By on July 4, 2012

Jeep Comanche - photo

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.

Jeep Comanche - photo

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.

Jeep Image

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.

Jeep Comanche - photo

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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31 Comments on “Look What I Found: No, That’s Not A Jeep Cherokee. Wrong Tribe....”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    It is fairly amazing how many of these you still see on the road compared to their low production #s.

    • 0 avatar

      I only recall ever seeing one, maybe two tops, and that was several years ago. But of course there could’ve been more that I just didn’t notice…

      Very cool looking little pickup though.

  • avatar

    Nice article on these.

    For an ’86, this one is indeed nice and I would suspect it is the original paint, well cared for. I don’t know if these were clear coated or not but either way, judging by the shine, not an obviously new, glassy shine, it’s slightly dull or so it appears here so I think the paint is original most likely.

    I would think that finding parts would still be easy enough to find as there are many areas of the country where these don’t experience the rust like they did in the rust belts so finding parts may be doable and most likely much of the interior bits are shared with the Cherokee.

  • avatar

    My earliest recollection of these were that most of them were driven by elderly chubby white men who never liked razor blades and tended to rust out quickly.

  • avatar

    The 2.8 Liter (173 c.i) engine found in the early Cherokees and Comanches is a different engine than the Buick 3.8 Liter (231 c.i.) that Buick bought back from AMC in 1973-1974. The 2.8 liter was first used in the 1980 X Cars such as the Chevy Citation and Buick Skylark. It was later used in the first generation of S-10s and S-10 Blazers for a RWD application. The Buick V-6 was used in mid sixties Buicks like the 65 Special my father had. It was sold to Kaiser Jeep in 1968. It was used in Jeeps for a few years then in 1971 or so AMC bought Jeep for Kaiser. They discontinued the Buick V-6 engine and used the AMC Straight six in Jeeps. Around 1974 or so Buick was pressed for fuel economy and tried a 225 V-6 pulled from a junkyard mid 60s Buick and put in a Buick Apollo (like a 70s Chevy Nova). They wanted to buy engines from AMC and ended up buying back the tooling and installing it back in the same plant where it was before Buick sold it to Kaiser Jeep. The 3.8 liter V-6 was made up until the mid 2000s and was used in many Buick and GM Cars. The 2.8 liter V-6 from the citation was used in many cars and small trucks and grew into the 3.1 Liter V-6 and others. So in short the 2.8 liter and 3.8 liter are two different engines. One was designed in the 70s and the 3.8 liter originally in the 60s.

    • 0 avatar

      This is indeed 100% correct… the Jeep used the 60deg V-6 block that was 2.8L in the X-body, and A-body cars… I doubt the 90-deg block would fit in the fairly narrow engine bay anyway.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for the correction. I assumed the V6 in the Cherokee was a holdover from the Kaiser days.

      Did AMC ever buy the 3.8 from GM after they put it back into production? I have a vague memory of that.

  • avatar

    Sorry but the 2.8L V6 is a 60 degree design that shares nothing with the Buick/Rover V8. Might want to revise that.

    I quite like Comanches. There is still a few in daily service around here. Most seem to be 2wd with the 4.0L I6.

  • avatar

    I think I would prefer this truck with the straight six to the S 10 that I have and I like my truck fairly well.

    I am unsure of a good reason to stop with the I6. Being compact is not a reason I consider to be particularly good.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve owned a couple I6 Cherokees – they are packed in there really good. Radiator is pushed really forward to make it fit. The 4.0L I6 is a lovely motor but certainly not compact.

  • avatar

    The Wagonmaster was built by International Harvester and is the forerunner to the Chevy Avalanche and cousins. A Travelall with an integrated ~5′ bed. Jeep produced the Wagoneer (4dr) and Cherokee (2dr) full-size truck based station wagons.

  • avatar

    The folks at Jeep and Truck Engineering told me that the Jeep XJ Cherokee and the Ram AB Van, where the last two vehicles in production, which were originally designed by hand on paper. I don’t know the first vehicle designed on CAD, but I expect it was a GM (or Ford).

  • avatar

    This was my first ride at age 17. A black 4×4 1989 model. I plowed snow with it; had the i6 motor. Boy that v6 was a dog.

    This one appears well cared for and still has its rear bumper.

  • avatar

    I remember looking at the front axle of a Comanche 4X2 and seeing a straight tube connecting the kingpin clevises in place of the driven axle that would have gone into the 4X4. Did they do that on the 4X2 Cherokees as well?

    I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a 4X2 Cherokee.

    – Chris

    • 0 avatar

      I had a friend in college who had a 4×2 Cherokee. I would always ask him what’s the point of a non 4×4 SUV? If you are gonna pay for the gas mileage of an SUV, you might as well get the usefulness of 4 wheel drive.

      • 0 avatar

        RWD SUVs generally have a higher payload and towing capacity. So if you are just going to be hauling around on the pavement, 4WD might be a waste of money and capability.

  • avatar

    I own an ’87 Comanche Chief. Bucket seats, 4.0. Engine is still strong. Working with 3rd Peugeot 5 speed.
    Great little truck. Was a daily driver (120 mi/day) till 6 months ago.

    Great little truck.

  • avatar
    fintail jim

    Currently I have two Jeep Comanches sitting in my garage. I’ve owned a 1996 Cherokee and my daughter currently drives a 2001 Cherokee. All of these have been 2-wheel drive with the 4.0 liter in-line 6 and 4-speed automatic transmissions.

