Haolepinoy's Very First Ever Before Build Thread (No Really)

This might sound dumb, but hey… (it probably is dumb) it’s true, though.

My first car was born the same month as me. And one further, it was purchased new from a dealership in the same town I was born in. Kinda not a big deal unless you consider this was some almost nowhere town in West Virginia. One step further (still dumb) is that it was bought by my grandmother…so in a way we were kind of related right off the lot (now that’s just dumb, John).

This is really no way to start a build thread, but you want to hear something interesting (aka…dumb): despite being on forums for 20 or so years, I’ve never done a build thread before. So in a way I have no idea what I’m doing here. Just rambling…

But you know, I have been on forums for 20 or so years (you said that already, dummy), and have read hundreds of build threads, and have always wanted to do one. In fact I’ve been taking pictures and notes and stuff all this time in the hopes that one day I’d finally sit down and do a build thread. I’ve got thousands of random pictures of my cars in various stages of undress/exploratory surgery/disrepair/sparkly’ness (that isn’t a real word idiot). My computer probably has a hard time telling if I love my kids more or my cars based on the disproportionate ratio of pics that populate my screen saver mode (hint: your computer doesn’t care).

I’ve wanted to do one of these things for like, forever…(so, do one already)…so I’m gonna do one already.

Here’s the story (see…this is why you’ve never done one of these things. It isn’t a story, it’s a build thread! Pictures, car parts, mods, shiny pictures, excuses for wasting so much money…you know. Quit with the stories already!) of my four generation long connection to (good Lord…this isn’t War & Peace man! Just give us some bloody pictures of your Cherokee.) my beloved silver Jeep Cherokee XJ. (…for Pete’s sake already. I bet he doesn’t even include a picture in the first post).


O yeah, here’s a picture…almost forgot.

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And I’m terribly sorry I missed this one for a week. Dude. This is good stuff.

I’m reminded of the line from Moana, "We tell the stories of our elders in the neverending chain.

I like how that feels. I like how this one feels. Looking forward to learning more about the machine that had the janky headlight switch what left you hanging on a cold, dark night. :wink:

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By the time seen in the picture above, my grandmother had already moved on to her second Cherokee, a '95 two-door in red. My dad bought the silver '84 off of her, and that became our adventure mobile when I would see him over the Summers and around Thanksgiving every year. Lots of road trips, hunting trips, fishing trips, and camping trips would ensue over the years, putting a lot of sentimental attachment into this thing.

It would also serve as my dad’s work horse for a traveling repair job he did for several years, putting gobs and gobs of miles on the bastardized 2.8L GM V6 under the hood. He’d load hundreds of pounds of welding equipment and fabrication tools into the back to haul around the South doing who knows what. All I know is that he never really complained about it ever giving him any trouble, but he sure did wish it had the 4.0L instead.

By the time 2001 rolled around several things all happened at once. When my grandmother bought her third Cherokee, a blue '01 four-door, my dad swooped in to buy her red '95. I graduated high school that June, and as a send off gift for college I found myself to be the third owner of the silver '84.

She wasn’t pretty, but she ran…albeit slowly and with much coaxing. She had mid-panel rust on both doors, as well as all the expected rocker panel rot you’d see on any Jeep. The engine had about seventeen million or so miles on it, but since it was a piece of crap from the factory you hardly noticed how tired and soviet-era it felt.

All that mattered to me was that it was mine now after being ours for so long. The first big thing I ever owned and really felt responsibility for. It would be my faithful steed through the college years, the first car I ever really worked on with any kind of seriousness (including doing bodywork and a respray of the entire Jeep one summer), and it would ultimately be the car that would ferry two newly-weds off to the next stage of life.

But alas, tragedy would soon strike, and somehow it would not involve that boat anchor underneath the hood.

And, gee. Lookit that guy. Footloose and fancy free.

I love the keep-it-in-the-family, handmedown-kine going on here. That’s pretty sweet.

For the eight or so years that I owned my Jeep, I can only remember one or two times when it was ever broke enough to not be driveable. “Broke enough to not be driveable” is the kind of vocabulary you develop when you’re a) young, broke, and mechanically inept, b) driving a 25-year old Jeep, or c) the owner of only one car. I was of course d) all of the above.

