COAL: 1979 Jeep Cherokee – Out Of The Barn and Into The Orient


When I was a kid, my parents would routinely surprise my brother and me with a day trip. Part of the surprise was usually the destination – you didn’t know until you arrived (or until you correctly ascertained it based on the roads we were taking, which was likely part of the thinking behind it, to instill a sense of direction). The trips were never far, and usually ended at someplace like a beach on the lake, or a state forest park.

As soon as one of these trips was underway, it was customary for one or both of us to ask where we were going. My dad would often give one of his standard sarcastic answers: “Japan”. It was funny because of the sheer impossibility of it, us having never been world travelers. (To this day, I’ve still never flown on a plane with more than one engine).


At around the same time, I can vividly recall the day my dad – a mechanic and true-blue GM guy – broke with tradition and bought a Jeep. It was 1990, I was three years old, and it was a 1975 Cherokee. Straight six, automatic, part-time 4WD, “ran when parked”, and priced at $200 (its most convincing feature). It was green with a white native-pattern vinyl stripe down the sides. I even got to help him with one of the finishing touches – masking around the back side windows so he could black them out from the inside (to keep the sun from beating in on myself and my baby brother). That particular Jeep was in the family for about a year before the rear-end gave out. Despite normally being a “keeper”, good ol’ Pop decided he’d gotten his money’s worth out of the Jeep and towed it to the boneyard.

Fast forward to 2009. I was driving past a garage sale on the other side of town when I noticed a familiar-looking snout poking out from within a partially closed pole barn. After chatting with the nice older lady who owned the place, I got permission to check it out. What I found was nothing short of amazing.


It was a green Cherokee, much like the one from twenty years prior. But unlike Dad’s, this one had a 360, Quadra-Trac, and an immaculate tan vinyl interior. Clearly it had had some bodywork done years ago (some of it poorly), and it was nowhere near drivable – but that interior! It was the closest thing to showroom you could ever hope to find. After more chatting, a date was set upon which her son (the titleholder) would come out to the property and negotiate my purchase of the Jeep. I actually had been shopping for a 4-wheeler at the time, so much the better.


Since I couldn’t hear it run, I used the old “pig in a poke” tactic to try and get the price down. He, of course, countered with stories of its glory days and the strength of the drivetrain during his various exploits in an attempt to keep the price up. For all his reminiscing, I was surprised when he accepted my opening offer of $750 (fully expecting to argue back and forth, and eventually land somewhere close to $1000). I quickly loaded it onto the trailer before he could change his mind.

Upon getting it home, it became clear that it was the owner before him who was mostly responsible for its positive aspects; the only favor this guy did it was storing it indoors. All other recent evidence showed nickel-and-dime repairs were how he rolled, right up until it rolled no more. (Speaking of which, dig those four mismatched tires!) Thank goodness he’d only driven it for several months, or there would likely have been nothing left to work with. Virtually every component involved in the delivery of fuel and spark required either repair or replacement before it ran properly.


It’s important to note that this was late fall in Minnesota. And everybody knows what comes next – snow, which goes hand in hand with the enemy of every CC, road salt. I had been seeking a four wheel drive vehicle in order to conquer the coming winter driving conditions. But as I brought the Jeep back to its former glory, something happened: I decided I couldn’t keep it. To keep it and use it as it was intended would soon kill it, I realized, turning it into just another rusted out Jeep in a couple years’ time. And I couldn’t stand to see that happen.

So with a twinge of regret, I listed the Jeep on eBay. It sold for three times what I had into it, which made the whole ordeal somewhat more palatable. But the itch had yet to be scratched – so once the deal was consummated I went back on the hunt, eventually finding and buying a Grand Wagoneer. It’ll get its own CC in the near future.


Making such a tidy profit off this rig was a surprise. But an even bigger surprise came when the buyer called to make arrangements for its transport… to the Port of Los Angeles. From there it would be placed on a boat, bound for – of all places – Japan.


Look for a new post from Keith Thelen each Wednesday here at Curbside Classic. He’ll be documenting some of the many odd and/or interesting vehicles he’s encountered through years of deal hunting and junkyard spelunking in the North Star state.