COAL: 1987 Jeep Cherokee and ’96 Grand Cherokee • Entering the SUV Era

It’s now the mid-1990s, and we are living in Washington, DC and driving a 1993 LHS and a 1994 Miata.
For a few years now we had been making long weekend trips to stay at The Guesthouse Lost River, a small LGBT-friendly resort in the mountains of West Virginia about 125 miles west of DC. We would go up there several times a year with friends to relax and escape the stress of our job. The guys who owned the guest house also did real estate; they had put together the Lost River Valley development, which covered the mountains around the guest house. The entire development had become something of a Mecca for the DC-area LGBT community. A lot of couples stayed at the Guest House, liked the area, and ended up buying property. And to that list was added one more: During one visit the proprietor of the guest house took us to look at one property, and we fell in love.

The cabin sits atop a mountain ridge with a gorgeous view of the surrounding valley. It was a a one-bedroom, one-bath home with a loft sitting on five acres of land. The owner was in the military, and was being transferred, so the deal included all furniture. It was just what we’d been looking for, and the price was right, so we put in an offer which was accepted.

We knew from experience that the Lost River area could get a lot of snow; in 1994 we were snowed in for three days at the Guest House. The cabin lay at the end of a mile-long dirt road with a couple of steep sections as you approached the ridge, so we figured we’d need to get something with four wheel drive if we wanted to use the cabin during the winter. I still had a year to go on the lease of my Chrysler LHS, and Rick had just bought his Miata and didn’t want to give it up, so a new SUV was out of the question. A friend tipped us off to a used 1987 Jeep Cherokee being sold by a tenant in his office building. He wanted $1,000 for it, which was ridiculously low. I did a quick check on the vehicle and it seemed mechanically OK, albeit a bit tatty inside. So we bought it.

Not our vehicle, but the same color as ours.

The Jeep Cherokee was the last entirely new vehicle marketed by American Motors prior to the Chrysler buyout in 1987 (I’m not counting the AMC/Renault Alliance or Encore, since those were Renault designs). It was smaller than the original Wagoneer/Cherokee, which dated back to 1962, and considerably more fuel-efficient. Ours had the stolid AMC 4-liter inline six and part-time 4WD. You could shift on-the-fly into 4WD, though this range was intended for off-road use and not for normal highway driving. This was the feature we wanted: something that would get us to and from the WV cabin in the winter, since neither the Miata nor the Chrysler was any good in snow.

The car needed a thorough detail; it smelled of stale tobacco smoke and grime. There was also no radio—apparently someone had broken in and stolen the radio/tape deck combo before we bought it. So I spent some time cleaning the car up, and the first weekend we took it up to the cabin we spent a day going down to the Crutchfield Stereo retail outlet an hour south in Harrisonburg, VA. I purposely didn’t give my name when I purchased the new radio/tape player; I just handed them my American Express card. The cashier looked at my name, and said “Are you related to Bill Crutchfield?????” I said probably, though he was not an immediate relative. I grinned and asked if I could get a family discount. All I got was the hat you see here:

The Jeep gave us reasonably good service for a couple of years. During the summer we left it up at the cabin since the AC didn’t work well and we had no garage to store it in back in DC. The only time it gave us trouble was when the catalytic converter went bad on the way home one weekend and the car drove like it had a Citroen 2CV flat twin instead of an inline six—it wouldn’t go above 45 mph and barely made it up hills. We knew the lease was ending on my LHS, and I didn’t want to rely on the aging Cherokee as a daily driver. In 1996 the lease was up the LHS, so we decided to get a new SUV with 4WD instead of another sedan. We sold the Jeep as-was to the friend who led us to it in the first place, and went car shopping.

Our first thought was to buy a Jeep Grand Cherokee. It would give us the 4WD to get up to and from West Virginia, and was more spacious and comfortable than a Cherokee. We started our search at the Chrysler-Jeep dealership where we got the LHS. The salesperson we were assigned showed us what was available on the the lot. He must have figured out we were a gay couple by the good-natured bickering between the two of us about what color and which features each vehicle offered. He must have been bothered by us, since he walked off and left us standing there. I walked into the manager’s office and complained about the homophobic treatment we received, and told him “We came here prepared to write a $35,000 check for a new vehicle. You just lost a sale.” And left in a huff.

Again, not ours, but this is the “Dusky Rose” color of ours.

A few weeks later my credit union held a new car sale for members, with immediate financing available. They offered a good price on a new 1996 Grand Cherokee, which was just what we wanted. We weren’t crazy about the color, which was officially “Dusky Rose” but looked to us like “Moldy Purple.” Still, it was otherwise fine, so we signed the papers and drove it home. Unfortunately, the contributing dealer that would service the warranty on the vehicle was the same one we had just stormed out of. Oops! Still, we figured we wouldn’t need to deal with their sales staff, so that was that.

So we now had a new and reliable vehicle to get us to and from the cabin. At first we liked the Grand Cherokee. It rode well, handled the snow during the winter with aplomb, and had super comfortable seating. That was important: I have lower back issues, and when I was having a spell of back pain I’d actually go sit in the car because somehow sitting there made the pain go away. Go figure. The car had a 5.2-liter V8, and was considerably more peppy than the six in the old Cherokee. The mileage wasn’t great in town, but we did very little in-town driving and got maybe 16 MPG on highway driving to and from the cabin. Ours came Selec-Trac 4WD, which meant we could use 4WD on the road in wet-snowy situations.

For awhile things were fine…until the warranty was up. The transfer case began leaking oil and had to be fixed. The padding in the rear door interiors pulled away from the molding. The speedometer cable broke and had to be replaced. We had to replace the battery twice. At times the oil pressure gauge would drop to near zero. It was an intermittent thing, and multiple trips to the dealer failed to find anything wrong. The car became difficult to start in wet weather. The air conditioning system sprang a leak; after recharging the system, in six weeks there would be no cooling. So after the car had been paid off, Rick and I decided to relegate it to winter duty and store it at the cabin over the spring and summer and go shopping for something more reliable.

What we decided upon will be covered in my next installment.

COAL № 1: Buicks Aplenty; a Fiat, and a Pontiac • The Early Years.

COAL № 2: 1958 Plymouth Custom Suburban • Dad’s Biggest regret.

COAL № 3: 1965 Buick Sportwagon • My first car.

COAL № 4: 1967 Datsun 1600 • The first car that was legally mine.

COAL № 5: A Pair of Pintos.

COAL № 6: 1983 & ’87 Toyota Celica • What’s the Plural of ‘Celica’?

COAL № 7: 1987 Ford Taurus MT-5 • Tragedy, An Unexpected New Car, And Two Midlife Crises

Further reading:

Curbside Classic: 1984 Jeep Cherokee – AMC’s Greatest Hit, Thanks To Renault

Curbside Classic: 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee Orvis Edition – Explorer Eddie Bauers Are Just So Ordinary