XR8DXJ's 1997 Cherokee SE Build...


This will be the official build thread for our XJ.

I've enjoyed reading the build threads of others so much that I decided to share with everyone the labor of love, hate and broken bleeding knuckles I have endured for over twelve years in dealing with my XJ.

My first wife and I purchased the XJ brand new right off the lot in Anchorage, Alaska in August 1997. We had a growing family and were at max capacity with two car seats crammed into the back of our family car... the 1990 YJ. So being the Jeep folk that we were, we quickly decided on a Cherokee. What sold us on the Cherokee wasn't the few added cubic feet of cargo area, but the test drive the dealer took us on. It was awesome...

We were still pretty young and dumb so we quickly signed up for the first deal they slapped in front of us. Something like 15% APR for 72 months. They got us good, but it didn't matter because we were still Jeep owners.

I've got a few years of catching up to do so bear with me! Unfortunately, over the years I've lost more build pics than I've managed to keep. As the build gets caught up I will attempt to lean forward with the build.

Anyhoo, here are a couple pics to get this thread underway:

(Above) The oldest photo of the XJ in existence (it still has the dealer sticker in the window!)

(Above) The most recent pic, as of 20091224 [38° 48.528'N 104° 33.721'W]
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The first "mods" we did to the XJ were purely cosmetic. As I recall I took the bulky CB we had in the YJ and bolted to my wife's side of the center console. We didn't have a decent place to mount the antenna so I hung it upright behind the back seat from a moulding screw with a section of 550# cord. It worked sorta.

I ordered a set of Fox Weatherboots floor mats since I had a pair in the YJ and loved them. And pretty soon thereafter mounted today's Thule Excursion ES Roof Box equivalent to the roof. We could pack so much into that thing!

I also swapped tires/wheels between the YJ & XJ. That put stock YJ wheels and Cooper Discoverer STT 31x105r15's on the Jeep. The Discoverer STT at the time was the poor man's BFG MT with a strikingly similar tread design and harder rubber compound. As in crap on the road and not that great off-road either.

I think that was about it for mods for a year or so until we lifted it. We drove the Jeep all over Alaska. We never took it up to the Pipeline Haul Road, but we explored the Kenai Peninsula, shot down to Valdez, punched out to Denali, Tok and even Whitehorse a few times that year. We also drove it to Haines and took an Alaska Marine Highway ferry down to Ketchikan for a new job. We had just moved FROM Ketchikan six months earlier!

(Above) Don't hate me for the retro 90's cell phone, the air freshner, or the fact I actually used the tape deck!

(Above) The Jeep shod with 31's and capped with a Thule cargo box [55° 24.776'N 131° 41.767'W]

(Above) The first of MANY camping trips with the Jeep... and the family too [61° 33.420'N 149° 49.332'W]

Now remember I don't even think NAXJA was around so there wasn't a lot of Cherokee resources out there. Had Al Gore even invented the internet yet in '97? We eventually bought a WebTV to surf the internet, but where did anyone on the internet go in the mid-late 90's? That's right... chat rooms and web sites of ill repute. So I had to wait at the grocery store every month for the new issue of 4 Wheel Drive & Sport Utility to come out. It took two years for the '97 XJ to even make it into the magazine. Tomken were the only folks building XJ lifts (6"+).

The week we rolled over 30,000 miles on the XJ, we ordered Tomken's 6" lift, rear bumper, and tire swing out. I was such a newb wrencher that I took 30-hrs to install a lift that the instructions stated could be done in 8-hrs. Literally, I didn't leave the garage for 30-hrs. My wife actually called Tomken and asked if their instructions had a typo in order to get me out of the garage. I guess the basic hand tools in the instructions didn't mean an "as seen on TV" Metwrench tool set, Highlift, come-a-long and pry bars I attacked the task with. I do not know how I escaped death.

(Above) Welcome to the Thunderdome...