Then the day comes when the third “broke enough” strike came. I remember it sounding like a huge pop, and then could feel something was not right in the accelerator. The engine was working fine, but it felt like it wasn’t connected to the wheels anymore, being able to rev to its heart’s content…it’s geriatric, 1,500 rpm redline kinda heart’s content.

(No pictures yet. I’ve got a bad feeling about this post…)

I pulled over, shut it off, and did a quick once around for any signs of distress. No smoke, sparks, fluids, or shrapnel to be seen underneath. Huh? That was weird. Got back in, turned the XJ back on, shifted into D, and off we went like nothing ever happened.

But by the time we got home and I could crawl back underneath I began to see signs that all was not well. Best as I could figure the chain in the transfer case must have jumped a tooth or something, putting a crack in the case where gear oil was slowly leaking out. Not the end of the world, but at the time that was about as bad as saying to the know-nothing-mechanical-me that a piston had escaped the engine block.

And you know, I haven’t even gotten to the tragic part yet (I told you this would happen. It’s not a bloody memoir man!).

Even though I had no idea how I was going to fix this, it was never a question of whether or not I would. Of course I would fix it…eventually. That’s what we always did with this thing, and that’s what had kept it on the road for north of 300k miles and almost 3 decades of hard service.

I think that one of the best thing I learned from my dad, not just about cars, but about most things in life, was that you didn’t just abandon broken things. When you bought something in my family you didn’t just come to own it, you became responsible for it. My family was not raised in the throw-away culture of today. New stuff worth buying is expensive, thus you keep things working as long as you can. Hopefully, when it is time to buy something new, you know what’s worth spending money on because you know what kind of relationship you’re getting yourself into.

I can’t claim to be a purist when it comes to this ethic, but I wish I was. I like the idea of keeping something alive, not because of any kind of collector’s mentality, eye towards investment, or #BIFL influence, but simply because it says what kind of guy I’d like to be. The kind you can count on. Seems more often than not that kind of thought pays you back in kind. If you’re able to count on something, it should be able to expect the same from you.

I didn’t know how, but I knew that eventually I’d fix this issue. But something I did know now, was that I needed a running car. We just so happened to have a large savings fund at the time set aside for a big move we were planning in the coming months. Looks like God had other plans for the money.

May 2009 | 114,000 miles

That silver '84 AMC Cherokee may have been the first car I ever owned, but the silver '01 Jeep Cherokee we purchased at that time was the first car I ever bought. Cash.

I’ll get to the tragic part of the story next…(For the love, man…what the heck am I reading here?!)

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We may not agree on all things metaphysical, but this we do agree on–whatever attitude/energy/vibes you put out into the universe, that’s what ultimately comes back to you.

I get the self-deprecating device you’re using and appreciate the genuine concern for the audience, but I hope you truly know everyone here is getting a real kick out of your style. Your posts are some of the best things I read most days.

So the old, silver XJ is knocking on death’s door. It’s a loved, but cantankerous ol’ bastid, as eager to bankrupt as it is to serve. Why wouldn’t you buy another?


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Alright, now for the sucky part.

There was something appealing to me about owning one of the first XJ Cherokees every made as well as one of the last. The fact that they were the same color was a bonus. My plan was to someday get the other Jeep back into health so that we could have a his and hers fleet, but for now we were having too much fun in the new car to bother much with the old. Add to that the hurdles of wrenching in an apartment parking lot and my basic grease monkey knowledge of car repair and the '84 just sat and sat.

We eventually moved to a rental house in the city with a back alley parking space I could stick the '84 in, while parking the '01 on the street in front of the house. I was to quickly find that city life (and city people) was not for me. And it would cost me my first Jeep.

Some neighbor must have called the city to report my “junk car” sitting back in our alleyway parking spot, for I received a letter demanding that I either pay them some ridiculous fine or dispose of the vehicle. I could understand the intent of such an ordinance, but it wasn’t as if my car was on cinder blocks with a tree growing up through the trunk. Grrr…anyways, long story short I could not afford the fine or queer registration category it would have taken for me to legally keep the car and had to make the decision to send it off.

To this day I refuse to live within the city limits, nor under the thumb of any home owner’s association. I still get riled up just thinking about it now. Meddlesome people, in whatever flavor they come in, may take it upon themselves to stick their obtrusive heads up their own asses.

