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This is the reason why old Jeep Cherokees are so expensive today

Road & Track logo Road & Track 4 days ago Bob Sorokanich
a car parked in the snow: And I'm sorry.© Jeep And I'm sorry.

How do you buy a 20-year-old SUV? Head to Craigslist or the used car lot on the dusty side of town, plop down the better part of $2000, and hope your new old sled holds together 'til spring.

Unless you're shopping for a Jeep Cherokee made before 2001. Find yourself a really good one-low miles, clean interior, untouched by rust or run-ins-and you're liable to drop upwards of $10,000. That's crazy money for a family 4x4 designed during the Reagan years, once as common as soccer balls in America's suburbs.

And I'm afraid I'm to blame.

a car parked in front of a truck: I'm the Reason Why Old Cherokees Are Expensive Now© Jeep I'm the Reason Why Old Cherokees Are Expensive Now

The XJ-generation Cherokee was introduced in 1984. It was universal, the original SUV. Cherokees were everywhere throughout the ‘90s and 2000s, so common you barely noticed them. In the northeast where I grew up, "Jeep" became a generic term for any brand of automobile that bore a squinting resemblance to a Cherokee, the Kleenex of high-riding family vehicles.

Research the Jeep Cherokee - new and old! | Look for a Jeep Cherokee close to you

That doesn't explain the Cherokee's hero status today. Ubiquity is the opposite of collectability. And, c'mon, we're talking about mom-and-dad cars here-SUVs, the stuff that gets sneers and eye-rolls from environmentalists and enthusiasts alike. The Cherokee wasn't even the most popular SUV out there: the Ford Explorer outsold it every year from its 1990 debut. The XJ was discontinued in 2001; it seemed doomed to an unremarkable afterlife, neither beloved nor reviled, just dead.

But then, somewhere in the mid-2000s, I did something that inadvertently shifted the course of Cherokee history. I wrote a joke post on a car forum.

a car parked on the side of a river: I'm the Reason Why Old Cherokees Are Expensive Now© Jeep I'm the Reason Why Old Cherokees Are Expensive Now

Think back to what online life was like in the early 2000s. Facebook was for college students. Reddit was barely coming together. Twitter hadn't been invented. What we had were forums.

My forum of choice was The Car Lounge. I showed up via VWVortex, around 2005, when I briefly thought about buying an old VW Rabbit. I stuck around, became a power-user. I posted so frequently, replied so obsessively, I once asked a girlfriend to change my Car Lounge password for the weekend so I could study.

Today, my biochemistry degree gathers dust as I get paid to stare at the internet and type about cars. Funny how things work out.

a screenshot of a cell phone: I'm the Reason Why Old Cherokees Are Expensive Now© Ex-Girlfriend I'm the Reason Why Old Cherokees Are Expensive Now

The forums taught me a lot about writing. How to craft a compelling headline, communicate economically, avoid the dreaded TL;DR. Also, admittedly, how to dig in my heels, troll, and get far too heated over a nothing conversation with a stranger. I'm not proud. Some of your favorite writers working today got their start duking it out on forums, though most won’t admit it.

For a teenager or twenty-something with obsessive knowledge of a niche hobby, the forums were a godsend. Here, you could find hundreds, thousands of fellow super-nerds fervently pursuing inane, useless information. You could flex your memorization of spec sheets, technical drawings or historical anecdotes in ways you never could IRL. It was comforting knowing you weren't alone out there, poring over spy photos, road test data pages, the depths of an owner's manual.

There was, of course, a lot of arguing. It wasn’t always confined to cars, though plenty of discussions about, like, tires or headlight bulbs or windshield wiper blades devolved into name-calling, ad hominem. But there were genuine moments when you felt welcomed by a community that seemed to understand you better than your own parents.

I remember one in particular. On a Jeep forum I frequented, a user who'd been around forever suggested that, at an appointed time on a Saturday night, we all take a shot or a sip of something to honor the members who'd passed on, or simply logged off for the final time. When the evening came, watching the thread grow long as hundreds of members sounded off their participation and the handle they were remembering sent tingles down my scalp.

a truck is parked in front of a car: I'm the Reason Why Old Cherokees Are Expensive Now© Jeep I'm the Reason Why Old Cherokees Are Expensive Now

I don't know exactly when I wrote the post that changed the world of old Jeep Cherokees. There's no way for me to find out. The internet was brittle back then. A server crash ate the original.

It was a reply to a straightforward question. A poster was thinking of buying an XJ. He asked if the 4.0-liter engine powering it was reliable. Sometime in the past-my best guess puts it around late 2007, my senior year of college-I wrote:

Posted By: Wellington P Funk

Join Date: 09-12-2005

I've said it before, but the Jeep 4.0L engine is the toughest, least maintenance-demanding engine I have ever had personal experience with. Folks on the internet know that the Jeep 4.0L is durable, but they know little of its history.

