Using a sawzall on a car is a lot of fun. Driving around in a convertible version of a car that only ever came with a hard top is even more fun. Trashing that car on jumps is the most fun. But when that car is a rare manual transmission Jeep Grand Cherokee, it’s hard not to feel just a little bit sad.
Despite how that headline may read, I’m not going to disparage the folks at YouTube channel BackyardBroncos. Hell, I’ll even link their videos here on Jalopnik and give them even more clicks. But I’m feeling pretty sad about what they did to this poor “Holy Grail” five-speed Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ, and I need someone to talk to about it. So that someone will be you, dear readers.
You know those friends of yours who are really into music? The connoisseurs who talk about technical concepts like “time signatures” and other terms you’ve never heard of? I have a friend like that named Bobby; every time we’d travel in the same car, he’d always play what he, an expert, believed to be the best music in the world. It sounded like crap.
This sort of stuff is fairly normal; someone becomes such an expert in a topic that they begin to value subsurface elements that the layperson cannot. They have gone down the rabbit hole.
The same concept applies to cars. I look at the vehicles my coworkers and I drive. Sure, some of us have mainstream, cool cars like a Porsche 911, Ford Mustang, and VW GTI, but we also have cars like the Yugo GV, VW Passat W8, and Chrysler Voyager diesel in our collection.
That second group of cars is filled with what many would consider deep cuts, and yet, if you ask us why these are such great vehicles, we’ll have solid, rational answers, just as my friend Bobby always had a technically solid answer for why Radiohead was the greatest band ever. And yet the average person will look at these machines and just say: “Meh.”
(Editor’s note: Radiohead is not a niche band, but it’s impossible not to leave in this example from David because it’s funny. David asserts he was too busy listening to more obscure bands like Avril Lavigne to ever become familiar with Radiohead.)
The “Holy Grail” Jeep Grand Cherokee falls into this class of cars. To most folks, it looks just like a regular 1993 to 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ. Nothing special. And yet, here comes an argument for why it is something worth revering. Brace yourselves for something I think I may have written 9,000 times before.
I went out of my way earlier this year to buy a Jeep almost exactly like the one in the videos above. It’s a red 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee “Base” trim. That means it was optioned with a gray grille, thin door cladding instead of the usual ZJ cladding that ends at the base of the door, a chrome accent strip on that cladding and on the bumpers, vinyl and cloth seats, manual windows and doors, and no overhead grab handles. Most importantly, it came with a five speed manual transmission.
As I’ve said on numerous occasions, a first-gen Jeep Grand Cherokee with a stick shift is one of the best Jeeps ever made. Not one of the greatest (those titles belong to war legends like the Willys MB, M38, and to farm trucks like the CJ-2A and Willys FC), but certainly one of the best. That’s because it’s just incredibly versatile.
It’s cheap, it’s got tons of space (unlike most two-door Jeep Wranglers), it’s not too heavy (unlike four-door Wranglers), it’s more comfortable on the road than the beloved XJ thanks to four coil springs and heavier sound-deadening, it’s not slow, and it’s very capable off-road. You could say the same about most 1993 to 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokees, but these unfortunately lack one thing that this “Holy Grail” model has: reliability.
First-gen Grand Cherokees were ticking time bombs; their Chrysler-built automatic transmissions failed at alarming rates. I truly believe that the main reason why ZJs aren’t as desirable as XJ Cherokees has as much to do with the ZJ’s bad transmissions as it does with the vehicle’s softer looks. The rare (a cursory Google search implies that only roughly 1,500 ever made it to production) manual Grand Cherokees with their Aisin five-speed transmissions, though, weren’t plagued by these issues. They had all the great qualities of a ZJ with reliability to boot.
The best of the best Grand Cherokees were the base-model manuals, since the second complaint that I hear most frequently behind automatic transmission failure is failure of interior electronics. This is why I bought my manual-window and manual-lock-equipped ZJ. I know that the thing will last until the end of time.
I bet the ZJ in this video (which is even more bare-bones, with no center console!) would have, too. Sure, it looks like it had some rust, but it doesn’t appear that bad. If, somehow, it’s worse than it seems, and the vehicle was indeed too far gone, at least the parts would have been nice to save. But again, I won’t hate on these YouTubers for having a great time. I just wish they’d have chosen literally any other 1993 to 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee they could find for sale in their local market. Or maybe this was the only one for sale, since the rest died off years ago due to transmission failure.
Certainly, BackyardBroncos could weld a roof back onto this ZJ, repair the minor sledgehammer damage, and generally restore the vehicle to factory standards. It wouldn’t be cheap. It wouldn’t be fast. But if I may be so bold, it is what this fine vehicle deserves. It might even be fun (it would not be).
In any case, trashing a rare machine is definitely more newsworthy than trashing a crappy, regular ol’ Grand Cherokee, so from a click-ability standpoint, these guys nailed it. I’m just a little sad, is all.