What do you do when an extremely rare, but not particularly valuable piece of automotive history is in desperate need of a cash-intensive restoration? Do you spend the money knowing you may never get it back, or do you allow the unicorn to die? This is the dilemma that Dustin Sawyer, a director at a Wisconsin lab specializing in farm-related research, is facing with his Holy Grail 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
A couple of weeks ago, I announced that I was taking my long-neglected 1985 Jeep J10 pickup on a 740-mile road trip from Southeast Michigan to Kenosha, Wisconsin to pay respects to the spiritual home of American Motors.
But showing love for a great American car company, I now have to admit, wasn’t the only reason I headed to America’s Dairlyland; I also wanted to look at a Jeep.
Before you criticize me for looking at a new project despite already owning eight Jeeps—many in desperate need of repairs—just hear me out: this Jeep in The Badger State is truly special. I’ll let Sawyer tell you what it is via the email he sent me in May titled “2020 Moab unicorn?” From that email:
I enjoy reading and following your moab rebuild adventures. I’ll cut right to the point - I have a unicorn that I don’t have the time or space to fix up, and I haven’t gotten rid of because it’s just too damned cool. You may have guessed it - I have a 1994 ZJ with a factory AX-15 manual transmission. I friggin’ love this Jeep.
My jaw dropped upon reading that, and enormous volumes of saliva began flooding out onto my keyboard. I’d been dreaming about owning an ultra-rare (one of probably just a few hundred ever made in model years ’93 and ’94 only), manual “ZJ” Grand Cherokee since I was just a kid living in Leavenworth, Kansas, driving my family’s 1998 ZJ and listening to its sad Chrysler-built 42RE automatic struggle to shift itself.
That transmission let down what was otherwise an absolutely fantastic, comfortable and off-road capable machine, and I always thought a stout, fun-to-row manual would have turned the ZJ into one of the greatest of all time. (You can read more about what makes the manual ZJ so cool here).
Sawyer then goes on in the email to state that he and his wife had bought the vehicle from the original owners in 2001, and that they drove the thing every day until 2011. It was the vehicle that got Sawyer and his wife into Jeeps; they’ve bought two Grand Cherokees and a new JL Wrangler since. They really don’t want to send their beloved ZJ to the junkyard.
And trust me when I say, this is definitely a junkyard-grade Jeep at this point. Two years ago, when the Jeep was last on the road, the brakes blew out, and by the time Sawyer got around to mending them a year later, the fuel pump had gone bad.
The vehicle has been sitting ever since, and the Wisconsinite has been troubled by the thought of scrapping it. “I’ve almost pulled the trigger on scrapping it a few times,” he admitted in the email, “then I go sit in it again and remember that beautiful AX-15 tranny and I just can’t do it.”
“Then I’ll troll the internet for a bit to see if anybody is looking to buy,” he went on, “and come across the same thing every time: people have heard these exist but have never seen one in the wild.”
He then goes on to offer me the vehicle for use as my next Moab Project, which is what prompted me to make a visit. What I found was a bit sad. It was Sawyer’s understanding that the “Body, frame, and interior are still surprisingly decent,” and while the latter is true (the interior is borderline mint), the body and “frame” (technically a unibody rail) are both toast.
Let’s get straight to the nasty bit: The unibody rail on the driver’s side.
That’s a giant hole in the rail just ahead of the rear suspension trailing arm mount. Here are some other angles showing the body’s severely oxidized main structural element on the driver’s side:
You’ll notice in the image above that the transmission cross member, which I assume is unique to the manual ZJ, also looks fairly rotten. And so does the driver’s side rear coil spring, the rear sway bar, the trailing arm, and basically the whole axle:
As for the rest of the body, the rocker panels—hidden below gray plastic cladding that I’m convinced is once again fashionable—are essentially nonexistent:
The rotten unibody rail, the lack of rocker panels, and the crusty suspension bits are all a real bummer because the floorboards actually look quite nice:
Not to mention, the lovely 4.0-liter inline-six engine appears to be all there, and I bet it’d still run with a bit of work:
Plus, Sawyer still has the Grand Cherokee’s original window sticker:
So now the question is: What should Dustin Sawyer do? Here’s an extremely rare vehicle coveted by just a few weirdos out there (including me), but probably isn’t worth much even in great shape. Though as people get more into 1980s and 1990s cars, perhaps that could change? Does it make sense to drop lots of coin to get this machine mended? It’s an issue that Hemmings writer Daniel Strohl brought up in 2009 when wrote about his own manual unicorn ZJ:
I do feel a little guilt over using a rare vehicle as a beater; I’ve harbored thoughts of preserving/restoring it, but I think it’s going to be a long time before any modern (post-Explorer) SUV becomes collectible and thus warrants a restoration of a vehicle like this. Still, not all vehicles instantly became collectible, and somebody had to have appreciated them – or even used them as beaters – in that period when they were just used cars.
My opinion is that Sawyer (or, ideally, I) should simply swap all the parts onto a nice, rust-free 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee. It should be cheap and easy to pick one of those up, and sure, the VIN won’t quite be right, but everything will look proper. The vehicle won’t be just a manual-swapped ZJ, because it will have all the right trim, the right clutch pedal, the right ECU—it will look and drive exactly like the original vehicle, just the numbers won’t quite match. But at least there will be a manual ZJ back on the road, which I think is better than the Jeep just sitting or sucking up tons of cash as it’s being restored.
What do you all think?