Over Thanksgiving weekend, I drove my 255,000 mile 1992 Jeep Cherokee 1,300 miles from Michigan to and from Virginia. It’s a vehicle whose engine I had blown up three years prior and swapped with a $145 Craigslist motor that was being sold out of a field. Here’s how that cheap engine held up in its first real test.
“You get what you pay for” is a phrase I hear and ignore quite often, so after I spotted a cheap 4.0-liter Jeep engine for sale on Craigslist a few years ago, I wasn’t surprised to find the thing sitting in the seller’s lawn with no protection other than a coffee cup over the intake. Still, that mighty Kenosha, Wisconsin-built 4.0-liter inline six looked fine during my initial inspection, so I installed it.
Over the past three years, I haven’t had a chance to put it to the test with a long road trip, but this past week, I did. And things went nicely. Well, mostly.
The drive from my house in Troy, Michigan, to the end of my first leg at my friend’s apartment in D.C. was fun, but in retrospect, I think it’d have been pretty miserable for anyone who isn’t me.
I say this because I feel great joy when any of my vehicles run and drive for long distances without failing, and it was this bliss that allowed me to overlook the fact that I was scoring 16 mg cruising down a flat highway, dislodging my spinal cord over slight bridge expansion joints thanks to a stiff lift kit that is entirely pointless for 99 percent of my driving, nearly losing my hearing from all the wind noise, and not sitting properly thanks to a seat that had been structurally altered by the obese former pizza delivery-driving owner.
Yes, had my mind not been clouded by admiration for such a fine running machine, I would likely have regretted not simply emailing an automaker and asking for a brand new 2018 model-year vehicle to review—something with fine amenities like independent suspension, heated seats, functional air conditioning, ABS, and perhaps even an airbag or two.
But not I. I set my cruise control to 70 mph and, after fiddling with a wonky cassette player, I turned on the FM radio loud enough to hear it over all the wind rushing over the XJ’s sharp corner-rich body and the aggressive tires pounding away at the asphalt. I motored on through America’s heartland. Every now and then, I shut off the radio to listen closely for strange noises, but I heard none.
The oil pressure looked good, the coolant temperature looked okay, and the battery voltage was right in the middle of the gauge. In fact, the only gauge that didn’t look okay was the fuel gauge, which was dropping at a rapid pace, and which, for some reason, has been off by a quarter of a tank since I replaced the pump back in college.
Michigan turned to Ohio, Ohio became Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania took me to Maryland, and about nine and a half hours after I’d left my house, I was sitting outside of my friend’s apartment in D.C. I smelled a bit of automatic transmission fluid as I hopped out of the Jeep, but I ignored it, and went inside to catch up with an old friend and snag a few Zs.
The next morning, I drove to Charlottesville.
Aside from my frequent fuel stops, Wednesday’s drive to D.C., and then the trot to Charlottesville the next morning, were lovely and I encountered none of the snow or salty streets that had prompted me to initially decide to take my 1995 winter beater Jeep Cherokee (prior to finding its bad wheel bearing) for fear that I might rust out ol’ red, here.
You see, I’m in love with this old Jeep for more reasons than I can count, and it all started right there in Charlottesville. This is a vehicle that played a major role in getting me to where I am today, and I mean that literally. It has helped me break the ice in nearly every job interview I’ve had since college—from my internship at Cummins, to my internship at Chrysler, to my full-time gig at Chrysler, to my editorial fellowship and then full-time gig here at Jalopnik.
The wrenching skills that this Jeep forced my moneyless college student-self to learn have not only saved me cash, but they’ve helped me relate with people—from folks interviewing me for a job, to just your average person in a gas station in rural Kansas. Wrenching is a universal language, and this Jeep taught me it; For that I will be forever grateful, even if learning that language really just means that I had to teach myself because my Jeep was a piece of junk.
Here I am with the Jeep, in the very location where I first laid eyes upon its rusty, 220,000-mile hulk back in 2010, and was so smitten that I ignored my dad’s objections and just bought the thing for $1,400:
Anyway, while in Charlottesville, I hung out with four of my brothers, ate far too much food, and then on Saturday, went to my favorite junkyard in the world in Leon, Virginia to pick up a few parts for my postal Jeep: a parcel tray, two mirrors, and a bracket for my fender-mounted turn signal.
Why I bought these mostly aesthetic bits when my Jeep has an 18-inch rust hole in its frame and no floors is beyond me.
The return journey wasn’t quite as easy as the drive out, since I decided to cheap out and avoid the tolls charged by the relatively-flat Ohio and Pennsylvania Turnpikes. This decision took me straight west through the George Washington National Forest and over West Virginia’s beautiful, but steep Appalachian mountains.
My Jeep’s cooling system isn’t quite where it needs to be. I knew this going into the trip, but I figured the cold ambient temperatures would help me enough to avoid overheating. Still, these roughly five percent grades were tough, with my Jeep downshifting to third, and the four-liter screaming at 3,200 rpm to maintain speed—in part, because I hadn’t re-geared when I installed my larger tires a few years back.
