Unbelievably, My Weird Obsession With Manual Jeep Grand Cherokees Just Changed People’s Lives

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Image for article titled Unbelievably, My Weird Obsession With Manual Jeep Grand Cherokees Just Changed People's Lives

Photo: David Tracy

For years, people has been laughing at me for my irrational obsession with an obscure, rare version of the frankly unimpressive first-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee. “Just because it’s rare doesn’t mean it’s valuable” the commenters say about the manual transmission vehicle (or “Holy Grail” as I’ve dubbed it). “Nobody cares about this car besides you.” I was beginning to believe these sentiments until this past weekend, when I learned that a woman in Vermont raffled her “Holy Grail” Jeep to raise over $45,000 for charity. Allow me to explain.

Last month, I wrote about Angela Anstatt, the mother of Bruce Anstatt, who passed away in 1994 from cancer shortly after buying his dream Jeep. She stored the mint-condition machine for 27 years, then recently decided to put her late son’s car up as the prize in a raffle to raise money for a community center and a charity. By July 6, the day of the raffle, Anstatt managed to raise over $45,000. It’s a testament to not only her generosity and that of her community but also the generosity of Jalopnik readers. It’s also somehow proves that my entirely illogical obsession with an obscure Jeep actually somehow changed the world for the better in a small way. I’m baffled by it.

I’ve been droning on about manual transmission Jeep Grand Cherokees for years. I first laid eyes on such a glorious machine in the Commissary parking lot on Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where I was a high-schooler bagging groceries and hoping to have some money saved up by the time I entered college.

The Jeep was Hunter Green and belonged to a leader of the Boy Scout troop I was part of. As my brothers and I were huge fans of the 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee that was acting as our high school runabout and off-road toy, I couldn’t help but marvel at the stick shift version. Until that moment, I hadn’t known such a thing existed.

A few years later, when I’d moved to Michigan after college to work at Chrysler, I learned that, yes indeed, stick-shift ZJ Grand Cherokees existed, but they were so rare that I wasn’t likely to ever see one again in my lifetime. Then I left the company and began writing about cars, penning in 2018 an article about Motor Week’s review of a manual “ZJ.”

Shortly thereafter, a reader named Dustin from Wisconsin emailed me, offering to sell me his too-far-gone rustbucket example, so I drove up to have a look. I wrote about my adventure out to Wisconsin in an article that ended up with me coining “Holy Grail” as a nickname for the beloved manual ZJ, of which — according to rumor — only 1,500 had ever been built. For some reason, a quarter-million people read that story.

This opened my inbox floodgates, with Dustin’s story resulting in numerous emails from readers who had spotted a rare Holy Grail for sale near them. In November of 2019, after receiving one such heads-up, I bought my own rare, manual Grand Cherokee and took it on an epic road trip:

Things continued to snowball from there as word spread about my irrational love for the rare machine, though I contend that it’s actually not as irrational as some people state. (These ZJs were incredibly off-road capable (solid axles, torquey 4.0-liter inline-six engine), comfortable (the ZJ was the first Jeep with a fully coil-sprung suspension!), practical (more interior volume than the XJ) machines held back by unreliable automatic transmissions. The manual fixes the vehicle’s single major flaw, turning the manual ZJ into a true gem of an SUV.

After the black $800 Holy Grail, I snagged a second Grail, this one a beautiful, rust-free 1993 Base model with crank-down windows and minimal plastic door cladding (Note: I’ve since replaced the hideous headlights). It was offered for sale by a couple in Nevada who had heard about me and my stories on the beloved Grail.

Image for article titled Unbelievably, My Weird Obsession With Manual Jeep Grand Cherokees Just Changed People's Lives

Photo: David Tracy

This $3,000 purchase of a ~120,000 mile Jeep ZJ, I’ll note, came only a few days after I resisted buying this high-mileage but borderline mint purple Holy Grail:

Image for article titled Unbelievably, My Weird Obsession With Manual Jeep Grand Cherokees Just Changed People's Lives

Photo: David Tracy

Then I bought a partly-dismantled third one (It was only $250, and was the base model with crank windows!) from Virginia and then Dustin’s from Wisconsin to act as a parts donor.

Image for article titled Unbelievably, My Weird Obsession With Manual Jeep Grand Cherokees Just Changed People's Lives

Photo: David Tracy

I’ll admit that I may have gone overboard. I now own four versions of an incredibly rare Jeep:

I’m lucky enough to have thousands of readers around the country sending me links to manual Jeep Grand Cherokees they’re either selling themselves or that they found on Facebook Marketplace. Were it not for these enablers, I don’t think I’d ever have found a single manual Grand Cherokee.

But now I feel I’ve reached the culmination of multiple years of what I thought was pointlessly writing about “Holy Grail” Jeep Grand Cherokees, for the One True Grail — a mint-condition example — has been discovered and raffled off. As I wrote about in my previous story, the 1994 Jeep was the dream-car of a Vermonter in his mid-20s named Bruce, who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Bruce was able to drive the then-new Jeep for a few months before he passed away, and his mother Angela held onto the machine ever since.

