One of the cool things about car shows in the Detroit area is that you will most likely start seeing interesting cars before you actually enter the show. I like to call them “parking lot prizes”, but then I’m fond of alliteration. At the recent Eyes On Design show, which benefits the Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology, I spotted a couple of prewar V16 Cadillacs, a ’61 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and a first generation Corvette with a custom wooden boat tail before I even got to the press credential tent. Those are not common cars but the subject of this post is particularly rare. What could be rare about a Jeep Cherokee? They were in production in the US, South America and China for over two decades. However, this isn’t a Jeep Cherokee. If you look closely at the badge on the fender, it honors another tribe, the Comanches, and the Comanche was only in production for six model years. I deliberately cropped the photo so you can’t see that this noble automotive savage is a pickup truck, not AMC’s genre creating SUV.
In the early to mid 1980s American Motors, then under Renault ownership, was developing the XJ Cherokee. AMC correctly anticipated that pickup trucks would increasingly be used as passenger vehicles. The decision was made to spin a pickup truck off of the the Cherokee platform. Jeep sold full sized pickups, the J10 and J20, based on the Wagonmaster, but its dealers had nothing smaller to compete with the Ford Ranger, Chevy S-10 or Dodge Dakota. Unlike with those trucks, which are body on frame designs, the Cherokee did not have a separate frame. The XJ platform was Jeep’s first attempt to build a unibody vehicle. Concerned that traditional unibody architecture would not be up to the rigors of being a trail rated Jeep, AMC’s engineers and Dick Teague’s designers came up with what they called a Uniframe assembly. Essentially that involved integrating and welding a traditional ladder frame into the unibody structure. Some have described the Cherokee as being overengineered, which may help explain the Jeep SUV’s legendary durability.
Unlike other small trucks created from unibody vehicles, like the Dodge Rampage and VW Pickup (aka Caddy), though, the Commache’s engineers gave it a conventional separate bolt-on pickup bed. To do so meant upgrading the rear part of the Uniframe into a proper subframe that could bear suspension and payload loadings. For a company that hacked off the Hornet’s trunk and turned it into the Gremlin, cutting the Cherokee in half and making it into the Comanche was perfectly in character. From the back of the cab forward, a Comanche is very similar to a Cherokee.
Chrysler bought AMC specifically for the Jeep brand. Some say that it was the success of the Cherokee itself that convinced Chrysler to buy AMC. While most of the Jeep lineup did compliment Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth dealers’ lineups, the Comanche competed, more or less, with the Dodge Dakota. The small Jeep pickup languished with little development (other than upgrades to the inline six) and after the 1992 model year Jeep’s unique unibody-with-bed-on-frame pickup truck died. The fact that the well-selling Cherokee was more profitable than the Comanche also didn’t favor the Comanche’s continued production.
From the number of grille slots (10) and the XLS trim package, this is almost certainly a 1986 model, and because of the higher level XLS trim, I’m guessing that it has the 2.8 liter V6 made AMC purchased from General Motors. That engine has a curious history that involves both GM and Jeep. It started out as Buick’s all aluminum 215 cubic inch V8. Around the same time that engine was being developed, the early 1960s, compact cars started becoming popular and GM needed six cylinder engines. To make a six from the eight, they just lopped off two cylinders, allowing the use of much of the same tooling. The problem is that 90 degree sixes are not inherently balanced. It wasn’t a popular option so GM sold the tooling in 1967 to Kaiser-Jeep, who had only four cylinder engines. Jeep owners would never complain about less than smooth engines. Moving forward a few years, after the 1973 oil embargo, GM was again looking for alternatives to V8 engines and decided to purchase the tooling back from AMC, who by then had acquired Jeep. The engine went back into production as a GM product and since the Jeep team was used to working with the engine, it was a natural choice. Well, maybe not so natural.
Why the odd-duck 90 deg V6 and not the torquey and durable AMC inline six that later became so closely identified with the Cherokee? AMC engineer Evan Boberg wrote in his book, Common Sense Not Required, “The story I was told was [that] the executive in charge of the design of the Cherokee hated the AMC inline 6 cylinder engine and specifically designed the Cherokee so it would not fit. The Nash 2.5 liter engine was fitted with fuel injection and the General Motors 2.8 liter V6 with oil leaks were the original engine options.”
The base engine for the Comanche was AMC’s 150 CI four. Actually, in 1986, the differences between the I4 and the V6 engines were not great. The four was rated at 117 HP and 135 lb-ft of torque, while the V6 had only 115 horsepower, and just a bit more torque, 145 lb-ft. Jeep did offer two different diesel engines, one made by Renault and the other by VM Motori (Allpar says that it was a Peugeot). They were advanced engines for their day but they flopped in the market. Jeep’s current reluctance to bring diesel powered products to the US market has been attributed to the failure of the diesel powered Cherokees and Comanches. In 1987, that executive’s decision was reversed and the 173 HP 220 lb-ft 4.0 liter inline six made a big difference in those Jeeps’ performance, particularly in the Comanche, which weighed about 600 lbs less than the Cherokee.
AMC and Chrysler sold about 190,000 Comanches in all, the peak years being 1987 and 1988, with about 43,000 units sold in each of those years. While Cherokees are still fairly common, you don’t see many Comanches. Most of those Cherokees that you see, though, are later models. A quick check at eBay Motors shows very few pre-1995 Cherokees for sale. The early Cherokees had some rust problems. Comanches share those traits, and pickup truck beds, like convertibles, have their own rust issues. So you don’t see many left on the road, at least not in this kind of near pristine shape. I’m assuming that it’s an original condition truck and not restored because the chance of someone finding the parts to restore one of these has just got to be even lower than the likelihood that someone would keep one in showroom shape.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS