My wife, Amber, and I have always talked about building a muscle car together. She’s fond of the first few years of the Mustang; I’d love a Mopar. Maybe a Charger R/T, a Cuda? So many good choices. So anyway, we bought a 1979 Jeep Cherokee Chief lol. Well… I did.
Sometimes you aren’t looking for a vehicle, but it finds you.
Sometimes you sit in the driver’s seat of a friend’s barn-find, a Mandarin Orange ’79 Cherokee Chief at SEMA. You fall in love, and then end up making a deal to buy another friend’s project Jeep over margaritas at the bar that same night.
“Hi honey, yeah, Vegas is great! So I bought another Jeep…”
All I had to do was get her in the driver seat, and the Jeep would hook her too.
She’d picture herself driving to the beach, looking out over the long blue hood at the road ahead, or maybe wheeling up a fire road in the mountains of Colorado, V8 rumbling. There was only one problem with this plan, the Jeep didn’t have an interior, and the visions from a milk crate weren’t as inspiring.
She’d have to use her imagination a little harder.
We made a plan to work on the Chief each winter, doing the restoration & upgrades in phases so we could enjoy it for the summers. The Jeep came with a good-running (although anemic) AMC 360 and 3-speed auto TH400. We spent some time cleaning up the drivetrain and the frame, then shot everything with a coat of black epoxy paint before installing a 4″ BDS lift, 17×9″ Mamba M14 wheels, and 295/70R17 Falken MTs.
On the exterior, so far, we’ve done next to nothing with this Cherokee Chief.
The Jeep came painted an eerily similar color to World Rally Blue, in an eerily similar quality to Maaco, and all I’ve done so far is polish it the best I can… but it ultimately needs to get stripped and redone. We added a reproduction grille, Rigid LED headlights, a JCR Off-road roof rack, and some rock sliders. Custom bumpers are probably coming soon, but for now, the beat-up factory ones add character; they’ve seen some things in their 40-year history I’m sure.
We focused way more time on the Jeep’s interior.
And since neither of us had any clue what we were doing, it was a daunting task. We wrapped the headliner in diamond stitch black vinyl, designed & built the door panels, added sound deadening everywhere, installed new carpet, and fabbed mounts to install the Wrangler JKU seats (wrapped in Katzkin leather). A RetroSound stereo looks factory, but adds Bluetooth functionality. Kicker component speakers, amps, and a Hideaway sub under the passenger seat blast classic rock. The factory Jeep gauge cluster was cleaned up and reinstalled, and we added an Autometer Tach to keep an eye on the revs. Annnnd speaking of revs…
The stock carbureted V8 the Jeep came with was not going to cut it.
1979 was not a great year for the V8, and this one was no exception. So we found an aluminum 6.2 LS (L92) from an ’07 Cadillac Escalade for an LS swap. We kept the VVT, but woke it up a little with a Stage-1 cam from Texas Speed and Performance, along with an LS3 intake manifold. Summit ceramic coated exhaust manifolds feed high flow cats and Flowmaster 50 series mufflers through a 2.5″ stainless dual exhaust.
Behind the 6.2 is a six-speed automatic (6L80E) from the same Cadillac, with a passenger side drop NP241C from a late 80’s Blazer doing 4WD duty. The front axle is the stock Dana 44 stuffed with a Nitro Gear 4.30 ring and pinion, a helical limited-slip, 4340 axle shafts, and Warn Premium 30 spline hubs. The rear axle is a Quick Performance Ford 9″ with a Nitro Gear nodular 3rd member, helical limited-slip, and 35 spline axle shafts.
The 1979 Jeep Cherokee Chief recently put down 347 hp and 325 tq.
And that was on a dream-killing Mustang dyno at the local tuner. We’ve had a blast building & driving the Jeep Cherokee Chief this past couple of years. The motor swap has been ultra-reliable, the A/C blows cold, and it cruises all day comfortably at 80 on the highway. That said, the leaf springs are like off-roading in a UPS truck, and is 350 rear wheel horsepower really enough for a 4,500 Jeep with big tires? No. The answer is always no. So this winter, it goes under the knife again. Plans are for a custom front and rear four-link suspension, and I’ve been acquiring parts for an LSA supercharger swap because boost is always the answer.
The crappy paint and beat-up bumpers may have to wait another year.
Text & Photos By Daryl Hutson