Earlier this month, Angela raffled the Jeep off to benefit both the Guy Hawkins Cancer Relief Fund and the Old School Community Center. Per the Old School Community center, my article about this raffle led to a flood of ticket purchases, which is an awesome thing to hear, a testament to the power of car culture, and shocking proof that my useless obsession had somehow…actually had value? I’m still baffled by it.

Image for article titled Unbelievably, My Weird Obsession With Manual Jeep Grand Cherokees Just Changed People's Lives

Photo: David Tracy

Allow me to quote Mike Eldred of the The Deerfield Valley News, whose words on the topic nearly made me shed a tear:

But it was after The Deeerfield Valley News story was picked up by Jeep enthusiast David Tracy, Senior Tech Editor at Jalopnik.com, that ticket sales began to go wild. Jalopnik is one of the most widely read car-culture websites in the United States, and it was Tracy who dubbed that particular Grand Cherokee variant the “Holy Grail” of Jeeps in several of his previous articles.

Tracy’s story on the raffle Jeep was published on Jalopnik just before 11 am on Wednesday, June 30. Organizers say they noticed the pace of sales increase dramatically almost immediately. A day later, they were in disbelief. “When TJ (Sibilia) called first thing Thursday morning and told me we got $18,700 overnight, I was dumbfounded,” said organizer Janet Boyd. “We just laughed.”

Tracy’s story, which generously included links to the Old School Community Center’s ticket sales site page, reached a national – and even international – audience of hardcore Jeep enthusiasts. Boyd says ticket sales came in from around the country and even as far away as Australia.

Image for article titled Unbelievably, My Weird Obsession With Manual Jeep Grand Cherokees Just Changed People's Lives

Photo: David Tracy

Per the story and the Old School Community center, the raffle brought in $47,400 — well over double the goal amount of $20 grand, with Angela telling the Vermont publication that organizers hadn’t though “in their wildest dreams” that they’d raise that amount.

I reached out to the raffle winner, Brent. He worked at Chrysler for 16 years, starting off at the Warren Truck plant and later moving to my old office, the Chrysler Technical Center in Auburn Hills, Michigan. He spent quite a bit of his career at plants “gatelining.” Brent broke down what that meant, saying:

“[That is] taking all the options, all the sales codes, every combination of options you can put into a car or a truck or a Jeep. And then take all the supplier constraints — how many wheels they can make a day, how many six cylinder engines we can get a day, how many eight cylinder engines we can get a day, and combine that with the line restrictions — how many sunroofs you can put between other cars….it’s like putting a 3-d puzzle together. Take all the orders from dealers, all the orders from marketing that they think they’re gonna sell, all the fleet vehicles…[and] keep it all all working.”

“I was really excited about [winning],” Brent, who has worked for numerous automotive suppliers and now owns a landscape company in Warren, Michigan, told me, saying he reads my articles regularly, and has come to appreciate the manual ZJ as a result. The Warren, Michigan native says he used to own a 1991 Jeep Comanche not unlike my white one.

When asked why he bought tickets, Brent responded frankly. “[It was] your story dude,” going on to say that he enjoys seeing people tease me about calling the manual Grand Cherokee the “Holy Grail.”

Image for article titled Unbelievably, My Weird Obsession With Manual Jeep Grand Cherokees Just Changed People's Lives

Photo: David Tracy

“I just wanted to help out the cause. It seemed like I can spare a couple bucks. And I read your articles. If Dave says this is a good cause, I’ll throw a couple bucks that way,” he continued.

“It was cool to see kind of a barn find like that. You know, they’re so rare,” he chatted. “The story behind it is heartwarming in one way. And it’s nice his mom kept that for so long.”

Bruce’s Jeep had a deeper meaning for Bruce. “My dad died of cancer, and I’m like ‘ah’…you had the link there….I said yeah I’ll throw a couple bucks at this.”

Image for article titled Unbelievably, My Weird Obsession With Manual Jeep Grand Cherokees Just Changed People's Lives

Photo: David Tracy

Brent bought three tickets for $20 a piece to support the community and the mother who was honoring her son after experiencing what must have been and must continue to be a heartbreaking loss.

Brent is working on how to get the vehicle home. “It’ll be like my little weekend driver to go play disc golf,” he told me, saying the vehicle isn’t going to be on the road in the winter. Brent may donate the vehicle again sometime down the road to see just how much good one Jeep can do, but for now, he will enjoy what is almost certainly a rock-solid reliable machine.

Almost.

Bruce said to me: “As long as my brother wasn’t on the line when they built this, it’s solid.” (His brother used to work at Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit, where the Jeep was assembled).

This whole thing is just beautiful and wholesome and heartwarming. I’m touched. I mean, just look at these videos! This is what car culture is all about.

I realize that the headline and the beginning of this article makes it seem like the story is about me. It’s not. This is about Angela, this is about her son Bruce, and this is about the amazing readers who stepped up after reading my article about a Jeep that I have been endlessly writing about, much to the chagrin of some folks who are just over it.

The fact that somehow my silly affinity for this obscure Jeep led to real good in the world is utterly hilarious to me. So I thought I’d share it.

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