Back in October, I wrote about the “Holy Grail of Jeep Grand Cherokees,” an extremely rare, first-generation manual transmission Grand Cherokee left to rot on a Wisconsin dairy farm. After reading that story, a reader miraculously discovered a second grail for sale for $800 in the Middle of Nowhere, Colorado. Unfortunately, it was 1,500 miles away and plagued by a bad clutch, a worn-out steering system, and 260,000 miles of wear. Naturally, I bought it. Sight unseen. Because I’m a fool.
On Thanksgiving day, a reader named Carter sent me an email with the title “Manual 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee - cars & trucks - by owner - vehicle automotive sale.” Clearly, he was forwarding a Craigslist posting, and as someone infatuated by manual “ZJ”-generation Grand Cherokees, I clicked it immediately.
This took me to a listing with some oddly-framed photographs of a black (and clearly rattle-canned) 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee for sale for $800. My eyes scanned to the right and saw “transmission: manual” in the specs column, and my heart started beating a bit faster. “Surely this person simply mislabeled the car, as commonly happens” I thought. But then I read the description.
“I have a new clutch that will go with it, just don’t have the time to put it in.”
OH GOD, my heart began pumping huge slugs of blood through my body as excitement brewed and my eyes widened. “Is this really the grail?!” I wondered, “or is the seller possibly referring to a viscous coupler ‘clutch’ in the transfer case?”
Having been disappointed so many times before, I tried calming myself, and used my now-shaking hand to click on the photos to see if I could get a glimpse of a third pedal or a shifter. And that’s when I saw it:
This was indeed the grail.
Before I continue, allow me to explain once again why this is such a big deal. The first-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee, which launched for the 1993 model year, was essentially a larger, more comfortable version of the Jeep Cherokee XJ. The “ZJ,” as all Grand Cherokees built through the 1998 model year were called, featured cushy seats, coil springs all the way around, a longer wheelbase, and a number of luxury features that made it a darling to drive. At least, compared to the XJ.
The Grand Cherokee, then, could easily have gone down in history as an improved version of its smaller, boxier sibling, which I consider the best Jeep of all time thanks to its incredible versatility. But instead, the ZJ Grand Cherokee has gained a reputation as a less-reliable, less capable Cherokee, in part because of electrical issues and especially due to transmission failures.
Hop onto Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace and look at cheap XJs and ZJs, and you’ll likely find plenty of the latter with problematic Chrysler-designed transmissions. By contrast, finding a stock XJ with a failed Aisin-Warner-designed unit is a rarity. (It’s worth mentioning that many ZJ diehards say the vehicle’s transmission failures are due entirely to owner neglect).
For this reason, early 1993 Grand Cherokees, which got the XJ’s stout Aisin-Warner automatic, are considered desirable in the ZJ community, but the most sought-after transmission is the AX-15 five-speed manual, also shared with the XJ, but offered in the ZJ for only 1993 and 1994 model years. Production numbers were, as you might imagine, rather low, with some predicting that only 1,500 or fewer manual ZJs ever made it to market.
A manual ZJ with the inline-six is essentially just a more comfortable XJ with a few more electrical gremlins to worry about, and in many ways, that makes it—at least in my eyes—the holy grail.
I immediately contacted the seller, who told me the Jeep was still available. I then went through all of my emails to see if I could find anyone who lived near Grand Junction, Colorado—an extremely remote city roughly an hour from where the Jeep was located.
For the last four years, I’ve been fixing up old Jeeps and driving them 1,700 miles to Moab, Utah. The closest city to Moab, and the one that I’ve had to visit on multiple occasions to buy parts, is Grand Junction, Colorado, and I knew a few readers had reached out to me offering to help me along my journey. One of them was Anthony.
“Hi David,” his email in April began. “Former Ford Engineer and confirmed non-serial killer here. I’m not quite on your route, but I’m close to your final destination and could give you a hand if you have trouble at the end of your trip,” he offered, kindly.
Anthony had just moved from Dearborn, Michigan to Grand Junction, he read my stories on Jalopnik and even offered to help, and he and I actually shared a mutual acquaintance (one of my former Chrysler coworkers moved to Ford and met Anthony), so I felt comfortable asking if the kind Coloradoan wouldn’t mind looking at a Jeep for me.
The day after Thanksgiving, Anthony drove about an hour out of Grand Junction to peek at the Grand Cherokee and take it for a test drive. He called me later that afternoon, telling me about a dent in the rear quarter panel that seems to have been patched with Bondo (see below), the clutch that slipped when applying “any more than 1/4 to 1/2 throttle,” and the “wandering” steering. He also told me the interior was grimy, the clutch pedal was stiff, and the oil pressure gauge didn’t work.
But the Jeep looked rust-free, its heater worked, the tires appeared to be in decent shape, and though Anthony said it was hard to tell how much power the engine made thanks to the slipping clutch, the 260,000 mile 4.0-liter inline-six seemed to run well, even if it leaked a bit.
I hadn’t seen any clear photos showing the entire vehicle (there was only one Craigslist photo showing the exterior, and it was framed oddly), and I had no clue what the right side of the Jeep looked like, but it didn’t matter. I was sold. I asked Anthony to buy the Jeep with the $800 I’d PayPaled him a few hours prior, and he did so, even managing to negotiate the price down to $700.
Also part of the agreement was that the seller would hold the vehicle at his place until I could come by and pick it up, sometime before the end of the year.
Anthony sent me a photo of the title, and I had a friend at Chrysler look into what features it came with from the factory. Apparently the vehicle was sold from Chrysler to a dealer right there in Grand Junction, CO, so this machine has remained local its whole life.
From the factory, it came with a Hunter Green Metallic paint job (which I plan to restore, along with the rest of this Jeep using parts from the Wisconsin “holy grail”); the “Power Equipment Group” (power windows!); and the Up Country Suspension Group, which means factory tow hooks, skid plates, taller springs, and upgraded shocks. A manual transmission ZJ is rare enough, but to find out this well-equipped, and especially with the factory off-road setup, is basically impossible.
Speaking of impossible, I’m going to be flying out to Colorado sometime this month to try to limp this Jeep back home to Michigan. Am I looking forward to swapping a clutch and fixing a steering system in a parking lot? I shouldn’t be, but I kind of am.
Each of the past four years, I’ve had to spend several months fixing up a junky Jeep to ready it for a cross-country drive. Now I have to do essentially the same drive, but with only days of preparation, and all on the road and in parking lots. This is going to be rough.