Next time you pull into a strip mall and spot the rusting remnants of a classic Jeep Cherokee XJ, take a moment to appreciate the legend. Like a thread-worn prize fighter, slumping on a set of sagging leaf springs, rocker panels approaching total structural failure, the trick is to see the beast not for what it is, but what it has always been. This singular vehicle represents a piece of American History, a testament to the glories of the Second World War and an homage to the devil-may-care attitude that once permeated the land from sea to shining sea. In all seriousness though, the Jeep XJ was a great vehicle.
A green 94 Jeep Cherokee was my first car. My father had purchased it as a daily driver and my brother had inherited it once the state mistakenly issued him a license to operate a motor vehicle. Along the extensive network of dirt roads that crisscrossed my town to the sand pits and obstacles that dotted the local dump, this jeep had taken a legendary beating. Songs were written about it…or at least they should have been. It was my first ride. Like teenage love, the whirring purr of the indestructible inline 6 strained my heart strings and the rugged solid axle steed delivered me to any destination under any conditions.
As time passed, and life flung me away to college living on the windy streets of Boston, we would still bump into each other from time to time. She had been relegated to the role of a laundry vehicle at my family business. I would visit home catching glimpses of my old friend, drivetrain running as dependable as ever, lugging mountains of sheets up steep hills that hammered on her near bullet-proof transmission as her body rotted around her leaving a path of rusted metal in its wake. It took time to truly appreciate my relationship with the XJ.
In retrospect, the Jeep Cherokee is somewhat of an enigma. American Motors Corporation had shoehorned the son of a tractor engine into a unibody chassis. The approach broke ranks with the standard body on frame design that was a staple of pretty much all car manufacturing until that time. In was the last new jeep produced by AMC before Chrysler swooped in. Envisioned as a capable alternative for suburban families, the XJ delivered something that stood the test of time. Design cues that drew heavily from the utilitarian requirements imparted on military jeeps of old, the near 90 degree angles and straight lines were juxtaposed with body proportions that almost universally defined the standard for the Sport Utility Vehicle concept the XJ had authored with its birth. Like a beautiful final offering, the Jeep Cherokee screamed, “I was here” into the howling winds of progress and assimilation.
With an astonishing production run of 2.3 million units from 1983 to 2001, fuel efficiency standards put the last nail in the coffin of the XJ. Today they can still be seen loyally waiting for their owners posing as an affordable and still dependable option for a heavily used car. The crown may be tarnished and the castle in ashes, but the legend never dies. Long live the king.