfectly to the right spot on the back of the transmission, so Brandon and I had to basically bench-press the case while rotating it just so. At this point, we were nearly 11 hours in; it was 2 a.m.
With the T-case tightened, we moved the jack from under the transmission to under the transfer case, so we could install the crossmember under the transmission. Then we attached the exhaust and various transfer case and transmission linkages and connectors, and with the trans now all hooked up and being held in place by the crossmember, Brandon and I went to our motel—but not before taking this photo of our filthy selves at 3:16 a.m.
We took the Chevy 2500 to the motel, and upon arrival at ~3:40 A.M., we were greeted by a receptionist who told us: “Okay, check in is at 3 p.m.”
Brandon and I, covered in grease and both looking at the ground at this point because we were too tired to support our heads, slowly peered up at each other. He looked into my eyes and I looked into his, and where we might otherwise have seen “joy” or “a soul,” all we saw was hollowness. The receptionist told us that, since we were so late, she couldn’t give us the room we’d reserved since we were officially “no shows” for the night. As it approached 4 a.m.., I firmly, but somehow still courteously, asked her to phone up her manager, and no I didn’t care if he was asleep.
This did the trick. Brandon and I washed the grime off our faces (yes, that dirt on the towel above is just from my face), and pretty much died in our beds that night, waking up five hours later in filthy bedsheets, ready to finish the job.
The following day went fairly smoothly, aside from me realizing that the u-joints on the rear driveshaft were toast, and Brandon and Anthony having to puncture the engine oil filter with a flathead to extract it since some fool had over-tightened it:
Anthony had checked the diffs to make sure they had oil (they did), he’d fixed the front wiper washer, Brandon and I replaced the front brake pads since they were shot (Brandon ended up breaking a slide pin, so I had to borrow one from the new front axle I’d just bought from the desert roadside), Anthony and I bled the front brakes, and I filled the transmission and transfer case.
We threw in the driveshaft and a new air filter, Anthony replaced a bunch of burned-out bulbs, and he even came up with a creative way to keep our headlight housing from falling out using a tuna can lid as a spring clamp. (This is how it looked after I removed it; Anthony actually got it sitting nice and flush):
There’s a lot more to the wrenching tale, but if there’s anything I want to communicate it’s that the prior night of wrenching from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. essentially non-stop on our backs was true hell, as I’m sure is made clear by this clip:
I quickly learned that the five hours of sleep Brandon and I got after the ordeal simply hadn’t been enough.
By a little after 2 p.m. on Monday, we backed the ZJ out of Anthony’s garage and hit the streets to see if we’d screwed up somewhere. We had not.
The Jeep drove beautifully. The engine was smooth, the clutch engagement was spot on, and the vibration I’d felt the prior day at 65 mph was gone, likely thanks to the new rear driveshaft U-Joints. Even though we hadn’t replaced a bent lower control arm we’d spotted on the passenger’s side, the Jeep had no trouble driving straight down the road. Brandon and I said our goodbyes to the kind Jalopnik reader who had graciously bought me an automobile, invited us into his home to fix it, and rolled up his sleeves to help us get the machine on the road.
With tools loaded up and the axle I’d bought now in the back of the Jeep, Brandon hopped into the Chevy, and I drove The Grail east over the mountain pass.
Everything was remarkably fine. The Grand Cherokee cruised along the highway at 70, and while there was a little gear noise from fifth gear and the rear diff, it was mostly quiet. This was remarkable, as it wasn’t lost on me that I was driving a 260,000 mile machine that I’d bought for $700. It wasn’t supposed to be this good!
I’ll admit that I was excited—tired as hell, but incredibly thrilled to be behind the wheel of such a rare machine that I’d been dreaming of since I was a teen, and especially an underdog showing the world that it’s still got lots of life left:
But in my excitement, I had neglected my friend, Brandon. He was in a bad state, as I’d soon find out once we arrived in Denver. It all happened right inside this bar:
After returning the truck to its owner, I arranged to meet with some readers at a bar called the Kentucky Inn at 10:45 p.m., as meeting fellow car enthusiasts truly is the greatest joy of this job. Upon arrival, I sat at the bar with readers and Brandon, who after about five minutes, got up and walked towards the rear of the bar, presumably to the bathroom.
I chatted with Jalops about cars for 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 30, but Brandon didn’t return. Realizing that even the slimiest of digestive issues shouldn’t take this long, I excused myself from the group and walked toward the back of the bar only to find Brandon by himself in a corner, slumped down in a chair sitting a mysterious pool of some kind of shiny, metallic liquid.
Brandon wasn’t asleep; he appeared to be on the phone, struggling to find a hotel, and just generally struggling to exist. Slowly, he looked up at me, and the hollowness in his eyes made clear to me what that liquid was: It was his spirits. They had escaped him after the unbearably boring Spirit Airlines flight, the drive over the mountains in the random reader’s old pickup, the arduous 12-hour wrenching session, the shitty argument at the motel at 4 a.m., the five hours of sleep, and the four-hour drive in the dark back over the mountains to Denver. It had all added up, and it had just been too much.
“I think I’m going to fly home. I can’t take this anymore,” he mumbled as he remained slouched in the corner. At this point, I told him we were leaving, bid adieu to my new friends at the bar, and found us a nice-ish hotel where we got a solid 8+ hours of sleep.
The night at the hotel had rejuvenated Brandon, and though he realized he was risking missing his Thursday flight to see his parents over the holidays, he decided he wanted to road-trip with me.
The trip was phenomenal. We drove through Brandon’s home state of Nebraska, then into Iowa, then Illinois, then Indiana. The Jeep drove perfectly:
It only scored about 17 mpg, but it’s an old shitbox, and that’s just how these things work. Otherwise, all was great. The engine felt torquey; the transmission shifted smoothly, but with just the right notchiness and just long enough throws to be fun; the ride was decent; The radio worked well (okay, the driver’s side speaker is out); and though there was a bit of gear noise, the whole thing was drama-free.
The drive across the Breadbasket Of America was glorious. Somehow my idiotic plan had worked. I had purchased a 260,000-mile machine from the middle of nowhere sight unseen, flown with suitcases of parts and tools to the nearest big city on a Spirit Airlines flight, made it over the Rockies during a storm, repaired a bad clutch and steering system, and driven the $700 clunker back to Michigan without issue.
And there, in Michigan, I took the Jeep to its birthplace, Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit—a huge facility built specifically for the ZJ Grand Cherokee back in the early 1990s. It was a touching moment, and a fitting end to the story of The Holy Grail:
There’s a reason why, when I initially laid out my plan to repair and drive a high-mileage Jeep I’d never seen before across the country, I referred to that plan as “idiotic”: Success was extremely improbable. But luckily, I brought along my ace-in-the-hole, my friend Brandon, a man who proves time and again that he’s got my back through even the most arduous of automotive ordeals. My Holy Grail Jeep may be one of 1,500, but Brandon is one of one.