Marriage and family – turns out those life decisions drive a lot of car purchase decisions for many people. While there was nothing wrong with the Accord and the P’up the wife and I had, a couple of my cousins owned 4WD vehicles and used them for their intended purpose. J. and I were looking for a family vehicle – no family yet, but it was likely imminent – and we wanted to explore the off road trails in Southern California with them, so we decided to make the leap and get our own…
In 1988, the choices for what are now known as SUVs were pretty limited, and almost all of them only offered two doors (Blazer, Bronco II, Pathfinder, 4Runner). At the time, the only 4 doors that were on the market were the original Jeep Cherokee and the Isuzu Trooper. One of my cousins were already on their second Cherokee – the first was the 2.8L V6, which they then swapped for a 4.0L in dark blue. The problem for J and I was that the Cherokee stickered in the $20-22K range, which was a bit outside of our budget.
Since we had a good experience at the local Isuzu dealer when we bought the P’up, we decided to go back and take a look at the Trooper. My goodness, was it square! Everything on the vehicle was designed with a T-square, it seemed. The only round items on the car were likely the wheels, tires, steering wheel, and the cylinders in the 2.6L 4-cylinder engine. This was an Isuzu designed powerplant, and not one borrowed from GM. It made a whopping 120HP, and was paired to a 4-speed automatic transmission, an honest to goodness Hi and Lo range differential, and manual hubs.
We found one that had been driven by the general manager, and it had around 6,000 miles on it. It was priced to move at $17,000, and, after talking it over for a few minutes, we decided to trade in the Accord and sign the papers. The car we picked was white over gold – it seemed like about half of the Troopers sold that year were that color combination. Tan cloth interior, an impressively high seating position, and enough glass to create a greenhouse effect strong enough to bake cookies were the other design features I remember.
Decent room in the back seat, and more room than we thought we would ever need behind the rear seat. It was also equipped with a funky two piece asymmetrical rear door; the left door was about 80% of the width of the car, while the right door was the other 20%. Luxury items include cruise, air conditioning, and a 4 speaker stereo with cassette.
After the relative sportiness of the Accord, it took some time getting used to driving something so large and top heavy. It was slow, and it didn’t have a great ride, but we could almost keep up with the cousins when our excursions left the payment. About an hour or two north of town was the Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area, 19,000 acres of off road playground maintained by the State of California. Trails ranged from beginner to beyond advanced, and we tackled what we thought we could traverse, usually until one or more of us couldn’t go any further. Many a Sunday were spent exploring the trails, packing in our lunch, and helping those who were unfortunate enough to get stuck.
My other cousin – he of the Sunbird sunroof installation – went over a “yump” at speed with his ’86 Ranger and managed to disassemble the right rear u-bolt off the leaf springs. Took a good 30-45 minutes for us to find a spot where he could compress the suspension enough to perform a hasty repair and continue the fun and games. After a good rain, there were some nice mudholes where we could get the cars absolutely filthy – the 4.0L Cherokee with 177HP was a champ at drifting in the muck. The Trooper held its own, until it came time to go uphill. The lack of HP meant that we were often the first to get stuck on those trails, and I remember once spinning the rear wheel enough to burn off what looked like about 5000 miles worth of rubber.
As a family vehicle – yes, our son A. was born during the time we owned the Trooper – it was second to none. It swallowed up bags, strollers, port-a-cribs, luggage, whatever we needed to move. And that was with the rear seat in place. When it was folded down, it was positively cavernous. I was tasked with taking a bunch of computer equipment to a trade show once, as I owned the only car large enough to carry everything we needed (15” CRT monitors were really bulky at the time).
Mechanically, the Trooper was pretty reliable – until it wasn’t. I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but the top half of the engine had to be rebuilt at one point. The work was done under warranty, but it was out of commission for a couple weeks while the repairs were made.
I was able to take the Trooper on one lengthy road trip. A childhood friend of mine had relocated to extreme Northern California to attend college, so I took a week to visit him. The drive up the 101 to San Francisco was wonderful, then I got lost trying to find the Golden Gate bridge – it took two trips through the city before I found the right roads to take. Kids, this was in the age before smart phones and Google Maps, and paper maps were bulky to use on the move, and then not always accurate.
The second half of the trip north was, in a word, interminable. South of the Bay Area, Highway 101 is a divided highway; north of the city, it switches over to a two lane road with stoplights in almost every town between Marin County and my final destination. I hadn’t realized until that point exactly how big a state California really is. The trip was over 650 miles, and it was 12 hours, door to door. The trip home was quicker, but certainly less scenic, as I crossed over to Interstate 5. The Trooper was susceptible to cross winds, and the mileage never crossed over the 20 MPG mark, even on the flat roads of the Central Valley.
One other story to relate – J. took a job as a civilian contractor with the Navy in their computer center, and she was working the graveyard shift. She drove the Trooper, and came home from work one morning to get some sleep. Later that day, I got a call at the office from her, telling me the car wouldn’t start. Wouldn’t turn over, nothing. Turns out she had left the car in “Drive” rather than “Park” – though, thinking back on it now, wouldn’t that have prevented the key from being removed from the ignition? Poor sleep patterns led to problems like this.
We kept the Trooper for just over three years. In 1991, the Persian Gulf became the focus of the world’s attention, and gas prices started to creep up. In California, prices for regular unleaded were starting to range around $1.50/gallon, which meant it took almost $30 to fill the Trooper’s large tank. This was a bit of a budget issue, so we decided to trade out both the P’up and the Trooper for cars more fuel efficient. Each was sold privately, and their replacements will be documented in our next installment.