Curbside Classics: Jeep Cherokee And Wagoneer SJ – Brief Initiation Into Jeep’s 4×4 Might

(Mostly Dad related memories, with a few Jeeps thrown in)

It was the early ’80s and Dad was as usual dealing with some agribusiness start-up. What it was on that occasion I won’t exactly recall. Suffice it to say that he was in constant lookout for some business venture or another. A matter that often clashed with Mom, who herself was always trying to start some business venture or another; but hers of clerical nature. If this sounds repetitive in reading, you had no idea how it felt in real life.

Still, Dad had a revolving door of business partners (and I’ve devoted a few posts to some of them), and in the early ’80s that was Ivan. How he came to know him, I don’t remember, but for a while, Ivan’s visits to go to field trips were a constant. I more or less remember the guy and his whole family rather well. Against Dad, Ivan came as youthful and athletic, with a thick mane of hair in the best early 80s tradition. His skin was amber-colored and his demeanor was amiable and approachable.

Meanwhile, his wife was bespectacled, fair-skinned and had brownish hair with big waves. Two daughters completed the family, one around my age with 12 and who resembled her dad. Then one about 5, called Clarissa, who looked just like her mother. The whole family seemed eerily tailor-made after a Gregor Mendel study.

And while I have a pretty good memory of Ivan and his family, I have a better memory of his cars. For he was the nonconformist type. While everyone bought Corollas and Datsuns, Ivan would have none of that. Instead, his car stable was eclectic, particularly for the El Salvador of the early ‘8os. It consisted of a green 1960s Volvo Amazon, a white VW Thing and a black Jeep Cherokee.

Could this be Ivan’s green Volvo Amazon? Unlikely, but it was a nice find in a Salvadorian Museum. Now, the girl’s bike could have been Clarissa’s.


So his visits to our home were always a rather exciting event car-wise. Would he arrive on his green Volvo? Or in the black Jeep? Would he come alone? Or with his wife and daughters on the white Thing?

Questions that no one else in my family seemed to have, but that were vital to me. And well, relevant. As far as I was concerned, Ivan was the coolest friend of our family.

Ivan’s family lived in a rather populous, yet quite traditional, Salvadorian town.


Rainy season had started that year, and for some reason or another, there was a big outing to some farm property Dad and Ivan had been thinking of buying. For once, Mom drove us to Ivan’s family home, from where we were to depart one Sunday afternoon to check out the plot of land both men were eyeing.

We reached Ivan’s home close to noon time. It was a fairly large house in one of the populous surrounding boroughs of San Salvador. I can’t quite recall the maze of rooms in their home as we entered their dining area, but sort of remember the meal we had; which consisted of large helpings of Sopa de Pata.

Sopa de Pata in all its gushy glory. Does it look good to you? If so, go on and have a serving.


Should you care to know, Sopa de Pata is a greatly cherished dish in Salvadorian cuisine. It consists of a hearty mix of cow’s feet, tripe, yuca, sweet corn, plantains, and green beans.

The visit had been talked about for weeks at our home, both with expectation and trepidation. Why both? On the former, Dad and Mom were soup lovers; particularly of Sopa de Pata. On the latter, I tend to abhor soups, particularly greasy and meaty ones (Sopa de Pata’s main attributes).

But there was no way to get around the ritual unless I wished to starve to death. While everyone else swallowed their bowls with overt joy, I managed to swallow enough liquid while surreptitiously disposing of the gushy meaty bits (I must have given them to the house dog). After what seemed like eons, I ‘finished’ my meal; way after everyone was done.

You may see beauty and solace in this image, like my Dad did. To Mom, this was dirt, bugs and untold hidden diseases.


With lunch done, the main task of the day was at hand; to drive to the plot of farmland. Luckily, Mom was not coming. By then, we had enough accumulated experience from previous countryside outings to know that exposing her to trails, dirt, and mud was “cruel and unusual punishment” in her mind. No wonder she loved malls.

