Project Master ‘Kee: ’89 Jeep Cherokee Build

Oct. 06, 2010 By Jim Brightly
We saved this 1989 Cherokee from the recycling bin.

Introducing Master ‘Kee. As you can see, it’s a play on the word “Cherokee” that brings to mind a key that can open any lock. In this case, it’s a ground-up rebuild of a 1989 Jeep Cherokee, which was saved from a local pick-your-parts yard. The end result will be an extremely capable vehicle that can “open up” any trail in its path. In fact, next year (August 2011), Master ‘Kee will be seen on the “Big Three” of the Sierra Nevada of Northern California—Sierra Trek, Rubicon, and Dusy Ersham—and it will tow a camping trailer through all three!

1.	A truck-load of products has been assembled for Project Master ‘Kee.

In particular, the theme and final goal of the project is building the ultimate camera car—a four wheeler that can cover any off-road event and comfortably prerun any race. This is an outline of what we’re planning.

As said earlier, we’re using a 1989 Cherokee XJ model because it’s an extremely capable vehicle right out of the Jeep box. Plus, because XJ prices are coming down, they’re becoming very popular with first-time four-wheelers. How do I know this? My Jeep Creep question-and-answer column receives more Cherokee technical questions each month. The XJ we’re using is equipped with the 4.0L in-line EFI six-cylinder engine and a four-speed automatic transmission. It has a Dana 30 front differential and a Dana 35 rear differential (the gears are irrelevant because we’re changing them).

Skyjacker's 6-inch long arm kit includes four shocks and rear springs.

At this time, we’re planning a seven-part series of articles, with this overview article being the first in the series. The stoies will be aimed at first-timers—haven’t rebuilt a four wheeler before—to show what can be accomplished on these Jeeps. And, please dear reader, be aware that at the same time similar products to those being highlighted herein can be installed on any other type of Jeep or four wheeler—only the specific installation instructions may differ slightly. As a thank you to all the supporters of the build, we’ll be listing all their websites at the end of each segment—even if their products don’t happen to appear in that segment. Although we’ll feature the websites for each company, virtually all the products used on Master ‘Kee are available from 4-Wheel Hardware (, which worked quite closely with us on this project. 4WD has one of the most extensive catalogs of four-wheel-drive products in the industry.

Among Master 'Kee's communications is this neat-looking, Cobra US Army-badged 40-channel CB. If you're in the army or are a vet, you might want to add one of these to your Jeep.

This build portion of the multi-article series will begin next month in Segment #2 with all the axle work. We’ll be completely rebuilding the Dana 30 (front) and 35 (rear) differentials with new seals, bearings, etc. We’re also installing new axles and changing the OEM gear ratios to 4.56:1 gears; axle shafts and the ring-and-pinion sets are from G2 Performance ( While we’re covered with gear oil, we’ll also be installing ARB Air Lockers (, and then we’ll protect all those new goodies with high-strength aluminum differential covers from G2 and shop-made axle trusses and differential skid plates. As you’ll see in this segment’s photos, all axle and differential work will be done by Rock Lizard of Kingman, Arizona.

Next to the CB we'll be mounting one of Cobra's 2-meter "marine-type" radios. Two-meter radios are becoming very popular in the West because of their increased range.

Segment #3 will include, among other items, a Skyjacker 6-inch long-arm lift kit, Raceline beadlock wheels, and Goodyear MT/R with Kevlar tires. The long-arm Skyjacker kit ( includes a steering stabilizer, shocks, rear leaf springs, and all the components needed for the front long-arm lift. We’ll also be attaching limiting straps from DJ Safety ( to keep hanging suspension components from damaging the Skyjacker shocks.

Securing us in our Bestop bucket seats will be DJ five-point harnesses (two shoulder, two lap, and one crotch). The backseat passengers will be secured with matching DJ lap belts only.

In addition, this segment will include information on the Goodyear MT/R with Kevlar tires (, arguably the best tires for the desert trails where Master ‘Kee will be spending most of its time (the Kevlar sidewalls shrug off cholla burrs like water off a duck’s back). The 12.50x17 35-inch MT/R tires will be mounted on Raceline ( wheels. We’re using Raceline 17x9.5-inch beadlock wheels so that when we’re on the trail we can drop air pressure way down for improved traction and a better ride.

Beautiful, heavy-duty aluminum beadlock wheels from Raceline will keep the Goodyear tires in line.