Along with the lift I ordered a Rubicon Express Hack&Tap SYE and extended drive line. I had to use butter flavored Pam as a metal cutting lube when drilling and tapping the T-case shaft because I had used all of the WD40 for loosening them dang forward leave pack bolts. My wife implored a buddy of mine to come over and help, for which I was (eventually) very grateful. This was my first real exposure to "the right tool for the job" and I saw the light. The first set of tires I threw under the XJ were BFG MT 33x9.5R15's. I picked up a set of SIX from a buddy for $300! They looked like pizza cutter underneath the XJ, but did pretty good clawing their way around logging roads and black rock beaches of SE Alaska.

About this time the XJ-List, Cherokee America, Jeepin.com and other sites were up and running and the XJ information super highway opened up. And thank goodness too! That Death-Wobble thing... I never experienced it due to a little homework.

(Above) JKS BPEs, extended brake line, Tomken coils & bent LCA

(Above) New speedo gear for the $265 speeding ticket; RE SYE & driveline

(Above) Homemade swaybar quick-disco's (Remember those?!)

(Above) Tomken's front swaybay drop-down bracket & tow-hook mount

(Above) "Custom" HD CB antenna mount on Tomken rear tire swing-out
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(Above) Tomken 6" lift, BFG MT 33x9.5R15s, YJ wheels, & no fender trimming [58° 31.824'N 134° 47.020'W]

(Above) Exploring the Yukon... somewhere near Whitehorse

(Above) Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska [58° 25.040'N 134° 35.368'W]

After a couple years my job took me to Juneau and eventually back to the South Central Alaska. Wheeling in SE Alaska is limited to beaches and logging roads... that is it. Old growth forests and glacier gouges mountains have a way of restricting movement. But mainland Alaska offers more variety in wheeling and backwoods exploration. But in order to do so your vehicle must adapt to the environment. This translates into more tire (for clearance), more lift (for more articulation), armor, recovery points, and maybe even a snorkel. So quickly and out of necessity the Jeep underwent some more mods.

After hydro-locking my YJ's engine in a commonly traversed river in Hatcher Pass my second wife suggested we get a snorkel. Why didn't I think of that?! We ordered our snorkel from the folks at Northern 4x4 Suppliers and received it a few weeks later. Installation was more difficult than I was expecting (what else is new?), but after I rented an industrial drill to punch through the fender in a couple spots the rest was pretty straight forward. You'll need to relocate the wiper fluid reservoir, but that's about it. Mine hasn't moved in 10 years and the wiper still quirt wiper fluid onto the windshield on demand.

I haven't noticed a performance increase with the snorkel although some claim to experience increased felt horsepower. But it does save ya when you're dropping above the hood-line into a glacier fed river! A great investment, although I have yet to honestly need it in the Lower-48.

(Above) ARB Safari Snorkel bits & pieces

(Above) Snorkel fender template... now where is that hole saw?

It must have been about mid-2000 or so the Thule cargo box decided to give up the ghost while I driving down the highway. I heard this loud noise in the roof, saw a shadow in the passing lane and watched the cargo box come smashing onto the highway in my rear view mirror. While I was picking up the pieces I decided it was high time that I purchase a roof rack.

The big companies making roof racks were CON-FER, Garvin, and Wilderness. KargoMaster had just released their roof rack line that spring So I had one shipped up from Outside (as in "outside" of Alaska). I was impressed with the quality of the rack and especially the looks. The installation was a cinch. my wife and kids helped me assemble it and get it bolted to the Jeep's gutter. This is where I had an issue. As I tightened the roof rack on it "popped" my gutter off the roof in a section as wide as the roof rack's feet. it did this on both front gutters. I JB Welded and they're held all these years, but I was pretty pissed. And after only having the roof rack a couple months I was on top of the Jeep positioning camping stuff when I accidentally stepped in the roof rack . I stepped onto the center of the rear support beam and it quickly buckled under my "immense" 170# weigh. This really bugged me, because immediately after that the roof rack rattled on the roof for years. If I had to recommend the roof rack I would warn against ever setting foot in it... but who wants that sort of caveat associated with their roof rack?