Rains had been heavy that season, and there was doubt about the plot of land’s access road conditions. So, Ivan’s mighty Jeep was called into action for the scouting. The posse consisted of Ivan at the wheel and Dad in the passenger seat, while Ivan’s daughters and my little brother were to ride in the rear seats. I, enjoying the non-benefits of being the eldest, was to ride in the cargo area.

Let the “kids” ride in the seats, won’t you Ric?

Of course Dad… I’m just one big-hearted fella!

Not that I was surprised, nor complaining. Riding in pickup beds and trucks was natural to me after years of being so prepped by Dad’s trips. By that age, I was well acquainted with Land Cruisers, Jeep CJ-5s and the tiny beds of Datsun pickups.

Bumpy rides and non-cushioned seat areas? No problem!

So I climbed through the tailgate and made myself cozy in the rear. Or as cozy as circumstances allowed.

I won’t recall much about the drive to our destination. Being in the rear, I suppose it was bouncy, but by then I was too truck-trained to notice if that was the case.

What I do recall was the endless bickering between my younger brother and Ivan’s youngest girl; Clarissa. A kind of comedic routine that had somehow developed between the two from previous meets.

Childish Clarissa would often say nonsensical ideas that often drove my brother mad. He would then proceed to, in his best “Mr. Spock mode”, try to instill logic into her 5-year-old brain, convinced he could make her see the illogic of her outlandish ideas. After his careful and thoughtful explanations, Clarissa would then come up with something more outlandish:

  • So, if mountains can’t be made of ice cream? Can they be made of cotton candy?

This would only drive him madder, and the whole Mr. Spock routine would start all over again. It was all rather amusing, and I guess all the grownups enjoyed their cartoonish interactions, for no one ever attempted to dissuade them.

My brother and Clarissa’s interactions commanded everyone’s attention during the drive, which was rather short if I recall correctly. After 30 minutes or so of traveling, Ivan drove off the main highway into a muddy dirt road. A couple of minutes later, we reached a jungle-like ravine.

And at this point, I would like to say “How exotic!” But that would be far from a truthful statement in the Salvadorian tropics. After all, the cities in El Salvador are just paved-over jungles. Leave tarmac and concrete to ruin for a short while, and watch those trees and vines grow from the most unexpected places!

We’re driving into that?! That dark forested area where nothing can be seen?


Still, the point is, that a jungle-like terrain is not rare around here. What was new was that we were to drive into that jungle-like path, and then over the creek to reach our destination.

Drive into that dark jungle area that leads to the creek? 

No wonder Mom hadn’t come along.

Ivan stopped the vehicle and stepped out to lock the manual 4×4 hubs. A sign that something special was coming. After he stepped back in and got the car moving, a moment of silence followed as the vehicle moved forward over the muddy trail while pushing rocks and plants under its weight.

The area was particularly muddy, as heavy rains had recently hit the nation. Still, we were moving forward with ease under the heavy foliage and darkened surroundings. All that could be heard was the machine advancing against the elements.

Nature, creeks and ravines are the most common of things in this tropical nation. Here’s one on a sunny day during dry season.


The Jeep kept moving forward, rolling over some minor boulders and mud, and then it headed towards the creek. The trail was mildly steep, and naturally, very bumpy and unpassable for a normal car. We quickly reached the creek and then moved with appropriate -and bumpy- ease as the vehicle drove over.

Then, a somewhat steeper hill to overcome. And this is where the Jeep’s might was needed. Wheels spun, the car roared, mud flew off, and the engine roared some more as the wheels gained hold and pulled forward violently. Ivan held his pace steadily, while we shook in our seats with awe. It was a mighty display of power the likes of which I had never felt before. The elements had nothing on us!

So after a few seconds of roaring and violent movement, the Jeep had taken over the hill and reached the top. Over boulders and mud, with us kids grabbing to whatever we could while the Jeep’s top swung wildly.

