Cherokee and Proud

Originally Published: August 2012 Words: Glyn Bardsey Pictures: Steve Taylor

You could argue that the Grand Cherokee on the previous article is more heavily modified than it really needs to be for overland travel. But you’d never say the same about Tony Willetts’ Cherokee, which remains a daily driver – as well as taking part in monthly winch challenges, and bearing the scars to prove it.

Tony bought the Jeep five years ago, because he needed a vehicle for his work as a carpet fitter and, in his words, it was ‘dirt cheap.’ All well and good, but a friend with a Discovery was going off-roading one day, he decided to tag along and he found to his surprise that his Jeep was able to do most of the same stuff. 

That’s all it took for the bug to bite. ‘I’ve been building it ever since,’ he says, ‘and there’s plenty to do yet!’

An obvious similarity between the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee is that in standard form, neither is going to win any awards for ground clearance. No surprise, then, that as with Bob Seaborn’s WJ, a suspension lift is at the heart of Tony’s vehicle.

Not counting the extra diameter of its 34x11.50R15 Simexes, the vehicle is 5” higher than standard. Up front, a pair of +3” coils is augmented by +2” spring spacers, while the Mansfield +3” leaf packs at the back is fitted using +2” shackles. Being leaf-sprung, the back axle locates itself, but keeping the front unit in order are heavy-duty upper and lower control arms of the correct length for the height of the lift.

That indicates a level of subtlety that’s all too often missing on down-home vehicle builds, and one which the Cherokee’s somewhat rough and ready appearance might not lead you to assume you’ll find here. But Tony is willing to go a long way to achieve small advantages over the vehicle’s standard spec.

He’s swapped out the original back axle, for example. Not for the far stronger Dana 44, which is a rarity in the UK and priced accordingly, but for a Chrysler 8.25. ‘It’s slightly stronger than the Dana 35c,’ he says, which might sound a bit underwhelming, but when you’re dealing with an axle which is most famous for being so easy to break (and awkward to fix) that’s a little that can go a long way.

Besides, the mods he’s made elsewhere in the drivetrain are pure commonsense. There’s an Aussie locker in the front, but only a limited-slip diff in the back – keeping the pressure off those halfshafts.

‘It’s not so bad if you break a front one,’ he says. ‘You can pull the hub off, have the UJ out and still drive it home. But if you break a back one, it’s held on with a C-clip, so it’s not a five minute job. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve not put a locker in the back yet, because it’s still on standard halfshafts.’

That’ll change soon, as when we spoke to him he was waiting for a set of heavy-duty units to arrive from the States, but right there you have a perfect example of how, if you have to take it in stages, you need to take it in intelligent stages. How many people have thrown in an ARB, kept the halfshafts standard and ended up wishing they’d waited and done it all at once?

With so much still standard on the vehicle, you wonder what Tony might do if he was starting again from scratch – or, to put it another way, what’s still on his wish list for the future. More power from the engine, perhaps, or funkier suspension to go with the rear locker when it comes?

Not a bit of it. ‘We’ve just bought a tube bender, basically just to protect the sides a bit more. And I’ve still got to fit the slip-yoke kit on the back.’ Get the impression that he’s a man who’s happy with his car?

Let’s try it another way. If money were no object, what would he build? After all, every time he goes punch-hunting he’s surrounded by people who’ve made more conventional choices.

‘I’ve had Defenders and Discoverys, but this was my first Jeep and I prefer it.'

You can build a Discovery as big as you want for next to no money, because there’s a load of second hand parts out there for them. But doing a Jeep is a bit different.

‘You could get a Grand Cherokee to do the same as mine, for the same purpose. But only if you don’t mind wrecking it a bit. I don’t think I’d go for a Wrangler – I’ve had a go in a JK, and I’m not that keen on them.

‘So I think I’d stay with something like my Cherokee. I like the room you’ve got in it. I like the slightly longer wheelbase. Sometimes it is a bit hard when you’re on a tight switchback or something like that, but at other times, on long climbs, it does better than a short-wheelbase. So if anything I’d throw a load of money at something like mine, but I’d get a newer one, and I’d probably go for the petrol. But having said that, the engine braking on mine is superb - I get queues forming behind me!’

It says a lot when you ask someone what he’d have instead and while he’s trying to answer, he comes back to raving about what he’s already got. Quite simply, the Cherokee ticks all the boxes for Tony – and though he admits to there still being loads he wants to do to it, he’s already got it to the stage where the point of no return is an increasingly distant spot on the horizon.

There is, however, a major change on the way, and it’s one that you feel may will be pivotal in the Jeep’s development. After all these years, it’s about to be retired as his work vehicle and, though it’ll still be road legal, reserved just for play.

That’s why he wants to protect the sides more, and with a tube bender in his life you’d assume he’ll be adding some roll protection before long too. After all, once that rear locker goes in he’ll be able to get it into crazier positions than ever – and, no doubt, knock it about still more.

Not that we expect Tony to stop caring about his Cherokee. Like Bob Seaborn – and, indeed, anyone who’s built a vehicle because they wanted to be a bit different – he’s attached to his truck because it stands out from the crowd. He jokes that when he turns up to fit a carpet, his customers must think that the Beverly Hillbillies have arrived, but if you know what you’re looking at you’ll quickly spot that this Jeep is no rough ‘un. It might not be as lavish in its appearance as Bob’s Grand, and that might only be the first of many differences. But it surely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath – because each in its own way is a very fine example of Jeep-building at its best.


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