Brave Pill lives to explore the dark, scary parts of the automotive map where the wary fear to tread, hunting the sort of cars that move the risk: reward ratio well into “are you mad?” territory.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course – last week’s Jubilee-themed Volvo a fine example – but the quest for red meat leads down some well-worn trails: big engines, low MPG numbers and the sort of mechanical issues that threaten to wear out the zero keys on the computers used by garages to type up invoices. Yet, strangely, this is the first Pill to feature one of the common signs of mechanical peril: an LPG conversion.
Liquified Petroleum Gas might not be courageous in itself, but it has long been a popular choice for drovers ranging from fiscally prudent to outright misers. Being seen as a cleaner fuel than petrol or diesel it has long been taxed at a much lower rate than either. The difference in price has risen and fallen over the years, but as I write this the average price of a liter in the UK is £0.73 – so less than half the cost of unleaded.
But while LPG is a relative bargain, many wanting to benefit from it have taken their cheapskatery into the cost of the conversion, too. It wouldn’t be fair to say that all low-budget LPG adaptations are lethal bodges, but a significant number are.
The UK, it turns out, is infamous for this. In other parts of the world aftermarket LPG conversions have to be carried out by approved fitters with the cars then subject to official technical inspections. Over here we take a much more laid-back attitude. A few years ago I was talking to a Polish mechanic who was working in Oxfordshire as a tire fitter, but who had previously done LPG conversions in his homeland. In Poland these are hugely popular, but also tightly controlled, and he was horrified to discover how loose British standards are – explosive hand gestures accompanying his accusation that many are basically rolling bombs.
While many LPG installations get done by diligent professionals, as our Pill’s appears to have been, others are fitted by the sort of tradesmen who get stalked by that motorbiking chap on BBC Watchdog. Or sometimes just enthusiastic amateurs trying a bit of DIY. Nor is this a ‘bad old days’ thing. Tea official Government guidance admitting “in the UK there is no statutory regime for inspecting the safety of aftermarket LPG conversions before use on the road or at the annual roadworthiness (MOT) test.” Leaving the sort of gaps you could drive the household cavalry through.
LPG has traditionally appealed to two different groups. The first are the tightwads determined to trim running cost through bone and into marrow, who use it in already frugal engines to create cars that are barely more expensive than walking. Some carmakers even got in on the act with factory conversions – Vauxhall sold a brand new LPG Astra which combined the company’s 1.4-litre engine with the ability to move per-mile fuel costs into low single digits. I once drove a press car from London to Devon and back for under £15.
The other group of adopters is the one that brings us here: those desperate to reduce the costs of fueling a true guzzler. The level of fiscal anxiety being felt is likely to have a strong influence on the quality of the conversion being paid for. But most large petrol-powered cars were obvious recipients given the need to find the space necessary for a second fuel tank. When I was toying with the idea of buying a petrol-fired Land Cruiser Amazon or P38 Range Rover a few years back, it felt like a majority had been LPG’d on tight budgets.
This Grand Cherokee is Pill’s first Jeep – howdy, fellas – and although the dealer selling it doesn’t state when the gas conversion was done, the fact the advert boasts a single owner and the car has 86,000 miles suggests that it was probably fairly early on to extract maximum benefit.
As Jeep fans will have noted, this is an early example of the so-called ‘WK’ third-generation model, which had much more square-edged styling than its better looking predecessor. Earlier WKs also featured the very odd headlights which combine the shape of overlapping twin circular lights, but are actually one unit. Mechanically it was much more advanced than the car it replaced – not a high bar, admittedly – with independent front suspension instead of a live axle and (on pricier versions) Quadra-Drive II with electrically locked differentials front and rear.
This Grand Cherokee maintained the strange Jeep tradition of being big on the outside and small on the inside, the interior feeling decidedly tight front and rear. My other memory of new examples was the strong aroma given off by the combination of leather upholstery and cheap plastic trim in the cabins. But GC was well equipped and, compared to posher alternatives, well priced in Britain. Most UK buyers, unsurprisingly, opted for the Mercedes-sourced 3.0-litre diesel. This gave lukewarm pace, but also the possibility of scoring better than 20mpg on a regular basis.
Which was more than could be said for the other available powerplant option – a 5.7-litre Hemi V8. This was a big, lazy pushrod engine in the finest US tradition, making an unstressed 322hp and producing some nice noises when pushed hard. Fully unleashed it was capable of 0-60mph in a sprightly 7-seconds, although with the sort of nose-up attitude a speedboat would be proud of. Relaxed cruising is more its specialty, although the official 18mpg economy figure was dismal even 17 years ago. And that’s a best-case scenario; faster cruising or off-road use will collapse that number.
The selling dealer promises our Pill’s LPG conversion comes with “all the paper work”, and that the car has been registered as alternative fuel, but doesn’t give any more details; an expert inspection would be a good idea. The Hemi engine itself is regarded as being about as tough as Chuck Norris’s old boots presuming it has had basic maintenance, and the advert promises lots of history. But the other side of the powertrain isn’t reckoned to be as sturdy, with the Grand Cherokee having a rep for sticky transfer boxes, whiny rear differentials, occasional gearbox glitches – and a rapid consumption of suspension components.
Our Pill’s MOT history confirms the DVLA has it marked down as an LPG’er, but also reveals it recorded its most recent pass in March with advisories for marginal brake pads and discs, underbody and exhaust corrosion and various worn bushes. Fortunately the selling dealer is promising that “any advisories on [brake] disc, brake pads and tires will be replaced and included in the advertised price”: so a fair bit of that should be sorted out.
While there will be ongoing care and maintenance expenses to deal with, the next owner of this Jeep should continue to save relative to the cost of running a straight petrol version. Okay, even at less than half the price of petrol it is still only going to be delivering the equivalent of around 30mpg on regular unleaded. But that still makes it a man math bargain, right?