My $600 Jeep Cherokee XJ, called Project Swiss Cheese after its copious rust, not only made the nearly 2,000 mile journey to Moab, but it also kicked butt on the trails. It did a heroic job out there. The journey home, however, was a total shit-show.
Dear driveway: I know how much you miss #projectswisscheese. You miss the bright red automatic transmission fluid it would leak onto you from its front transfer-case output shaft seal. You miss the warm, amber 10W-30 engine oil that would seep from the Jeep’s oil-filter housing and stain you eternally.
You reminisce upon the smelly axle oil that’d creep past the Jeep’s inner axle seals, run down the tires, and color you brown. You miss the sweet, refreshing coolant that would trickle from the thermostat housing and keep you cool.
It’s been two weeks now since the $600 XJ left your cracked, stained surface, on an almost certain one-way journey. I know you never thought you’d see her again. Heck, I never thought you’d see her again, but I have a surprise.
After over 4,000 miles of highway driving and the grueling off-road trails of Moab, Project Swiss Cheese has somehow, against all odds, returned to Michigan.
The journey home, though, was fraught with peril and despair.
The Battery From Hell
After kicking major butt at the Easter Jeep Safari, the XJ rolled down U.S. Route 191 just outside of Moab with some pep in its step. It had just driven over 2,000 miles and tackled off-road trails like a champ. Surely, some simple highway driving back to Michigan would be no problem, it thought.
But the XJ thought wrong, because not more than five miles outside of Moab, a horrible smell permeated the air. My friend Bobby and I turned towards each other suspiciously, wondering if the other was the cause of something so powerful and putrid—a rotten egg smell pungent enough to peel paint. Surely not.
We pulled over and found that the smell seemed to be coming from the rustbucket. We rummaged through our belongings, trying to find a bag of rotten food or a dead animal. Nada.
We kept driving to see if the smell would disappear. It got worse. Much worse. Rolling down the windows didn’t help. The noxious smell forced us to pull over again, but this time, we popped the hood, and immediately knew what was going on: the battery had boiled over.
We heard a hissing sound from the lead-acid battery, as steam billowed from its vents. In an effort to retain the few brain cells that the acid gas hadn’t wiped from our heads, Bobby and I quickly ran away from the piping-hot battery to let it cool down, and to stay clear in case it caught fire or exploded.
After about a half an hour, we returned to the XJ and bee-lined to the nearest auto parts store to nab a fresh battery. After dropping about 90 bucks on some fresh electrons, Bobby and I decided we’d try to fix the root-cause of the battery-boiling issue. But instead of fixing it, we just made things worse.
The Bone-Headed Alternator Swap
Figuring that the alternator’s internal voltage regulator had gone bad, I decided to do an alternator swap. I had a spare in the back, so the risk was low, I thought.
Since Bobby was new to wrenching, I figured I’d walk him through the alternator installation process. He completed each step to perfection, but I somehow forgot to mention two steps in the process – connect the alternator ground, and check the serpentine belt after installation.
So after an hour and a half and what we both thought was a perfect alternator swap, we heard a loud banging noise from under the hood. It kept getting louder and louder and louder, as black pieces littered the road in my rearview mirror.
“Crap, the belt is falling apart,” I said. The problem was, we were on a very busy roadway, and the shoulder was too small to safely pull over.
We kept driving, as the belt’s polymer chains hung onto each other for dear life. Finally, we got to a wider shoulder where we could assess the damage.
The belt was routed properly, but it was shredded to about half width. I turns out, I hadn’t checked the belt’s seating after the alternator installation, so it had been sitting improperly on the power steering pulley and basically ate itself with each engine revolution. Luckily, I had a spare belt in the back of the Jeep.
As 18-wheelers zoomed by just outside Grand Junction, Colorado, driven by fear, Bobby and I changed a serpentine belt faster than anyone ever in the history of humankind. It must have been a six or seven minute job from start to finish, as we rushed to avoid being hit by a snoozing truck driver.
But that wasn’t the end of our alternator troubles.
With a fresh belt, we drove confidently into Colorado, sure that we’d make it to Bobby’s parents’ house at a reasonable hour. But our confidence dropped with the voltage needle on the dash, which indicated that the battery was depleting. And fast.
There was nowhere to pull off, and the shoulder was too dangerous. Bobby bravely kept driving, as I walked him through what he was about to experience. The power steering would go out, the power brakes would fade, and he’d have to coast the Jeep somewhere away from traffic.
We saw an exit in the distance, as the venerable four-liter started to sputter. Bobby was losing power, but he stayed focused on the road. “I have to get to that exit,” he declared.
The Jeep slowed down. 70 MPH became 60. 60 became 50. The Jeep’s barn-like aerodynamic properties were working against us, as Bobby strove to limp the Jeep to safety.
We reached the exit and the Jeep, now going 20 MPH, reached a stop sign. “I’m going to have to stop here,” Bobby said, defeated. I looked left, told him it was clear, and that he could just coast a right turn.