The original Jeep 4.0L inline-six was hewn from a solid block of granite by lightning bolts. Its cylinders were bored by the Imperial Winds and its rotating assembly was balanced by the Scales of Justice. The Ancient Egyptians used Jeep 4.0L engines to move the blocks which built the Pyramids, only switching to slave labor when it was found to be cheaper than the olive oil used to fuel the engines. Scientists have ranked the Jeep 4.0L engine as one of the strongest forces of nature, racking right up there with tectonic plate shifts for its low-end torque, and being surpassed by hurricanes only for its comparatively low redline. Mechanics have found imprints of fossilized dinosaur bones in block castings, and serial numbers in Roman numerals are a common sight. The design of the 4.0L's fuel injection system has been traced to the archives of Leonardo DaVinci, and early manuscripts of Shakespeare plays have been used as head gaskets for this engine (which, incidentally, explains the gaps in Shakespeare's collected works as well as the 4.0L's tendancy [sic] to leak oil). The engine's ancient roots also explain its ability to run on some very non-conventional fuels (original translations of the Rosetta Stone include evidence of Jeep 4.0L engines running on ox blood) as well as lubrications (during the Middle Ages, Jeep 4.0L crankcases were often filled with barley, with no detrimental effect on power output). Historians maintain that the fall of the Roman Empire hinged on their inability to design a superior engine, and had the Titanic been powered by a 4.0L Jeep engine, 1912 might have been a much happier year. Yes, had early-20th-century naval engineers had a touch more foresight, the Jeep 4.0L may have saved mankind from ever having to endure Leonardo DiCaprio and Celene [sic] Dion in the same sitting.

The only weakness in this otherwise unstoppable force of nature? Emissions. Yes, the engine's design may have come from the hand of Zeus, and its exhaust note at full throttle may have reverberated along the rock formations of Arizona to forge the Grand Canyon, but by the year 2007 its crude emissions control (originally consisting of papyrus strips soaked in the tears of the young Tutankhaman [sic]) had become outmoded, and the legendary, nay Biblical force of the Jeep 4.0L was put to rest.

a car parked on the side of a road: I'm the Reason Why Old Cherokees Are Expensive Now© Jeep I'm the Reason Why Old Cherokees Are Expensive Now

My lovingly absurd screed-dashed off unedited and posted, probably, from the campus computer lab between lectures-spread around the forum like a fart joke at summer camp. The original poster's thread was overtaken by people quote-replying my comment with animated smileys, the :rotflmao: and :applause: that predated today’s emoji. It was immortalized in members’ signatures, alongside lists of future modifications and past vehicles.

It became an inside joke. For a certain generation of Car Lounger, there were crubs, fents, 1.8t nevar lose, and the mighty 4.0L. It was all rather embarrassing. I'd spent hours crafting posts I thought were perfect, cultivating threads like a bonsai gardener, and the comment that grew wings and soared was this?

It escaped The Car Lounge, sometimes attributed to another writer, other times posted as an anonymous aphorism. A brief search today finds it on CherokeeForum, as both a reply to a comment and a thread of its own; on ComancheClub, misattributed to a poster on another now-defunct forum who’d copy-pasted it and passed it off as their own. It landed on Reddit, on the FinalGear forums, on a Nissan X-Terra discussion page, on The Guru of 3D, a computer hardware forum. Truck clubs in British Columbia and Colorado picked it up. A member of a Polish-language street racing forum re-posted it, in English. A poster on Ultimate Guitar quoted it. It's referenced in a 159-page thread on Ron Stoppable's Really Neat Page, prefaced by a line about how, for car folks, "the 4.0 is revered as a work of art on the same level as the Mona Lisa."

The 4.0-liter Jeep became a go-to gag. Photoshoppers erased Adam from Da Vinci's fresco, putting a Cherokee engine at the end of God's outstretched finger. The earth was without form, void, and God said, let there be torque, and it was good. The Cherokee ascended to the ultimate car forum status, one third of the holy trinity, alongside the Mazda Miata and the E30 BMW. No matter what your criteria, no matter where you lived or how much you had to spend or how important fuel economy was to you, when you asked a forum what car you should buy, some poster would invariably bring up the hyperbolically indestructible XJ.

It’s still reverberating. In June of this year, more than a decade after I typed those words, they appeared on the Facebook page for The Birty Dastards Jeep Club UK. A few months later, a commenter on Bring a Trailer adapted the text to refer to a different engine, the BMW M30 inline-six ... and misattributed the original to another Car Lounge poster.

a close up of text on a white background: The Car Lounge car-buying decision matrix, circa 2007.© Juniper Monkeys The Car Lounge car-buying decision matrix, circa 2007.

