Boxy designs have become a revered sign of retro merit in the automotive world. Everyone’s favorite cars of yesteryear were boxy, from the Lancia Delta Integrale to the BMW E30 and Land Rover Defender. Square edges and equally spaced overhangs have become less popular in modern times, with cars like the Scion XB and Kia Soul taking the shape to extremes, and so went the boxy design renaissance. But one domestic manufacturer has stuck to the form better than most, thanks to the help of its ever-revered Jeep Cherokee.
The XJ-generation Cherokee has lived just about every possible life, from rock crawling to the National Forest Service and every high school parking lot on the West Coast. Its 18-year production run ended in 2001, but the model hasn’t seemed to wane in popularity. The timeless form is accompanied by an abundant supply of parts, generally easy maintenance and a thriving enthusiast community, meaning the model has every reason to remain an American automotive fixture. On an unseasonably warm day in San Francisco in August, we found what looks like the perfect 1986 Jeep Cherokee Pioneer in AB Beige, exemplifying just how timeless the box can be.
The Cherokee was offered with a number of powerplants over its lifespan, and this particular model is powered by the least common of the crop. Borrowed from General Motors, the carbureted 2.8-liter V6 LR2 engine wasn’t a powerhouse but got the job done with 115 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque, sent through either two or all four wheels. It was only used for the first few model years before being replaced by the legendary AMC 4.0-liter inline-six, although a 2.5-liter inline-four was available from its 1984 launch until 1996. A turbodiesel was also sold in the US briefly , a 2.1-liter inline-four producing 85 hp and 135 lb-ft for the 1985 and 1986 model years. You can imagine why that powertrain wasn’t very popular.
Both automatic and manual transmissions were available, in three-, four- and five-speed configurations. Transmissions were provided by a wide range of manufacturers, including Borg-Warner, Aisin-Warner and even Peugeot. We would have loved to see this car equipped with a manual transmission, but San Francisco’s altitude challenges mean this car is equipped with a Chrysler A904 three-speed automatic.
The real meat of the Cherokee models was the transmission and live axles, the mechanical pieces that led the Cherokee to decades of off-road fame. Of the four variants used, all transfer cases were aluminum-cased chain-driven two-speed units, with different ratios and engagement systems. Our street-parked example proudly states its Command-Trac transfer case heritage with a trunk-mounted badge. Front and rear axle components were even more variable, with three variations of a Dana 30 axle up front and a grouping of Dana or Chrysler axles in the rear. A front coil spring setup coupled with a leaf spring rear suspension made for rudimentary on-road capabilities and exemplary off-road durability.
That’s right, these cars aren’t that much fun to drive on the road. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the car to wobble violently on highways, although that handling can be tuned out. But with the right tires and a little heart, the Cherokee is nearly unstoppable on the track.
This example looks almost too clean to have ever played in the mud, but we’re not going to judge a car by its looks. We couldn’t flag the owner of this newly built 1986 model, but its lack of rust, street-treaded Hankook tires, and weathered “Menlo Park, CA” license plate cover led us to believe this is a California car from delivery. The light brown interior color is one that would hardly end up in a modern Jeep, but it works well for the 36-year-old wagon. Tying it all together is a vehicle-wide red double pinstripe, which accentuates the sun-baked beige in a way that screams a RADwood submission. We can’t fault this owner for keeping his Cherokee clean—it’s just too damn good looking.
Share your thoughts – or memories, if you have any – of the classic XJ Jeep Cherokee in the comments below.