As he made the turn, Bobby yelled “Oh crap! There’s no power steering!” Despite the fact that I had told him he’d lose power steering, Bobby wasn’t prepared for the sheer heft of that wheel. We took the turn wide, but he managed to muscle the wheel hard enough to get us away from the oncoming lane, through the turn, and into a safe gravel lot.
We wiped the sweat from our brows, and checked under the hood, where we quickly learned that we’d forgotten to connect the alternator ground. Bobby had driven on battery power alone for 25 miles.
After a jump-start from a kind man in a Ford F-250, the journey resumed. But more hardships awaited us in the Rocky Mountains.
After spending over an hour in the snow trying to track down a bad ground that was causing our battery to over-charge, we gave up and began our journey into the mountains.
We knew there would be a bit of snow in the Rockies, but we didn’t expect it to be near-whiteout conditions. Still, we had aggressive tires with big sipes, so surely we’d be fine.
The fake Goodyear Duratracs’ rubber compound was no match for snowy, icy conditions. While traveling downhill at about 40 MPH, Bobby tapped the brakes. The rear brakes, one of whose adjustment cables had stretched too far to allow the adjuster lever to make contact with the adjuster screw, pushed against their shoes. But they weren’t synchronized, so the rear end stepped out the tiniest bit.
Bobby steered into the slight drift to correct course, but it was too late. The car began fish-tailing with an ever-increasing amplitude. It was uncontrollable, and I could only hang on as Bobby wrestled the machine and a guard-rail became bigger and bigger through our front windshield.
Bobby tapped the brakes again to slow us down—it was all he could do, as the Jeep was out of his control. I remember heading for the guardrail, and just calmly saying to Bobby: “It’s okay man. It’s fine. It is okay.”
Then we hit.
Luckily, we hit the rail at such a sharp angle, that our front bumper impacted and spun us 180 degrees. The crash actually felt soft—almost as if there had been a pillow between the Jeep and the rail.
But we didn’t go out to check the damage. We just needed to get the heck out of there before another car lost control. The Jeep kept driving with no discernible mechanical damage, no judders, no shaking.
We drove on slowly into the night, never cresting 40 MPH until we escaped the snowy mountain passes and finally arrived in Colorado Springs.
The damage was minor. The bumper end-cap and steel bumper were crushed in, and the fender was bent enough to cause the tire to rub. We were lucky. Our trousers, on the other hand, were not.
When we got arrived in Colorado Springs, Bobby told me about his Jeep, a gorgeous 1997 Cherokee XJ with absolutely zero rust on the body. But unfortunately for the pretty Jeep, it chugged coolant and sounded like a drunken redneck fireworks show.
My friend’s parents had taken the Jeep to a shop, which had charged them over two grand to replace a head gasket. But the coolant-burning problem persisted. I checked the oil, pulled a sparkplug, and knew exactly what the problem was: the head was cracked.
That’s when I decided to put my return journey to Michigan on hold for a week, because I absolutely had to fix this Jeep. Not only did I feel guilty seeing such a gorgeous XJ in pain, but Bobby and his sisters love that boxy little SUV. And I knew how to fix it.
Plus, Bobby’s mom made a deal with me: If I fixed their Jeep, she would fly one of my friends to Colorado from Michigan, so I’d have a co-driver for the return journey. Sounded like a good deal to me, especially since I’m chronically bad at staying awake while driving alone.
Bobby, who, at the beginning of this trip, was a novice wrencher, quickly became a pro. He unbolted the exhaust, intake, AC, valve cover, rocker arms—everything, and removed the cylinder head like a boss.
Cylinder one was wet, and the plug was clean, telling me that there was a crack somewhere in that cylinder. I took the head to a machine shop, but when I went to pick up the head, they told me there was no crack. Perplexed, I grabbed the head and walked out the door. But before leaving the shop, I noticed that the casting number on the head was different than the one I had dropped off.
After figuring out they had mixed up cylinder heads, the machinists told me that mine did indeed have a crack in cylinder one, and that they’d accidentally given it to some poor customer, who now thinks he’s got a bad head.
We eventually resolved the mixup, and in the end, I ordered a new head, popped it on my friend’s XJ, and fired her up. The XJ ran beautifully, and I was happy knowing that I may have saved a gorgeous Jeep XJ from oblivion.
The rest of the journey was uneventful. From Colorado to Michigan, the Jeep soldiered on without any issues.
The voltage needle stayed buried in the red, and with each mile, we waited to smell the rotten-egg stench of a boiling battery. But the battery held up. We drove through Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illionois, Indiana and finally Michigan without any problems. The Jeep arrived back in its beloved driveway at around two in the morning on Sunday.
After a 2,000 mile journey to Moab, treacherous off-road trails, and another 2,000 mile trek back to Michigan, Project Swiss Cheese has proven that with a little bit of preventative maintenance, a cheap Craigslist Jeep can conquer the world.