Look What I Found: No, That's Not A Jeep Cherokee. Wrong Tribe.

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
look what i found no that s not a jeep cherokee wrong tribe

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

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  • Phathank Phathank on Sep 18, 2012

    I just bought a beat up 90 Comanche pioneer for $800. Runs so strong and steady. Cheapest little project I ever had. So simple, everything is available. Inline 6 will run long after the truck rots away. I hope to become that fat, old, grizzly dude some day.

  • Badtux99 Badtux99 on May 05, 2018

    The 2.5L in the Cherokee/Comanche was a new design based on the 4.2L (258) I6 bore spacings (so it could share some of the tooling) and AMC's first computer-designed cylinder head that was designed with fuel injection ports from day one. It was not a Nash design. Nash had standardized on I6 engines in the mid 1920's and had never sold I4 engines of its own design after that. The 2.5L was AMC's very first native I4 design, all other I4 engines they'd sold had been other people's (VW, Pontiac, Austin). The 2.5L head design and tooling were later used for the 4.0L Jeep engine, which was crammed into the Cherokee/Comanche via bashing an indention into the firewall and into the Jeep Wrangler where it lasted until 2006. The 4.0L again shared bore spacings with the 4.2L, as well as crankshaft bearing spacings and other major dimensions, but the head was entirely different (based on the 2.5L head) as were the crankshaft and piston rods. Incidentally putting the 4.2L crankshaft and rods into the 4.0L turns it into a "stroker" engine. As for why the Cherokee/Comanche were not originally designed for an I6, EPA fuel economy standards had been the original reason. Design of the Cherokee started in 1978, when Jimmy Carter had gotten strict EPA fuel economy standards passed by Congress in the aftermath of the Iran oil crisis. So originally the 2.5L was supposed to be the only engine in the Cherokee/Comanche, and was designed as a modern fuel injected design to be more efficient than any other engine that was offered in that class vehicle while having as much horsepower as the 4.2L carbureted I6. The lack of a carburetor also meant that the hood could be shorter, which also improved fuel economy (since carburetors are much taller than throttle bodies). When actually introduced in 1983 the fuel economy standards had been lifted by Reagan, but it was too late by then to actually redesign the XJ. The GM X-Car's 2.8L was offered for those who insisted on a 6 cylinder in their Jeep but few were sold because it was a carbureted engine that had less horsepower than the 2.5L, which was fuel injected. The original YJ Wrangler's engine bay was tall enough for the 4.2L but the XJ's was not (the 4.2L was carbureted at the time, which made it too tall to fit). The other possible engine would have been the 3.0L Renault V6 (AMC was owned by Renault at the time), but it was a 90 degree V6 and rather wide. That V6 did eventually get used in the AMC / Eagle Premier but was not a likely candidate for the Cherokee/Comanche due to its width. So the GM X-car V6 was "it" for 6 cylinder engines until AMC could actually get the fuel-injected 4.0L out the door, which due to its fuel injection was short enough to fit in the Comanche/Cherokee's engine bay. The X-car engine wasn't really a bad engine for its day, but was seriously underpowered -- it made less horsepower than the I4! If you're going for an older Comanche/Cherokee from before the 4.0L era, definitely go for the 2.5L I4 -- it's both far more reliable than the GM V6, and far easier to work on, while giving up nothing on the power side of things.

  • MaintenanceCosts This class of car competes hard with Chargers/Challengers and modded diesel pickups for the douchey-driving crown.
  • 28-Cars-Later Corey - I think I am going to issue a fatwa demanding a cool kids car meetup in July somewhere in the Ohio region.
  • Master Baiter Might as well light 50 $100 bills on fire.
  • Mike1041 At $300K per copy they may secure as much as 2 or 3 deposits of $1,000
  • Sgeffe Why on Earth can’t you just get the torque specs and do it yourself if you’re so-inclined?!