It took a few more meters to reach the plot of land. Dad and Ivan stepped out and took a quick look. I won’t recall why, but they were quickly dissuaded about the whole deal. With that done, they got back in the car and it was once again off-road action.

Once more, the vehicle went over the terrain without a sweat, with us kids better prepared for the second passing. Not that the display was less impressive. A couple of minutes later, we were back on the main road… for a while.

What’s ahead Dad? Some cliff or something?


Night had fallen and Ivan got temporarily lost (How that happened, I have no idea, since I was facing rearward). We were somehow back on a dirt road and homes were becoming sparse. I could feel Ivan slowing down, trying to get a feel of our whereabouts.

After a short while Dad told him to stop. He then stepped out of the car to figure out where we were. A brief moment later he stepped back in.

  • Turn around, it leads nowhere. There’s a cliff ahead.

How big a cliff? Big, small? No idea to this day. What I do know is that it was something beyond the Jeep’s capacities. Nature reminding us of our limits.

That last surprise sorted, we headed back safely.

So, do I need to tell you that Cherokees, Wagoneers and Jeeps left a big impression in these lands? Probably not. There was nothing like them at the time, and got a great rep since the very early days of their arrival. And understandably, the few surviving ones have a very devoted following.

Inevitably, a few memories come to my head whenever an old Cherokee or Wagoneer appears. The first, that memorable trip with Dad and Ivan. Then, their increasing numbers in Salvadorian streets during the 1980s Civil War years.

Some may recall that I’ve mentioned car imports ceased to El Salvador from ’80-’85 by government edict. A rule generally applied, with one exception: Cherokees and Wagoneers for government officials. While common Salvadorians (and Mom) had to make do with quickly depreciating late ’70s Japanese cars, government ministers and the like got a steady diet of new and glistening AMC 4×4 products.

Needless to say, against a sea of aging Asian cars, they stood out in San Salvador’s traffic like nothing else.

So a new Cherokee –or Wagoneer– was quite the sight in those streets of San Salvador of the 1980s. I do remember, whenever one drove by, Mom and school friends talking about them with scorn and envy:

  • There! Those rich corrupt government officials and their Cherokees!

So, for a few years in El Salvador, Cherokee was a synonym of power, money and influence.

I eventually asked Dad why Salvadorian officials developed such fondness for the vehicles back in the ’80s. He basically summed their desired attributes in those challenging times: They rode over any terrain and could take officials anywhere in the nation. They were also reasonably comfortable and had nicely appointed interiors. And finally, if followed (kidnappings were common) they could outrun most Japanese 4-bangers in the nation. (Or so was the theory).

Civil War memories aside, the ride with Ivan and Dad is naturally what first comes to my mind whenever I see an old Cherokee. Or Wagoneer. The wildest off-road outing I ever had with Dad; though I’m sure he had far hairier ones.

Dad at Los Tercios waterfall near Suchitoto in dry season, with his niece (in pink), and my wife in the foreground; taken in 2014.


And nope, he never lost his love for such outings. “Extreme” as some in my generation would call it, but to him, just another day at work. Even at over 60, he would outwalk us younger folk when hiking and going over rocky terrain as if goats had raised him. His coworkers were never able to keep up with him, and his students, barely.

As I’ve mentioned before, he never learned to drive. But he had no need. He was truly one off-road model; sturdy, dependable, and rugged. Hard to find a model like his nowadays, but that’s also true for old Cherokees and Wagoneers, right?


Note: Cherokee and Wagoneer images taken in San Salvador between 2023-2024.


Related CC reading:

CC Capsule: 1979 Jeep Cherokee – No Offensive Badges But Complete With Bow And Arrows (Updated)

CC Capsule: 1979 Jeep Cherokee – I Love Bacon

Cars Of A Lifetime: 1979 Jeep Cherokee – So Proud To Live

Curbside Classic: 1968 Jeep Wagoneer – The Most Influential Car Of The Postwar Era – Not Just A Passing Fad