With the high water pump and fan speeds associated with these high revs, the Jeep stayed relatively cool, but an upshift to fourth sent the coolant temperature close enough to the red that I sacrificed my comfort for the greater good, and blasted the heat on max:
This solved the cooling system issue, but then a new problem showed up during my next fill-up, when my speedometer stopped working for some unknown reason:
And with that speedometer, so, too, did the odometer hit the fan, leaving me with an inaccurate fuel gauge on which to base my fuel-up frequencies. I just kept it conservative and fueled up as the needle got close to a quarter tank, and every now and then, in a turn, I’d hear the fuel pump change frequencies, signaling that the tank was running low. I managed to avoid running out of fuel this trip, thank goodness.
What wasn’t so fortunate was the fact that, after the speedometer went out, I discovered another problem.
After deciding to pull over and pop under the XJ to see if I could figure out why the transfer case-driven speedometer wasn’t working, I noticed smoke emanating from my catalytic converter. A close look revealed the source of that ATF smell I had noticed in D.C. a few days prior: My transfer case was leaking at its rear output shaft seal.
This, I immediately recognized, could be a major problem. In fact, if I could choose a fluid other than gas that I would least want to leak onto any component, I’d tell you: “ATF onto Catalytic converter,” because this is actually one of the worst-case leak scenarios. Just look at a number of “transmission fluid+exhaust” fire cases, and you’ll know what I mean.
The leak—a very common one among XJ Cherokees—was relatively minor, since it wasn’t leaving puddles, and also since only a bit managed to make its way onto the cat. Still, the underside of my floors were coated in the stuff, so even if just a tiny bit of ATF lit off, a decent part of my underbelly could theoretically go up in flames.
In retrospect, I should have driven to a car parts store and replaced the seal, or at least cleaned the oil off of the underside of my Jeep and fabricated some sort of shield to prevent splash onto the cat. But instead, I trudged on. The leak seemed minor, I reasoned, and it seemed like it’d been there for quite some time. Plus I had a fire extinguisher in the vehicle, and all that underbody convective airflow was on my side, as well.
At every gas station I had a close look, and the smoke never really seemed too worrisome. Still, though my judgement ended up being right in this case, I realize that a wiser, more risk-averse me would have mended immediately, as ATF on a cat is bad news.
Another issue I uncovered during the trip, aside from the T-case, was a head gasket leak or, more likely, a cracked head (as is common with 4.0 Jeep engines). This one wasn’t a huge surprise, since I’d sent an oil sample into Blackstone labs a year or so prior, and they’d told me they’d found the “early stages of an internal coolant leak.” But now I could see it with my own two eyes.
The oil, which I had changed the night prior to the trip, had risen about a quarter of an inch on the dipstick. And, as a general rule—especially when you’re not just doing short drives that could introduce condensation into the engine—gaining oil is usually a sign of coolant contamination:
The coolant level in my overflow bottle looked maybe a bit low, but it wasn’t a dramatic change, so this is definitely a slow leak. Still, it’s one that I’ll need to mend soon.
The rest of the trip was gorgeous, taking me along Paint Creek in West Virginia and up north past Charleston.
As darkness fell, I drove past Columbus, and then right past my humble little off-road box’s birthplace in Toledo. Just over an hour later—11 hours after I’d left Charlottesville—my XJ was sitting in my driveway, telling its little CJ-2A buddy all about its recent road trip.
In the end, the road trip was a success, but I learned a few lessons about driving an old vehicle such a long distance, many of them obvious ones. One is that little things just stop working over time. The speedometer, for example, quit in the middle of the trip, and the cassette player kept freaking out when I put my adapter in, preventing me from listening to any Alan Jackson during the whole drive.
Many of the bits are ones I’d already replaced. The entire cooling system was new—from the water pump to the radiator to the thermostat. And yet, something remains amiss. I’d also replaced the fuel pump, but its sending unit was off. Plus, I’d swapped out the transfer case seal, and now it was leaking again.
As for the $145 engine, I can’t say “you get what you paid for” is quite the takeaway. I swapped the head gasket before I installed the engine into my Jeep, so it appears the cylinder head is cracked. But the head on my old hydrolocked motor should bolt right up, and I have no reason to believe there’s anything wrong with the bottom end of this motor, as it seems to run well and make great power. So I’m happy with the buy, even if if I need to put in a little more work to get it perfect.
And that’s really the story of this old high-mileage Jeep. It’s reliable, but it’s got a bunch of little things that keep failing over time, and that require constant tinkering. Short of replacing every component that could wear out, I see no end to the troubleshooting of little issues here and there. But that’s okay, because of all the vehicles that I’ve ever wrenched on, there’s none that I enjoy fixing more than my first Jeep.