In Reno, Nevada sits a Jeep so rare that I’m certain it’s the only one of its kind remaining. Not only is the vehicle outfitted with a manual transmission, making it one of roughly 1,500 “holy grail” Jeeps ever built, but it’s also missing the big plastic, questionable-looking door cladding found on 99.9 percent of all Grand Cherokee ZJs. Here’s why that makes this Jeep the holy grail of holy grails.
I realize I’ve beaten the topic of manual Jeep Grand Cherokees to death, having recently told you about how I resisted a beautiful purple example for sale only 45 minutes from my house. But I don’t care, because this red Jeep is something truly special, and I need to tell you all about it.
What you’re looking at shouldn’t even exist. When the Jeep Grand Cherokee launched in 1992, Jeep marketed “The New Jeep” as a more luxurious version of the Cherokee. It had a little more interior space, cushier seats, “Quadra-Link” coil-spring suspension, an available V8 engine, better aerodynamics, and the list goes on.
As someone who owns both a Cherokee and a Grand Cherokee, I can tell you that the main benefit of owning the latter is simply comfort and luxury feature availability, as the interior space feels roughly the same. With that in mind, you might think that every Grand Cherokee offered came fairly well equipped, since a stripped-down, less comfortable model wouldn’t be compelling to customers who could just buy the cheaper Cherokee. Ride quality and interior quietness alone wouldn’t be enough. But you’d be wrong.
Enter the Jeep Grand Cherokee “Base” trim, offered for only the first model year, 1993. The Base ZJ came standard with a manual transmission, manual door locks, manual windows, basic cloth seats, untinted glass, steel wheels, a gray grille and the base 4.0-liter inline six engine. It was a truly bare-bones machine.
Jeep changed the “Base” trim to “SE” in 1994, though it seems that most, but not all, SEs came with full plastic trim on the lower doors, whereas all “Base” 1993 Grand Cherokees had only that thin strip of trim on the doors. Look at how much better the ZJ-generation Grand Cherokee looks without all that plastic moulding on the doors:
Compare that to this:
If the photos of my red Jeep don’t drive the point home (they’re not great photos, and also, the hideous headlights, worn out trim, and gold rims sort of screw the whole thing up), this image from a Jeep ad featuring 4 Wheel & Off-Road’s review might. Notice how much “leaner” this Jeep looks than the one in the photo directly above. I love it.:
In 1994 and 1995, the lowest trim “SE” got more standard features (I’m fairly sure power windows and locks became standard in ’94), and for the 1996 model year, Jeep just killed off the SE Grand Cherokee, making the reasonably equipped Laredo the base trim, presumably because the stripped-down cars weren’t selling (Again, no surprise, given that Cherokees were cheaper).
So basically, what I bought is a rare base-model with the rare base manual transmission. The only options as far as I can tell are air conditioning, four-wheel drive, the roof rack and cruise control, though I’m not even sure that the latter two weren’t standard.
Why does any of this matter? Well, the Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ platform was phenomenal. It was relatively quiet, supremely comfortable and highly capable off-road. But any Grand Cherokee owner will tell you that its two achilles heels are its automatic transmission and its electrical system, both of which fail with regularity, and frankly, have potential to sour the whole ownership experience. This Jeep has the strong AX-15 transmission and not much of an electrical system to speak of. In other words, it’s the perfect Jeep Grand Cherokee.
“Did jeep ever come out with zj’s that had crank windows? Anyone ever heard of a conversion?” asks Cherokee Forum user wader818. “Base models in 93 and the first half of 94 had manual windows. They are hard to find, I have only seen one in my life,” replies Bustedback, to which wader replies “Man i wish there were more of them. Id do the swap in a heartbeat. The harnesses are shot for the power windows and locks on mine.”
Obviously, this is just a single example, but trust me when I say ZJ owners are not fans of their electrical systems.
What makes this Jeep even more perfect is that it’s spent all of its life out west, having originally been sold in Alhambra, California near LA. So this Jeep’s underbody is literally mint:
Even the paint is in good shape, with no clear coat issues whatsoever, which is a miracle.
An even bigger miracle, though? Look at the mileage:
This 28-year-old Jeep has only 120,500 miles on it, meaning the owners only drove the vehicle an average of 4,300 miles a year — well below the 13,000-ish average that people drive annually these days (well, pre-COVID).
What we have here is a low-mileage example of a vehicle with an unkillable 4.0-liter engine, an unkillable AX-15 manual transmission, a bare-bones interior without much that can fail, and just a general dearth of bullshit.
It’s a basic machine that appears to be in great shape given its age, though it will need some love. Obviously, the bumpers are going to have to be repainted, but that should be easy:
The driver’s seat looks a little sadder than I want it to look. I’ll have to take that to an upholsterer, since these base-model cloth seats are impossible to find:
There are also some dings here and there, with the worst being some gouges in the hood:
I haven’t quite figured out when I’ll be picking up this $3,000 stripper from Reno, but for now, my generous coworker Bradley Brownell (who was kind enough to look at the Jeep on my behalf) will store it. He is the ultimate enabler of my strange manual Jeep addiction, and I thank him for it.
I also must thank Allison, who sold me the vehicle after sending this email:
I’ve saw your articles on Jalopnik, when we first bought this Jeep and were trying to figure out why the guy that sold it to us told us “It’s rare, but I can’t remember why...” He sold it because he wanted something with an automatic and we picked it up because my husband, Jeremy, needed a better daily driver to replace his Ranger with 180k+ miles on it. It has been his daily driver for the last year, and we even took it on a road trip from Nevada to Montana last fall, with no issues whatsoever (it runs like a dream). Anyways, long story short, my husband recently got a brand new vehicle and is trying to sell his ‘93 Jeep Grand Cherokee w/ factory manual 5-speed transmission (we have the factory build sheet for it at the house somewhere).
Some of the details are listed below:
Rust-free underneath (it’s a desert vehicle, lived in California/Nevada its entire life I assume)
New tires last summer
New front brakes
New catalytic converter (it passes smog in Washoe County, NV)
Jeremy installed a new radio with a touch screen and Bluetooth capabilities (we have the original central panel in case people want to install something different, the current control panel was pulled from a donor jeep and Jeremy trimmed it to fit the new display).
New headlights (we do have the original headlights in case whoever buys it wants the originals instead)
Has functioning AC/heater (works really well)
If we had more space at our home we would keep it, but we just don’t have enough room. Also, I can’t drive a stick and it does us no good to have a vehicle we both can’t drive. We would love to see it go to a home where it would be properly appreciated. I was wondering if you might be interested or would be able to help us get it to someone who might.
Look at all of those new parts! And holy crap, the AC works! This will only be my second of ~10 vehicles with functional air conditioning!
This Jeep is awesome. I do know of one other base manual Grand Cherokee out there, and it doesn’t even have AC, so it’s a true stripper model. There may be one or two other base manual ZJs out there, but I’m fairly sure I now own the only red 1993 Base-trim, manual transmission Jeep Grand Cherokee on earth. Not that anybody but me cares.
Update Feb 25, 2021 9:30 ET: Bradley has picked up the Jeep and transported it to a secure location for safe keeping. He snapped this photo of my new Grail, and my god is it even more gorgeous than the photos above make it out to be: