Auto-Biography 22: Bury My Jeep at Wounded Knee

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
auto biography 22 bury my jeep at wounded knee

If you’re looking for someone to blame for the whole yuppie-SUV fad, look no further. Back when I was bouncing over Rocky Mountain off-road trails in my VW bug, I sneered at actual Jeeps. And when I headed out across the desert in my Dodge van, I (almost) never missed having four-wheel drive. The moment we became city folks with kids, we just had to have a genuine 4X4 SUV.

When we were first married, Stephanie and I would jump in the van and head for the woods or desert every weekend. But when the two rug-rats appeared (not so mysteriously), it wasn’t so easy anymore. We spent most weekends at the park, zoo or beach. Turns out there’s nothing like feeling trapped in the city to make you a sucker for the scale-the-Himalayas SUV marketing fantasy.

Initially, I was infatuated with the idea of an International Scout, then available with a turbocharged Nissan diesel engine. But it was too gnarly for Stephanie to take seriously as a kiddie-taxi. Not for the first time in my life, fantasy outstripped practical reality.

But Detroit was reading my mind; they launched a wave of civilized cute-utes. In 1983, a Ford dealer leased us a fresh-as-a-filly Bronco II for six months, in exchange for TV ads. Within ten blocks of handover, I was ready to take it back.

Driving the Bronco was like riding a unicycle; staying upright was a constant struggle. The combination of a short 94” wheelbase, swing-axle front suspension and a high center of gravity turned out to be… challenging (deadly for others). As a practiced unicyclist, I eventually got the hang of keeping the Bronco upright, but I was never fond of vertigo.

After six months, I sent the lil’ Bronc back home, hopefully to grow up. We checked out the newly-released Jeep Cherokee (XJ). One short test drive and– predictably enough– we bought it on the spot. Compared to the Bronco, the Cherokee handled like a Ferrari.

Though launched four years after John Travolta’s hard hat days and honky-tonk nights, the Cherokee was the fuse that led directly to the explosion of four-wheeled Urban Cowboys. Virtually overnight, our pre-school parking lot was full of Cherokees. And I gotta say, the Jeep was a brilliant piece of kit.

At 3100 lbs, the Cherokee was a featherweight by today’s bloated standards. [A 4,225 lbs. Jeep Liberty? Don’t try to tell me that air bags weigh half a ton.] Foreshadowing the current trend, the Cherokee was a unibody SUV, and a tough one at that. With solid axles and a Quadra-Link suspension up front, it could hop boulders with genuine élan.

I never got into four-wheeling as a sport; ours was bone-stock. But that didn’t stop us taking long rambling trips throughout the West, getting as close to lost as possible. I always carried detailed maps that showed unimproved roads and trails. Usually, there weren’t any “consequences.” But we sure came close.

We were heading for Bryce Canyon National Park from the south. The only roads into Bryce are from the north; it was going to be one Hell of a detour. But one of my maps indicated a faint line. Good enough for me. We worked our way higher and higher into exquisitely pristine back country. Eventually our “road” became a steep trail. Then we started crossing banks of snow in the shadows.

It was late in the day. The spring-time snow became deeper, the trail steeper. I figured that backing down was riskier than keeping up our speed. So I kept the hammer down and maintained enough momentum to crash through the ever bigger snow banks. We had no sleeping bags, shovel, or winch. But we did have two little kids.

I didn’t stop sweating bullets until we reached the top.

Of course, most of the Jeep’s miles were racked up less eventfully, bombing down the freeways of LA. After we moved to Oregon and sold the Benz, the Jeep became my car.

Oregon is a back-roads paradise. The boys and I took full advantage of our new-found freedom. We’d “get lost” in the high desert and mountains for weeks at a time.

Ah, memories— bought and paid for at the pump. Yes, the Cherokee certainly conformed to the old stereotype of Indian thirst; there were times when I wondered if I’d ever left the service station. And despite slurping gas prodigiously through its miserably complicated carburetor, the Chevy-sourced 2.8-liter V6 was a pokey turd.

And after 15 years and almost 200k miles, the Cherokee began to show the effects of its endless abuse. Right to the end, it was happy drifting on Oregon’s endless gravel logging roads.

We finally replaced it in 1999 with a Subaru Forester. So you can blame us for starting the CUV fad too.

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  • Glenn 126 Glenn 126 on Jun 28, 2007

    Paul, way back in my teen years, my best pal ran beetles - and he rigged up one with two very big, very soft tires from some kind of military aircraft on custom wheels - we'd drop the PSI to about 10 in the rear, and go "boonie-ing" in the back woods of northwestern Michigan. He warmed the 1600 motor to oh maybe 70 hp as well and added a baja bug kit (or should that be subtracted the sheetmetal to resemble a baja bug?) We managed to drag a Jeep CJ out that'd gotten stuck WAY back in the two-tracks (totally embarrassing the dude who'd stuck it), and one time, when my pal was out alone, he came across this guy running towards him in the nude (!) waving his arms and screaming to stop, totally frantic. He did stop - it ended up that this guy and his girlfriend had literally hiked to the middle of nowhere, they went skinnydipping, she'd dived into a shallow spot and broken her back. She was also nude. The two men wrapped her up, carried her to the beetle and my pal carefully - and very slowly - drove out of the woods and got her to hospital. Thankfully, she survived and was not parilyzed. (This was before there were any choppers for medical evac - the mid 1970's - and no motorized ambullance could have possibly gotten back to where they were). Ah memories. As for vehicle weight, look at the weight of one of the safest cars engineered in the late 1970's, the (unknown to Americans and volvo-eque looking) Volkswagen K70. 106" wheelbase, 1.8 liters (by 1973-4-5), front wheel drive, inboard disc brakes in front with 3 (redundant) brake circuits, 2 for front and 1 for rear drums, crumple zones, a massive 26 cubic foot trunk, plenty of room for 5, autobahn performance (considering it's bluff look and 1.6 or 1.8 litres), hemispherical combustion chambers, overhead camshaft (chain not belt driven), alloy head, alloy transmission and oil pan, and it weight in at about 2400 pounds. Add air bags, ABS etc. and you'll add 50 pounds or less. So what excuse do the modern car engineers have, other than sheer laziness? My Prius has about the room of that K70, 106" wheelbase, has 140 pounds of traction batteries and weighs 2900 pounds, the lightest car of it's (interior) size now "out there".

  • Glenn 126 Glenn 126 on Jun 28, 2007

    Sorry, the Volkswagen K70 was engineered in the late 1960's, let's bring back the edit function?! The car wasn't even engineered by VW, but by NSU, which VW bought and merged with Audi. The K70 may be seen here, if you care.

  • ToolGuy CXXVIII comments?!?
  • ToolGuy I did truck things with my truck this past week, twenty-odd miles from home (farther than usual). Recall that the interior bed space of my (modified) truck is 98" x 74". On the ride home yesterday the bed carried a 20 foot extension ladder (10 feet long, flagged 14 inches past the rear bumper), two other ladders, a smallish air compressor, a largish shop vac, three large bins, some materials, some scrap, and a slew of tool cases/bags. It was pretty full, is what I'm saying.The range of the Cybertruck would have been just fine. Nothing I carried had any substantial weight to it, in truck terms. The frunk would have been extremely useful (lock the tool cases there, out of the way of the Bed Stuff, away from prying eyes and grasping fingers -- you say I can charge my cordless tools there? bonus). Stainless steel plus no paint is a plus.Apparently the Cybertruck bed will be 78" long (but over 96" with the tailgate folded down) and 60-65" wide. And then Tesla promises "100 cubic feet of exterior, lockable storage — including the under-bed, frunk and sail pillars." Underbed storage requires the bed to be clear of other stuff, but bottom line everything would have fit, especially when we consider the second row of seats (tools and some materials out of the weather).Some days I was hauling mostly air on one leg of the trip. There were several store runs involved, some for 8-foot stock. One day I bummed a ride in a Roush Mustang. Three separate times other drivers tried to run into my truck (stainless steel panels, yes please). The fuel savings would be large enough for me to notice and to care.TL;DR: This truck would work for me, as a truck. Sample size = 1.
  • Art Vandelay Dodge should bring this back. They could sell it as the classic classic classic model
  • Surferjoe Still have a 2013 RDX, naturally aspirated V6, just can't get behind a 4 banger turbo.Also gloriously absent, ESS, lane departure warnings, etc.
  • ToolGuy Is it a genuine Top Hand? Oh, I forgot, I don't care. 🙂