They are a couple of dudes with a bit of history, are Richard and the Chief, but the Chiefs is a bit more of a mystery.
We know very little about it’s early history, other than it’s a genuine factory RHD 1978 Jeep Cherokee, that was built for the Australian market, and shipped to New Zealand in 1985, ending up in a rather sorry state in a shed just out of Tauranga, where Richard stumbled across it about 4 years ago.
So, let’s first introduce Richard, and a 4WD history that goes back to the early ‘70s when a 10 year old Richard Cranswick was the youngest committee member of the East Coast 4WD Club, appointed to the position so that the organisation had the required membership to be officially recognised as a club.
25 years later, Richard organised the clubs 25th anniversary celebrations, still a member, and with a storied history of off-roading behind him.
Back in those early days, the family farm vehicle was a 1954 1ton Willys, which, on a hilly East Coast farm, proved to be more useful than the tractor, and Richard recounts stories of various childhood tasks carried out in the Willys that worksafe are better not knowing about.
But it wasn’t just the Willys that was used to do things, and go places, on the farm, as a young Richard pressed all sorts of unsuitable vehicles into service.
One particularly alarming adventure involved welding winch drums onto the back wheels of an old Anglia, and directing the ropes forward thru a couple of bumper extensions to get the car to climb “a few specially difficult hills.”
Getting it back down wasn’t discussed!
Of course that made all the family very accomplished hill country drivers, and when dad (Ian) discovered trialling (known as rallying back then) the Willys (by then repowered by an old Holden 149 in-line6) was pressed into service as a comp truck for the 1973/74 season, and the family was hooked.
Ian replaced the Willys with an Austin Gypsy for a couple of years, “He broke lots of stuff” laughs Richard, then bought a Jeep CJ5 from Eli Friedlander, “and cleaned up everything.”
At that time the National Series included South Island Rounds, and when Ian won the NZ Title in about 1976/77, “the family had toured the whole country in the back of a Chrysler Valiant with the CJ on behind.”
The family love affair with the Jeeps expanded when the Valiant was replaced by a 1972 Wagoneer, once owned by the Thai ambassador to NZ, which, as well as tow car duty, was pressed into 4wd club and vehicle recovery duty.
Along the way Richard learned to drive in it, and now holds a very high placing in any “coolest car to get your licence in” poll.
By then he had well and truly caught the speed bug, “and would race anything anywhere”, including fronting up for a car club rallysprint a Lada Niva in the Opotiki riverbed.
“I finished 5th overall,” he says with a grin, “after most of the rally boys had taken off after the heats to fit new tyres.”
He even spent time on the push crew of a local Speedway Solo rider, but mostly competed in local Car Club Rallies and Grasskhanas in a Datsun 1200 SSS.
Meantime the lure of Trials scene was never far away, as Ian was still competing, and Richard was navigating for his cousin in a Suzuki LJ81, among all the other motorsport activities, “so then I built a new 4 wheel steer trials truck for the 1992 season.”
Richard and then wife Tania won their class and took out third overall for that 1992/93 National Series season. “One event in Auckland saw Dad and my Uncle in their truck, me and Tania in mine, and my cousin Brett and his wife in theirs. It was a pretty cool day, but sadly no trifecta.”
“Even then we still had the Wagoneer, actually we kept it for years, it had at least 3 paint jobs, and we had bought, rebuilt and sold 3 CJs in the time Dad owned it. “I had even rebuilt a 1942 MB project. I never quite got it finished, as I sold it to head overseas”
And as Richard moved away from off-roading, and away from the East Coast, we’ll get back to Tauranga and the Jeep!
As we stated earlier on, it’s a 1978 Cherokee Chief, but virtually nothing is known about how it ended up in a Tauranga shed, and was taken off the road in 2005.
Since that fateful meeting in 2018, it has had a chassis up restoration and modernisation, although the power train and structure of the original Jeep have been retained, Richard has added a few little touches of his own.
Coming from the era when American Motor Corporation owned the Jeep brand, the Cherokee sports a 360 cubic inch AMC V8 under the bonnet, wearing a new 4 Barrel Holley carburettor on a performance inlet manifold.
9:1 pistons have improved the engines efficiency a bit with the new higher octane fuels, helped by a slightly uprated cam, and standard exhaust manifolds merge into a big stainless steel exhaust system.
“I’d have liked to put extractors onto it” says Richard, “but with the work involved under the bonnet to get them to fit, it just wasn’t worth it.”
“If I’d been looking for about 700 horsepower, yeah maybe. It’s really driveable the way it is, but I reckon it’s only producing about 160Kw.”
Bolted to the back of the motor is a stock standard Turbo 400 Auto, and a modified Jeep Quadratrac Transfer case.
“The quadratrac was a proper full time 4WD system, that locked the centre diff in low ration, but somewhere in it’s past the Jeep has been converted to a more conventional Hi/Lo set up, with 2wd and 4wd selectable in both ratios.
Dana 44 differentials are standard front and rear, with free wheeling hubs retrofitted to the front as part of the conversion.
A set of imported 15×10 American Racing five slot wheels, fitted with 32×11.5×15 Comforser 3000 tyres, replaced the original 15×7 five slots, and they set the Jeep off perfectly.
“I really didn’t need to change much on the mechanical side” says Richard, “it came out with power disc brakes on the front, power assisted steering, and even factory option Air Con.”
But it’s on the inside that Richard has let his creativity a bit of a looser rein, with some clever upgrades and modernisation touches right through the cabin, that become obvious even before you get inside.
A very modern remote unlocks all the doors and unsets the alarm. The rear tailgate window is electrically operated, and can now be activated through the the same remote.
Honda Odyssey remote electric mirrors adorn the front doors, and look so original you are left looking for the Jeep badges.
New, more modern front seats have been fitted. These required a bit of a search, as they had to fit a quite small space between the large transmission tunnel, and the wide door sills, and still retain the capacity to fold and slide to allow access to the rear seat.
The whole of the interior, including the hood lining, has been reupholstered, after some intensive YouTube tutorials. In fact everything from rust removal and painting to the electricals and electronics has been done by Richard, learning as he went.
On the dash, the old, traditional, and not much use ammeter has been upgraded to a voltmeter, and a series of warning lights have also been integrated into the original fascia.
It’s even got cupholders on the centre console, and USB outlets for phones and devices are hidden away in there as well.
The cargo area and tailgate have been modernised, and made more useful by not only the electrification of the window winder, but also extra lighting and some clever little storage bins, covered by perfectly matching polished wood lids.
And covering most of the floor area is a big, roller slide mounted cargo slide, “It’s a long way back in there, and bringing the load to the back is a lot easier than climbing in to get it.”
And that really typifies the approach that has been taken to the whole project. Everything that has been changed has been for a purpose, add something to the experience of travelling in the truck, and “look like it belongs there.”
Ask Richard what he likes best about the finished job, and he doesn’t have to think for long: “Just getting out and driving it,” he says
“Its just your typical 70’s era cruiser, everything is just so relaxed and unfussed, but I must admit to a bit of self-satisfaction when I think about it.”
“It has been 4 years work, and I’m rapt with how it has come out.”
While we were putting this story together Richard sent us a couple of pics of the Chief heading off to Wellington with this period correct caravan on the back. He reports the Jeep was totally unfazed by the exercise, and it was just the first of many planned trips.
He was pretty non committal about turning all his newfound skills loose on the caravan!
We hope he does, and that he shares the end result with us when he does!