(Above) KargoMaster roof rack

(Above) KargoMaster roof rack, Safari snorkel, and mild fender trimming; Salamatof Beach near Kenai, Alaska [60° 32.931'N 151° 16.797'W]
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XXXpedition... does this look familiar?! FWIW, Cherokee's tend to start floating about the time the water reaches 1/3 of the way up the door... not cool. I chopped the bottom out of rear quarter panels to help water get in the Jeep so it sinks to the bottom a bit better. Yes... this will ruin your carpet and possibly subject you to killer-mold unless it is removed. Glacier water is cold; and both men & women alike scream like girls once it hits your groin area. And it will fry CBs and any other electrical "low hanging fruit."

(Above) Putting the snorkel to use in the Knik River

(Above) Trying to get the suspension to flex m-o-r-e!

The day the switch got flipped in my head that I was either gonna let the Jeep sit at 6" of lift and smash/bash my way through trails or get serious occurred during a Memorial Day 2001 run to Ruby Lake. We thought we had a pretty reliable XJ. Never caused us problems, seemed to always finesse our way through trails etc. Well this day it did and then some. Mostly because it just wasn't "a big Jeep yet." You can read the write-up on the LF4W site. Bottom-line both my wife-at-the-time and I decided it was time for more lift, more tire, more armor, lockers... and a new bumper wouldn't hurt either!

(Above) Tomken tow hook mounts fail & rip bumper out of the frame rail

(Above) Not enough clearance and rock awareness "smilies" tie rod

(Above) Tomken gas tank skid... the best thing Tomken makes!

Lift solution: Skyjacker 8" TJ coils, 3" block in rear (don't laugh, I was poor!), Goodyear MTR 35x12.5R15's, and fender trimming

4.56:1 gears w F/R ARBs and TJ fenderflares
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Root Moose

Expedition Leader
Great posts! I love seeing machines (and people!) progress like this.

Literally, I didn't leave the garage for 30-hrs. My wife actually called Tomken and asked if their instructions had a typo in order to get me out of the garage.
LOL! Too fricken' funny.


Thank you for all of the comments. I hope that by sharing some of my experiences someone may be able to learn from my mistakes.

I trust everyone had a wonderful Christmas. I was out of town on business last year and was very happy to be home with my wife (and our damn cats) for this one. One of the presents underneath the tree this year was Microsoft 2010 Streets & Trips, so I spent most of the morning playing with that!

(Above) Let the learning begin...
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In 2004 my work took us to Colorado. By that time I had the 4.0L stroked to 4.7L by an engine shop in North Carolina. The upgrade came on the heels of blowing the engine around 80K. Which is great since pushing 35’s and now 37’s works it a bit. One day… a Hemi.

(Above) Exploring Colorado’s Front Range; at the time I still ran RE UCA/LCA drop-down brackets [38° 54.829'N 104° 57.032'W]

(Above) 36x13.6R16 IROKs on aluminum XD-Series wheels… they sucked. Can’t remember the model, but the “camo bead-lock” was crappy plastic and started breaking off the very first wheeling trip. [38° 44.222'N 104° 59.113'W]

During the same trip to the shop I had them install 4.56:1 gears & ARBs in the 8.25 and Dana 30. I went with 4.56 gears instead of 4.88s in order to keep the rear end’s ring gear a tad thicker. Prior to the gear sway my tranny was always overheating even a quick drive to Denver. So far so good… knock on wood. I don't know if any of you have experienced this before, but when my tranny overheated it would leak afew drops of fluid every mile or so. Those few drops would land on the exhaust cross-over and smoke everyone out behind me. I believe this is what Q used for all of James Bond's vehicles. It is quite ingenious actually...not only do you smoke out your pursuers, you cover their windshield (and your rear window) with a ever-so-thin layer of ATF fluid. This cannot be washed of easily and would require a pit stop at a gas station to clean. The smell of vaporized ATF actually nauseates you as well, making getting even a deli hot-dog an unpleasant prospect. Very clever MI-6 folks, very clever indeed.

I take wicked pleasure in wheeling stock diffs with 37's. I've heard all of the chatter about needing bigger diffs, but I find that being easy on the skinny pedal goes a long way. Stock diffs force me to pick more suitable lines and pay attention to the rig's needs more.