As for me, lesson learned the hard way. 'Tis the gearhead project.

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Hear, hear.

Living next door to a real, actual hoarder whose house is deteriorating to the point the neighbor on the other side paid to have her front yard cleaned up so he could sell his house, and in a neighborhood what’s had more than few dead vehicles left to rot among the knee-high weeds making up the front lawns—and just as many jackass Harley owners whose gaudy pieces of shit can’t seem to stay running below WOT—I can see the spirit of the HOA, but I ain’t buying it.

Maybe, if I saw anything other than petty, closeted bigotry on that NextDoor app, I might be convinced there’s hope for a true, democratic association of homeowners, but such is not the case. NIMBYs with relative anonymity and a microphone are made even worse with authority to fine and exert power over others’ property, imo.

Been thinking a lot about selling the house, paying cash for an old Class A, and Getting TFO of the big city. There’s just the issue of a shy little girl finally starting to blossom into a socialite with friends at the excellent elementary school down the street.

Hopefully you’ve heard that saying … “Two is one, one is none.” … by this point in your life, but if you haven’t let my situation serve as an anchoring illustration for why it is a good bit of wisdom to stick to. I went from only having one functional car to still only having one functional car when I bought my second Jeep.

The good intentions to fix the old Jeep “someday” wouldn’t help if some sooner day my new Jeep decided to break down. “One is none” in the later scenario. What good would it serve to have two broken down Cherokees, even if they were the same color and all that other boring stuff?

Lesson learned, if you’re going to own two cars make sure they both work so that you’ve always got a backup. And after losing my '84 due to its non-running condition (and my childish negligence), when you have one that’s down don’t leave it like that just because you have a backup to serve you. Get to getting it back on the road. “Two is one, one is none.”

A few years down the road in this story we had some friends gift us a blue minivan as we were expecting a second and third son. And it was nice to have another car, not just to fit all the kid car seats, but to have a bit of family infrastructure redundancy. The '01 XJ had given us years of reliable service, but there was always that hanging fear that we’d be left car-less at any moment.

And that moment would eventually come, and the second car would prove just in the nick of time. Our Cherokee was long overdue for some kind of debilitating failure (it’s a Jeep thing). So when I began to noticed that a sweet smell and a low coolant overflow reservoir were becoming a more and more frequent phenomenon, it didn’t take long to find the reason. Looks like my Cherokee was going to need a new radiator.

No big deal in hindsight, but at the time it was about as intimidating as a broken transfer case. I couldn’t afford to send it off for professional repairs, but I had no idea how I was going to fix it. Yet at least I knew enough to know I had to try.

And sooner than later this time. “Two is one, one is none.”

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At this stage of things my mechanical knowledge bank consisted of how to check fluids, change oil, and scrape ice off the windshield. I was terribly green. And worse than that, the last memory I had of trying to do something like I was about to undertake here was an utter failure.

I remember coming out of work one evening to find a pool of antifreeze underneath my '84 Cherokee. A little poking around with the help of my coworkers revealed that it was coming from the weep hole on the water pump. “Seals gone bad, bud. Don’t worry though. Easy fix.”

Sure, I thought. Maybe for you. Sounds like open-heart surgery to me.

After a bit of internal back and forth I decided to give it a go. I purchased a new water pump from the the local part store, and proceeded to tear into the repair with the basic hand tools I had lying around. Walk before you run. Crawl before you walk. This operation was equivalent to whatever you do before you crawl. I would have had more success ordering a pizza from a Chinese restaurant in Portuguese.

After being repulsed several times, I was finally able to get the three or four bolts off holding the old pump to the front of the block. And with the hard part over I rushed into installing the new piece, only to immediately strip out the bolt holes by overtightening things. Oops.

If I didn’t know how to undo a hose clamp imagine how perplexed I was then with this new hurdle. I thought I broke the engine for Pete’s sake. I took months to get the old girl back together, and then only after letting “professionals” stack washers and thread sealant until the pump finally sealed.

I was not confident going into this new coolant leak on the new Jeep. In fact, it conjured up old fears of failure. But it needed to be done, and if I couldn’t afford to have someone else do it (quotes I got seemed ludicrously expensive…everything seems like that when you’re poor, though), looks like I would have to be the man for the job.

