Can you do serious off-roading in Moab with a $600 Jeep? Next Easter, we’ll find out.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: “Dave, what about that J10 pickup?” And I agree, it’s dangerous to take on a second project before you’ve completed the first! But hear me out. Next year is Moab’s 50th Easter Jeep Safari. The 50th.

Apparently that’s an important number, because people are going ape-shit over it. Jeep guys and girls from around the world will be zeroing in on Moab next Easter to do some hard-core off-roading. And I’ll be among them.

In my $600 XJ.

You see, last year I went to the Easter Jeep Safari and you know what I saw lacking in the field of $100,000 JK Wranglers? Jankiness.


What I mean by “jankiness” is grassroots, low-budget Jeepin’. I’m talking about slapped-together lift kits, used tires, welded diffs— you know, jankiness. Craptacular-ness. Beaters. The very essence of the Jalop spirit.

So the goal of this $600 Jeep Cherokee Moab build is simple: to show the world that you don’t need a $100,000 Jeep with one-ton axles to go off-roading on the world’s most grueling terrain.

Before we go into details of what my plans are for this 1995 Jeep, let’s see what we’re working with here:

The Body


The body’s got some, um, issues. The previous owner ran over a street sign sideways, so there’s a huge cave in the driver’s-side B-pillar. This means the rear door won’t open. It also won’t close, as can be seen by the gap in the picture below.

This is a Michigan Jeep, so it’s a total rust-bucket. A “Flintstone’s Special,” as they say. See this rocker panel below? That’s not the original. That’s the replacement rocker panel rusting away.


And below the dirt in the picture below sits a replacement floorboard with a—you guessed it— rust hole. There’s some carpet hanging out in the center of the shot. And yes, those are screws poking out of the front of the floor. Clearly top-notch work by the last owner.


Aside from a ding here and there and a pushed-in rear bumper, the XJ looks decent outside. It’s a 20-footer, no doubt.


Powertrain and Drivetrain

Somehow, for only $600, I managed to purchase a Jeep with a perfect powertrain. The 156,000 mile 4.0-liter inline six sounds excellent. The automatic transmission shifts beautifully, and the fluid doesn’t smell burnt. There’s no drama when shifting into four-wheel drive, and there’s no whine from the differentials.


But the car does shake violently at speeds above 60, so there’s still work to do there. It may be an unbalanced tire, a bad wheel bearing or a blown u-joint.

There’s also a lot of oil on the side of the engine block, indicating a valve cover gasket leak. This oil seems to have flooded the starter solenoid, so the car has trouble starting every now and then.

There’s also a crack in the radiator just below the pressure cap, but all in all, the powertrain and drivetrain are rock-solid.



The interior doesn’t really matter for an off-road rig, though the 24 hour drive to Utah would be a lot nicer if I had speakers. Or air conditioning.


Then there’s this weird jerry-rigged duct-taped receiver for a remote key fob.

The headliner looks like a parachute.


The previous owner tried using sheet metal screws to fix the passenger door handle.

Neither rear door latch works, meaning it’s not possible to open the rear doors. It’s basically a four-door two-door XJ!


Then there’s a crack in the windshield right at eye-level. It’s very annoying.


Other Quirks

The rear wiper is broken and the mirror is duct-taped in place, but who needs mirrors and wipers off-road (sarcasm)?


The Plan

There will be lots of wrenching.

My plans are to cobble together a junkyard lift, find a good set of tires on Craigslist, maybe weld the rear diff or find a cheap lunchbox locker, and wheel this thing in Moab on some tough, but not insane trails. The goal will be to keep the budget as low as possible without compromising safety.


I haven’t completely hashed out my plans for how I’m going complete this budget build, so I’m happy to hear suggestions from you, our readers.