(Above) On top of Radical Hill above Breckenridge [39° 31.767'N 105° 51.664'W]

(Above) Near Webster Pass and headed up Radical Hill [39° 32.156'N 105° 50.611'W]

(Above) Your standard short-side Dana 30 trail-side fix; never leave the spares at home, never. I pick up my complete spares at FN Jeep here in Colorado Springs for $60 (short-side), $70 long-side and $40/hub [39° 45.636'N 105° 37.595'W]

If you wheel in Colorado you will quickly become familiar with that deliciously sickening sound of steel on stone. The kind of sound you can feel in your spine and ear hairs. It sucks hearing polyethylene gas tanks on stone, or quarter panel on stone so you adapt some more. True to the Just Empty Every Pocket mantra, wheelers in Colorado eventually armor their rigs to fend off some of the abuse. I think there is more pulverized rock on diffs and skid plates in Colorado than anywhere else in the US. In 2006, I had decided it was high time for rock sliders. I wanted them so I could slide/pivot on boulders and make tighter turns. I also hated getting to something in the front of the roof while not having anywhere to stand. I eventually got pretty darned good at balancing my weight on the front and rear door handles, but I have slipped too many times and nearly broken a rib from doing do. Plus I hated getting mud on my hands when I get back into the Jeep. Bottom line... the sliders look pretty sick too.

I ran Spring Creek with a gent who had T&T Customs Rock Sliders (when they still spelled sliders with a "z"). It was love at first sight. It took me a while to order them and even longer to find the time to get them on. But I am convinced they are the best long arm kit available for the XJ. If only they were around in '97...

(Above) T&T Customs Y-Link long arms & Rock Sliders

(Above) T&T Customs Rock Sliders

I found a guy on Colorado4x4 who was selling used/custom 10” Alcan spring packs for an XJ. I really wanted to get rid of the lift block in the rear and this seemed like a low-cost option. So for $300 the XJ had a 10” rear lift. Except the used springs had sagged since they rolled out of the shop a couple years earlier. They sat a 9" of lift. That lift was mainly because the springs bottom out on the back of the unibody frame. You can't imagine the horrible sound as your shackle smacks the frame rail with every irregularity in the road. Over time the shackle and frame rail came to an understanding as they "clearanced" themselves. Worst mod e-v-e-r... my next mod, rear springs. I'll order them early February.

Funny story about my switch to Goodyear MTRs. This guy with a TJ say me driving around town and followed me for miles until I stopped. apparently he had really wanted the exact IROK / wheel combo I was running (I have no idea why other than looks) and asked if I would be willing to trade. Both of our tires had 90% tread on them, so I agreed. He had to clear it with his wife first, but the next day we did the swap at my place (the tires, not the wife). I had sorta missed MTRs and wanted to get back to a 15" steel wheel with decent backspacing. I was glad to oblige and happier when he threw in a second spare for free.

The Tomken tire swing-out (don't buy it!) had been rattling and squeaking for the last 59,995 miles of the 60,000 miles it was on the bumper. The tire way too low to wheel with it on. I was always getting hung up go going and and departing obstacles... even wheeling in Texas! So I finally trashed it. And that was cool because now I was able to devote my concentration on the sound of my rear shackles destroying the unibody.

(Above) Alcan Spring Pack; back to Goodyear MTRs, but in the 37x12.5R15 flavor

(Above) Back to exploring [38° 56.679'N 105° 23.550'W]

A buddy of mine with a Disco-II paid a local Land Rover specialty store a ga’gillion bucks to have a matte black decal added to his Disco’s hood. It looked pretty sweet so I figured I would copycat him, albeit with a rattle can.

(Above) Is painting the hood considered a mod? I think so… and this would be the post paint job “test drive!” [39° 4.297'N 104° 57.555'W]


I had the opportunity to roll with the big dogs one day. I was looking for a group that said they were gonna run a certain local trail, but I never did find them. I was really looking forward to snow-wheeling and was disappointed they cancelled without posting on the forum prior to the scheduled link up time. On the way back from the supposed air-down site, I happened upon a group of wheelers who all worked at the same off-road shop here in town. Their group was comprised of a TJ, YJ and CJ-7 and were all on 40” IROKs, ARBs/Detroits and 5.7Ls. They said I could tag along with them since I had IROKs and F/R ARBs. These guys could wheel and when skill wasn’t enough they had the cubic inches under the hood to blast through snow banks and hard pack.