I wrote my Cherokee paean for laughs, but the car deserves praise. It was a risky experiment by a tiny, cash-strapped carmaker best known for riffing on the same rugged truck since World War II. It had to have all-terrain chops-at the time, Jeep simply didn't build anything that didn't. Most of the vehicles built to take on the Cherokee were rush jobs, slapped together from pickup-truck parts by automakers that had slept through the beginnings of the SUV revolution. That the Cherokee could stomp its competition off-road wasn't terribly surprising; that it was more charming in everyday driving certainly was.

As the XJ went from shiny suburban conveyance to used-car bargain, enthusiasts began to take notice. Gearheads love a vehicle built to a pure purpose, and the Cherokee, with its solid-axle suspension designed expressly for all-terrain dominance, was exactly that kind of machine. Soon, these Jeeps hit the sweet spot for shoestring car enthusiasts: cheap enough to buy, modify, and bash around, new enough not to worry about. For a four-wheeling fan with a family, a smartly-built Cherokee could accomplish everything. This slightly passé Jeep, as commonplace as dandelions, became a secret find for car nerds.

And then I had to turn it into a meme and blow it all up.

a truck is parked in front of a car: I'm the Reason Why Old Cherokees Are Expensive Now© Jeep I'm the Reason Why Old Cherokees Are Expensive Now

Correlation is not causation. Certainly, I don't think I'm the first gearhead who looked around in the mid-2000s and discovered the XJ. But facts are facts, and once my joke post became an internet trope, prices for straight Cherokees started to climb. Lots of reasons: Jeep ain't making any more of them; prone to catastrophic rust, and sold mostly in snowy climates, the fleet of solid XJs is dwindling hourly. Most were bought as daily-driver conveyances, nothing special, driven until they fell apart. The ones that remain fall into two categories: bombed-out hulks on sagging springs, or lovingly maintained relics.

I did it to myself. When I had $800 in my checking account, a clean, solid Cherokee was $1200. When I had $1500 to spend, a good one was $2000. Now, 17 years after the very last one rolled off the assembly line, more than half of the 23 XJ Cherokees auctioned on Bring a Trailer have fetched over $10,000. One particularly clean '99 commanded $21,700, not far off the MSRP of a brand-new 2019 Jeep Cherokee.

Now search BaT for a Ford Explorer. You get nothing, zero, a blue-oval goose egg. The most successful SUV of the 20th century has no cult following today. How do you spend $20,000 on a ‘99 Explorer? Buy five of them.

a car parked on the side of a road: I'm the Reason Why Old Cherokees Are Expensive Now© Bring a Trailer I'm the Reason Why Old Cherokees Are Expensive Now

In preparing to write this story, I did a lot of rooting around in my old forums. The last time I logged in to The Car Lounge was September 2014. My profile references a car I no longer own, a city I fled, a job I quit years ago.

I stopped posting, in part, because I felt like I'd grown out of my forum phase. I was pursuing a career; I no longer had time, I thought, to shoot the digital breeze with like-minded car geeks.

The internet grew out of forums, too. Now, we get a constant stream of bad news delivered directly to our thumbs, horrifying and unceasing. We choose a tribe and pick social media fights with people we haven’t talked to in years, if ever. We've given our names, locations and spending data to a series of platforms founded by people who had no idea what they were doing. They built, in part, incubators for extremism, fake news, harassment, and a global effort to undermine everything we thought we could trust. There have always been toxic realms on the web, places where malicious people could amplify and normalize their vile ideas. But back then, those places felt faraway, easy to avoid. Now our uncles share hoaxes and racist memes on Facebook.

I miss lighthearted forums and cheap, clean Cherokees.

a close up of a device: The author’s keychain.© Bob Sorokanich The author’s keychain.

I don't begrudge the XJ’s renaissance. Nor do I regret my role in turning enthusiasts' eyes and wallets toward this once-omnipresent model. I'm certain many of them would have done so without my lionization of the boxy old rig.

Still. Advertisers tell us that brand repetition works. When I say “Jeep Cherokee,” what do you see?

Historically accurate.© The Car Lounge Historically accurate.

Occasionally, I'll come in contact with someone I know from my days on The Car Lounge. Maybe it's a Facebook friend request. Sometimes it’s a run-in at a car show. Rarely, a car-writer colleagues divulges his or her old username to me, always under condition of mutual secrecy.

Our chosen nicknames gave us a cover of anonymity. We could chatter, grouse, prod or bicker, lightly protected by handles that didn't immediately give our true identities away. It feels almost quaint now.

I'm done being anonymous. When I meet a fellow Car Lounger, I say loud and clear: I'm Wellington P Funk. I’m part of the reason Jeep Cherokee prices have gotten so crazy. And I’m sorry.

Research the Jeep Cherokee - new and old! | Look for a Jeep Cherokee close to you

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