In Segment #4, we’re going to be working both inside and outside Master ‘Kee. As I write this, Precision Automotive (Kingman, AZ) will be building the roll bar from scratch. It will be built to Jeep Speed specifications so that we don’t have to worry when prerunning an off-road race at speed while looking for photo sites. That’s on the inside; on the outside, we’ll be installing the Garvin Wilderness ( bumpers and roof rack (the roof rack will be mounted directly to the roll bar through sealed holes in the XJ’s roof). I’ve used Garvin products for years and have always found the products to be of the highest quality and design.

Goodyear 35-inch 12.50/17 MT/R with Kevlar tires will provide traction for the 4.56:1 gears and ARB lockers. Beadlocks allow us to drop the air pressure much lower if necessary without worrying about losing the bead.Bestop Products ( get our nod in Segment #5. Bestop has not in the past made seat mounts and brackets for the Jeep Cherokee XJ model; however, we’re using CJ model products and modifying them to fit the XJ. If it works out as well as we anticipate, Bestop has promised to consider adding Cherokees to its product list. Both front seats and the backseat will be mounted to the roll bar rather than the floorboard, as is normal in a CJ. The center console will also be mounted to the roll bar, as will the DJ Safety harnesses. We’re using five-point competition-grade harnesses in front and 2-inch locking lap belts in the back (all are red to match Master ‘Kee’s final color scheme).

All of the electrical components are slated for Segment #6. The ARB locker controls, lighting (Sylvania headlights and Hella auxiliary lights), Cobra’s CB and 2-meter radios, Garmin’s GPS, Viair’s on-board air compressor kit, and both Ramsey winches will be installed and wired in this segment. Other than the Sylvania ( 7-inch rectangular headlights, we’re using Hella ( auxiliary lights and a Hella air horn system. We’re using Hella 550 fog (two) and driving (four on the roof rack above the windshield) lights because their rectangular design matches the Master ‘Kee’s OEM headlight design. We’re also mounting Hella dual-filament work lights around the roof rack’s perimeter to aid in camping and nighttime trail building. Precision Automotive will design and build the complicated switch panel to control all these various lights, the ARB lockers, and the Viair ( air compressor system.

To cover all the bases, for communications on the trail with other four wheelers, we’re using a Cobra ( CB radio for the old-schoolers among us and a Cobra 2-meter radio for the futurists among us. It is our feeling that the 2-meter “marine-type” radios will be appearing more and more often in four wheelers because their extended range and other benefits—even though an FCC license is required to use them. The CB is a really neat design, incorporating a licensed US Army OD color scheme and the Army logo. To keep track of our tracks in the backcountry, we’re mounting a Garmin nuvi 1450 ( loaded with its normal compliment of North American roadmaps and Garmin Topo software as well.

Also in Segment #6, we’ll mount and wire in one of the Ramsey Patriot 9500UT winches (, while the second Ramsey winch will be mounted on a specially constructed tray in the cargo bay of the Cherokee. Should we need it, it will be mounted in the Master ‘Kee’s receiver in order to pull out the Cherokee backward. At this time we’ll also install heavy-duty cables, suitable for jumper cables, with a coupler attached to each Wilderness bumper.

A complete onboard Viair system, including air pump, pressure tank, and plug-in air lines, will provide fast tire refilling at the end of the trail. The Viair system will also operate the ARB air lockers and Hella air horns.

If all goes well, I’ll write a Segment #7 with a summary of the installations and a report on how well Master ‘Kee performed on the trails in northwestern Arizona and southern Nevada. We’ll be taking Master ‘Kee to various off-road events and races around the Western states. We’ll also take it to family events (such as the TDS Safari, Moab’s EJS, and the High Desert Round-up), rock-crawling contests, and pre-running and covering off-road races.

One last note: Above we’ve given you an outline of what is planned for Master ‘Kee and what products will be used on it to make a used 1989 XJ Cherokee into an even more capable than a stock XJ. However, this is an on-going project, so I’m requesting that you send in your comments on what other improvements you’d like to see on the Master ‘Kee. Maybe a Hemi V8, or a stronger automatic transmission, or a multi-speed transfer case, or whatever? If you have an idea, send it in and I promise it will be considered for future refinements.

Project Master ‘Kee Sponsors:
4-Wheel Hardware
ARB Air Lockers (
Bestop Products (
Cobra Electronics (
DJ Safety (
G2 Performance (
Garmin nuvi 1450 (
Garvin Wilderness Products (
Goodyear Tires (
Hella (
Raceline Wheels (
Ramsey Winches (
Skyjacker Products (
Sylvania (
Viair ( Newsletter
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