However, what they did lack was the ability to plan for contingencies. Their rigs had itsy-bitsy fuel cells, no one carried extra fuel, no one had warm clothing, survival equipment, had only a few tools, no GPS… well, not a lot of anything. It wasn’t too long after winching through three food deep snow that they started to get cold. That made them use more skinny pedal and the CJ-7 started melting driveline U-joints. And then they all noticed about the same time that they were very near the end of their fuel reserves. The CJ-7 broke his third u-joint, while he was under the Jeep the others decided that after siphoning fuel from everyone else’s rigs they would take the most built rig back with two people to head back into town and get more gas, grab some food, and warm clothing. I decided to stay behind since my “little Jeep” wasn’t going to make it out without the assistance of the “big Jeeps.” Besides, I had food, clothing, a tent, and had started a fire already. Fourteen hours later they came back, but with a different Jeep. The uber-built YJ had broken its front Dana 60 chrome-moly long-side axle as soon as they shifted it into 4WD as they headed back up the trail. They drove back into town, grabbed the shops windowless competition buggy and came back.

During that fourteen hours I stayed warm by cutting wood in order to keep the fire going. I had to keep the guy and gal that stayed behind entertained so they wouldn’t slip back into the near catatonic state of “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” I made them hot apple cider, checked their feet for cold weather injuries, made them dry out their clothes, and told them old Army stories to keep them engaged. Exhausting work… but at 10,000 feet elevation, in winter alpine conditions you didn’t have much of a choice.

What I learned from that trip: Plan! Plan for food, water, shelter, commo, self-recovery, field fixes, GAS, etc. I could have easily survived for a couple weeks. Heck I brought snowshoes and trekking poles in case I had to walk out. But I tend to use the “P for Plenty” approach because Murphy’s Law does knows no boundaries.

Had I not been there, I know the two folks stuck with me would have perished after fourteen hours. The sad thing is we were only five miles (as the crow flies) from Colorado Springs, on the backside of Mount Baldy. We might as well have been in the backside of the moon.

Every time I head into the backcountry now I bring an Iridium phone from the office just in case. I plan on purchasing a 2m radio as soon as I learn what it can do for me… I’m and super-newb at fancy commo stuff.

(Above) Back to IROKs; this time 37x12.5R15… everyone else had 40’s this day [38° 45.887'N 105° 0.210'W]

In SEP09 I went wheeling with a 4-Wheel Parts sponsored ride. This is where my vehicle’s height and rear suspension nearly flipped the Jeep on its lid. I took a less than ideal line into an obstacle and followed that line until I informed the spotters that I wanted to be strapped from the rear just in case the suspension did something I was not expecting. I know I want to run 40’s eventually, but I also want to lower the overall height of the vehicle by at least four inches. I feel with the right suspension and radical rear fender trimming I can pull this off. Of course I won’t run 40’s until I’m running front and rear Dana 60’s… this is somewhere within my two year plan. LOL.

(Above) Off camber & too close for comfort… where height is NOT wanted [39° 7.049'N 105° 26.998'W]

I built this hard deck into the back of the Jeep to tame my tools and equipment in the event of a roll-over. Plus it keeps most everything out of sight and out of mind. I will do a more in depth on the hard deck and compressor shortly. I’m planning on rerunning air plumbing and electrical wiring for the compressor.

(Above) Hanson bumper, “custom” milk crate tool & equipment organizer, rear hard deck & Puma air compressor

(Above) Hanson Pre-Runner winch bumper sweetness

(Above) Hanson Pre-Runner winch bumper with Smittybilt XRC10 winch, TJ fender flares, Safari snorkel, T&T rock sliders & Gobi Ranger roof rack (during the post roof rack install test drive!)

(Above) Passenger side oblique

(Above) Driver side profile