The Truck That Got Away: My Jeep Comanche Sob Story

We had high hopes for our Jeep Comanche project, but we bit off more than we could chew.

1988 Jeep Comanche
Justin Hughes

My wife and I had just rented a house with an oversized two-car garage. With plenty of room for tools, cars, and motorcycles, we couldn't resist buying a friend's 1988 Jeep Comanche as a new project. It had been off the road for a while, but all of the rust repair these trucks usually need was already complete. The 4.0-liter straight-six engine ran rough, but that was just a matter of tweaking and tuning. Besides, a truck would be quite useful to us as house dwellers, both for moving in and acquiring all the larger household goods that wouldn't fit in my Subaru BRZ, which was pretty much everything. 

On top of that, this particular truck had the Big Ton package, which gave it more than a ton of payload capacity and a 5,000-pound towing capacity. With the addition of beefy tow hooks front and rear, this Jeep would be the ultimate stage rally sweep truck for pulling competitors out of ditches.

But first, we had to move to the house. I registered the Jeep on a day that would coincide with the week I moved out of my apartment, taking advantage of the one-week grace period to get it inspected. That way, I could legally use the Jeep to move, and worry about passing inspection later. I had been banned from wrenching at my apartment—one of many reasons I moved out. My tools were still at the apartment where I couldn't wrench, not at the house where I could, so I couldn't do much to get it ready before the move. But the Jeep 4.0 has a reputation for being indestructible, so I figured everything would be fine. I'd just deal with it after the move.

Justin Hughes

Four point oh no.

But after moving myself to the house, the engine started running more roughly than before, and it was definitely down on power. I pulled the valve cover, and saw a misaligned rocker arm. A second rocker arm was loose, indicating that two of the lifters had failed. I researched the issue, and found that I would have to remove the head to replace the lifters. There's no way I could even start this job in the middle of a move, particularly when we still had to move my wife out of her apartment.

At this point I wish to make clear that I do NOT blame my friend who sold us the Jeep for this. We knew we were buying a project, not a ready-to-run truck. I neglected to do enough proper maintenance before driving it two hours a day to work, to my apartment to load up, and to my house. Learn from my big mistake—change all the fluids and do all of the maintenance required before driving a project that's been sitting.

We finished moving my wife in her Ford Flex. I got as far as buying new gaskets, lifters, and head bolts to do the job myself. But we were also trying to buy the house we were renting, and needed to devote our money and effort to that. I'd never removed and replaced a head before. I was afraid that if I got it wrong, and we couldn't buy the house and had to move out, we'd be stuck moving a dead Jeep or selling it for pennies on the dollar to make it go away quickly. 

I hate giving up, but we decided to cut our losses on the Comanche and put it up for sale. We'd still take a loss on it, given its current condition, but we could put that money toward buying the house. We could pick up another project later. (We successfully bought the house last year, and picked up our VW Jetta project this past winter, so at least that part worked out.)

As for the Jeep, a guy in the next town over bought it. He had an XJ Cherokee with a dead engine (I guess the 4.0 isn't indestructible after all) so he'd have an easy time mixing and matching the best parts into the Comanche. I ride my motorcycle past his place at times, and got to watch his progress as he finished what we started. One day he was outside, so I stopped in and he showed me how he'd fixed it up into the reliable daily driver that I had intended it to be. I'm happy that it went to someone who appreciates it and now drives it regularly. But I'm also sad that we had to let this great truck go. Maybe this is partly why we're turning a perfectly good Jetta into a truck.