I’m not sure why, but there is something encouraging about buying parts for a project. I guess it gave me a tangible picture of what I was getting into. It also gave me a bit of momentum heading into things. Though nothing was yet done, once I hit the order button for the stuff I needed, it felt like things were set in motion that could not easily be undone.

Second time around, with some hope that it would turn out better this time. A little confidence can go a long way (especially in hindsight…one small step for me then, one giant leap for me now).


April/May 2012 | 156,860 miles

It was in preparing for this job that I stumbled deeply into the treasure troves of internet forums. It seemed that everything I could ever need to know about my Jeep could be both found, explained in detail, demonstrated on video, and argued about pedantically for page after page.

Something that I found in all my searching was some disturbing news about my particular model year Cherokee. There was a cylinder head casting defect in the '00 and '01 model year XJs. The dreaded 0331 casting would easily crack if the engine overheated (according to the internet).

That kind of news led me down the “preventative maintenance” road. Before, by default I was a “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it kind of person.” But the sense of “A stitch in time, saves nine” seemed to sound like a smarter way to do things. I think this went together with the other gearhead mindset of “while you’re in there…” thinking. Forums seemed to impart all kinds of contagious ways of thinking.

Instead of simply replacing the radiator, I reasoned that it would make sense to preemptively replace the rest of the cooling system components while I was in there. The Jeep’s coolant system is super basic and simple, and with the threat of a cracked head in the event of this thing ever overheating, I figured might as well make sure everything is fresh and up to bar.

I addition to basic maintenance, I also did my first tune-up. If the 0331 head is a disadvantage of the '01 model year, then the introduction of coil packs was a plus. It made it almost idiot proof with no distributor to fiddle with or wires to untangle.

As part of the “tune-up” I cleaned up all the idle air components, and even experimented with that magic potion called Sea Foam. The smoke show would have been terrifying if the “experts” on the internet had not assured me that it was supposed to do that.

Finally I got into the scariest parts. Opening up any part of the engine was to me like cutting into somebody’s chest. I was very nervous of what was underneath, and with the past looming in recent memory, even more nervous that I might mess something major up.

Thankfully this time around I managed to not cock anything up. Water pump came off and went back on with no issues, as did the thermostat housing and coolant pipes. The leaky rocker arm cover also gave no fight, and the sight of all those oily “engine things” underneath was like looking at magic to this crass Philistine.

I buttoned everything back up, filled up with fresh fluids, and to my novice delight brought the Jeep back to perfect working order. For me, this was the beginning. I had done the impossible. I was now a gearhead, even if only a crawling one.


June 2012 | 157,200 miles

And how about from crawling to tottering…

On another internet rabbit trail I heard whispers of some promising folk medicines regarding the Cherokee air conditioner. Hmm… air conditioning. That sounds like it would be nice.

I to this point had never owned a car with a functioning air conditioning system. My '84 Jeep had hand crank windows that cooled to whatever speed you moved. It was therefore a huge leap forward in technology to go to … not air conditioning … but electric windows in the '01. I knew the new Jeep’s ac didn’t work when I bought it, but was so used to my trucker’s tan that it wasn’t a major deal breaker.

But with kids… it would kinda be nice to spoil them with the comforts of climate control.

The rumors went that often ac compressors were condemned prematurely, when all they needed to restore their function was a bit of TLC. Corrosion could make the magnetic effect of the compressor’s clutch too weak to engage, or could cause it to disengage sporadically. Also, the “air gap” between the clutch and the magnet could need to be tuned through the removal of small shims. Worth a look, I figured.

A little Scotch-brite, a little elbow grease, and a shim removed… and wouldn’t you know. I now had air conditioning. Cool.

I threw on a new serpentine belt as a last bit of preventative maintenance, and kept the old one as an emergency spare tucked away in the back. I was confident that the Jeep was ready to go reliably anywhere I’d need it to. I was also more and more confident that I’d be able to roll up my sleeves in the event that something broke along the way.


It’s s beautiful thing, is it not?

I am learning so many clever platitudes in this thread.


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Yep…which is one of the main reasons I’m here. Keep striking until it catches fire.