    The white Comanche is a 1991 base model and the black Comanche is a 1992 with Pioneer trim (bucket seats, console, upgraded upholstry, etc. I bought the white one four years ago just to have a truck to use for weekend chores etc. I bought the black one last month in Slidell, Louisiana and drove it to my house near Houston. It has only 94,000 miles and I am the second owner. It needs paint but is in otherwise excellent condition even for a vehicle half its age.

    My daily driver is a 2007 Mercedes-Benz C280. While it has been an outstanding car for me on my 80-mile round trip commute to work each day it’s gettin to the point where more costly maintenance is required. I sold my 1995 Mercedes E320 because I couldn’t justify the expense of a transmission rebuild (150k miles) not knowing what other expensive repair would arise next. I just spent over $900 for a pair of new electric cooling fans.

    Anyway, I figure once I retire, the Comanche should be all I need and the few repairs I can’t or don’t want to do myself can be done with a lot less expense by my trusted local mechanic. Besides I like driving a truck. Both of mine are long wheelbase models with that solid front axle but the ride on the highway and most local roads is just fine.

    The comment made about the Comanche being the perfect size for my needs is certainly true. My neighbor has an early ’90s Dodge Dakota which also seems to be “right-sized.” His is a Club Cab or whatever Dodge called their model with the extra space and jump seats. It is not a four door version. Those give up too much cargo bed space to be useful to me.

    It is a shame the author made a couple of glaring mistakes about the origins of power plants and names of Jeep vehicles but he accepted corrections graciously and I am inclined to forgive him in the event he was not even born when the Wagoneer/Gladiator hit the scene and might have been very young indeed when the XJ Cherokee and MJ Comanche came to market. [grin]

    By the way, I’ve never named any of the 30+ cars I’ve owned in my life but I’m considering naming the black Comanche Peta Nocona who was the father of Quannah Parker the last free chief of the Comanche. As I am a native and life-long Texan I think that would be appropriate. [grin again]

    • 0 avatar

      You and I have similar tastes in cars. I also drive an ’07 C280 and a Comanche. My Commanche is an ’89 eliminator in black, and it is far more economical to keep it going vs. the Benz even though it only has 40K miles. Even minor repairs on the benz will cost more than a major repair on the Jeep. I just had the Comanche’s rear main done, and I expect to keep it awhile. On the other hand I’ve already set a departure date for the C280.

      I might be inclined to let the Comanche go if the right J truck came along. Those are truly bad a$$.

      • 0 avatar
        fintail jim

        My Benz has just reached 78k miles. I’m told I’m due for a transmission and rear differential service along with a brake fluid change. I trust my local Benz-only (ok he services Porsche and BMW too but not Audi) mechanic and all I’ve read on the blogs seems to indicate these services are a good idea at this point. The killing thing is the $700 I will have to shell out to get it done. DYI is not really an option besides, it’s hot as blue blazes in Texas right now. I’m truly sympathetic to those in the midwest and east coast for the hell they’ve been going through with the weather. Last summer we had 32 consecutive days of 100+ degree weather.

        Anyway, I love driving the C280. It gets great milage and is really a comfortable compact automobile but $700 would go a lot farther on Jeep repairs than on this car. By the way, I did replace the park neutral switch on my ’91 Comanche last year. The part was expensive because I refused to by the el cheapo version on the internet. I just wish AMC/Chrysler had but that on the steering column like GM instead of on the side of the transmission case. But it lasted 20 years and there is the possibility it could be rebuilt. I just took the easy – but not economical – way out.

  • avatar
    Mark in Maine

    Mine was a long bed 4×4 I6 5-speed. Anvil rugged, NEVER once failed to start, and would go lots of places up here. I liked the fact that, since the junkyrds were full of them, it was easy to keep running, and most any option that it had not come with from the factory could be installed after the fact, owing to used parts availability. I finally sold it to a friend in order to buy a used S-10 extended cab 4×4. There were many instances after I’d sold it that I wished that I hadn’t.

  • avatar
    fintail jim

    I remember now looking at a early 1990’s Toyota 4Runner which was 2-wheel drive and also had a solid tubular front axle. I guess it was easier on the assembly line to install either the front drive axle with differential or the “dummy” tube depending on the 2-wheel or 4-wheel set up for the vehicle.

    To echo Mark in Maine’s comment, yes all four of my Jeeps have been reliable and tough as a anvil too. The back seat in the Cherokees leaves something to be desired but when we bought our first one in late 1995 my children where still in car seats so leg room and seat cushion length really weren’t an issue.

  • avatar

    “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.”

    Anyone have any idea why the guy hated the I6 so badly? Seems odd and I would hope there was a legitimate reason for the hatred of what most people seem to regard as an okay AMC engine.

    • 0 avatar

      None of us appreciated them when they were current. AMC was about the last American holdout. I was exposed to the GM 3.8 in 77 and was real pleased with the AMC 258 that I bought as soon as I was able to escape GM.

      V8’s were the order of the era. An I6 was considered stodgy and slow. Too bad we never spent much time contemplating the 240Z engines or Deloreans attempt with the OHC 230. Might have turned out differently. I sure wish the 4.3 in my S-10 was a 230/250 I6 like GM made at the last. But it’s not and we have smog laws that keep it from being swapped for something better (not a v8). Guess I need to be happy.

      • 0 avatar
        fintail jim

        There is someone on eBay who is offering a stroker Jeep in-line 6 (4.9 liter, 275 horsepower). I think that would be plenty. I’m not sure what the hp and torque ratings are for the engine in teh ’91 and ’92 Comanche but the 2001 Cherokee my daughter drives is rated at 190hp and that is plenty. Give me reliability and adequate power over the ability to smoke the tires any day.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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.

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