Somehow, four months has passed since my 1998 Jeep Cherokee decided to recreate the Mount St. Helens eruption on a mountain trail in the Colorado Rockies. After determining the head gasket had indeed failed, I was forced to set aside this Jeep as other projects were completed. Since my life has become one giant "Top Gear"-style cheap-car challenge, I recently realized the incoming projects will never stop. So I decided to quit procrastinating, and try to bring this Jeep back from the dead — again. See the 1998 Jeep Cherokee models for sale near you
For those who don’t remember, I bought this Cherokee for only $300 at auction. It had an astounding 360,000 miles — and it didn’t run at the time of purchase. But it has an excellent, rust-free body, good paint and a clean interior. Miraculously, it only took a new starter to bring this Jeep back to life. After some shakedown time, I had a suspension lift installed, along with some aftermarket tires, and then set off on the disastrous head-gasket-blowing Colorado trip.
My first thought after this major failure was to throw the engine away altogether, as it was a leaky mess in other areas, and cracked heads are a common issue. Also, used engines are dirt cheap. I changed my tune when I found the engine serial number matched the chassis, meaning it’s possible this engine lasted 360,000 miles without a rebuild. I don’t have any service records, but I do know this Cherokee had only one previous owner — and based on the overall condition, I believe they took excellent care of this tough little SUV.
Another clue that makes me think this engine is original is the massive amount of oil sludge built up around the block. It looks like the engine is growing a very environmentally unfriendly coral reef. I decided, since the engine is possibly original, I couldn’t throw it away over a simple head gasket. So I enlisted the help of my mechanic, the car wizard, to investigate.
The wizard had a dentist appointment that afternoon, and he made the mistake of leaving me alone in his shop. In the 90 minutes that he was gone, I made quite a bit of progress — but also a giant mess on the floor while draining the coolant. I also had a scary moment while disconnecting the battery. When the wizard returned, we were able to pull the head free of the block in less than an hour.
After going through hell just to get a valve cover off a BMW V8 a few weeks ago, the ease of working on this ancient pushrod inline 6 was a welcome treat. With the head removed, the wizard quickly spotted the break in the gasket that was allowing combustion gasses to enter the cooling system. Mercifully, the head was not cracked in that area, and will only need a fresh skimming from a machine shop to be put back into service. We also looked over the exposed cylinder walls — and while there’s an obvious lip in each cylinder that’s typical with a higher-mileage engine, there was nothing to indicate the bottom end was going to wear out anytime soon.
My fingers are crossed that this will be a happy ending, and I’ll get to have a do-over on that mountain pass next year. Although I will ultimately invest more than 10 times the initial price with all the modifications and repairs I’ve done (and although I could have made 10 months worth of lease payments on a new Cherokee with that amount), I don’t regret this purchase for an instant. Find a 1998 Jeep Cherokee for sale
Tyler Hoover went broke after 10 years in the car business and now sells hamburgers to support his fleet of needy cars. He lives in Wichita, Kansas.