Good to have a place I feel comfortable dumping all this random stuff. Not really fit for a Jeep forum, because it isn’t really about the Jeep. It’s about the gearhead. He’s the project.

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July 2012

Next up isn’t more building, but a bit of what the build is for. The cars aren’t the end, but a conduit towards it. A family fixture, around which we’d make and remember stories. That July we’d load up the Cherokee for a trip up into the mountains of West Virginia.

By this time we were three boys deep, which meant a very full Jeep. The backseat just fit three car seats, and all the random kid stuff piled high in the back. Thankfully my dad would be joining us, which meant we could chuck some of our stuff in the back of his red '95.

Just like the XJs, this cabin has been in our family for three generations as well. My dad helped build it together with a friend of the family when he was a teenager. It’s nestled in the Monongahela National Forest, and has always served as a basecamp for our adventures up there.

I guess you can say four generations now.

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August 2012

Well… at the next state inspection I was informed by the mechanic that I had a leaky rear axle seal. Ok, with my new confidence and willingness to learn to do it myself I told him I’d take car of it. Not to mention I was still poor. Then I hit the internet to see how…and came to discover two new levels to this gearhead thing.

Why simply fix something when you can upgrade? Do you even mod, bro?

To fix these seals I’d have to pull the rear axles and drum brakes off the axle tubes. And Jeepers being the guys they are had already figured out that the rear disc brakes off a ZJ Grand Cherokee would bolt up in place of the stone age drums. Really? Wow, that sounds perfect. Let’s do that then.

Forget Disneyworld. The junkyard is the happiest place on earth (for me).

To source these parts I’d need to find a donor vehicle in a local pick-n-pull yard. Before this time, I never knew such places existed. But boy, O boy has my life changed since this discovery. Nearby I found a suitable ZJ for plundering, and came away with all the raw materials for my first foray into the next level of gearhead life.

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This guy gets it. :point_up:

Thank you.

It is indeed a magical place. And yet, also sad.

Speaking of magic, I feel like your wife is smiling in every picture where we see her face. Is she just naturally better at choosing joy, or are you careful to only photograph her from behind when she’s less than pleased? :wink:

This is the face you learn from the trenches of raising four rowdy boys. Sarah Connor comes to mind… :sweat_smile:

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July - September 2013 | 167,500 miles

The following year I decided to crack into the rear end of the Cherokee. Incidentally, this was right before the annual state inspection where last year’s mechanic would probably not appreciate seeing the same issue unaddressed that he let me slide on last time around.

As everything up to this point had been, this too was uncharted waters. But past experience gave a bit of wind in the sails to not only attempt the repair, but also to explore the waters farther offshore. The plan was to replace the rear axle seals (because they were leaking and I didn’t want to pay someone else to do it…because I was still poor), and while I was in there go ahead and replace the rear wheel bearings. And since the rear drums were in such poor nick (and were universally seen as a pain in the ass to work on), I’d attempt to modify the rear brake setup, upgrading it with the rear disc brakes off of a completely different vehicle.

I’m sure that the same kind of thrill that pushes guys past the horizon at sea is the same kind of thrill that goes on with first time forays in the driveway. It was exciting to crack open the rear differential, and though gear oil stinks to high heavens, I can still remember smelling it for the first time when I took the above picture. It’s likely similar to an explorer eating some alien delicacy for the first time on an unfamiliar shore. Yeah, it may taste horrible, but it’s an experience that will always stick with him.

Here’s a hindsight insert, well out of time with what I was thinking about while laying underneath that rear axle. I listened to Scott Brady recently talk on the Overland Journal Podcast about making sure to spend more money on the adventure than on modifying the vehicle you planned to take on the adventure. He’s right, as far as he was making his point.

But there is a certain amount of adventure associated with working on your vehicle, learning and doing things you’ve never done before. Sure, wrenching does become familiar at a later point and mundane tasks lose the fun that was once associated with them. But it was definitely at least partly that thrill that used to send you out into a freezing apartment complex parking lot to change your brake pads.

Maybe a better rule would be to make sure to spend money on adventure, in whatever form it comes. And it doesn’t take a lot of money when you can do it yourself, and where there are magical wonderlands out there called junkyards. Sails up, onward to the next adventure.

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