Introduction: How to Change a Tail Light on a '97 to '01 Jeep Cherokee

Like many jeep owners, I'm proud of my jeep.  I like it to look good too.  However, by jeep standards looking good is relative.  
Covered with mud?  Looks great!  
A little scratch or ding from your last offroading trip?  Adds character!  
A busted tail light because you were stupid and smashed the garbage can into it?  Not acceptable, that has to go.  

As you can see, I put a nice hole directly through my tail light.  I could have taped it over or generally kludged it together, but that kind of stuff is only acceptable on jeeps if you broke it doing something interesting.  Smashing it with the garbage can is decidedly NOT interesting.  To fix it I needed a new tail light housing.  In this set of instructions I'll go through how to remove the old broken assembly, remove all the lights from it, and then install the new tail light assembly.  It's relatively straight forward and can be done by a single person in about 30 minutes unless you're terrified of picking up a wrench (side note: if that's the case, you may want to get something other than a jeep).  This is about as simple as it gets for car maintenance.  It does take some tools that you may not have lying around but it will be much cheaper to buy the tools than it would be to pay somebody to fix this.

This set of instructions works for Jeep Cherokees from '97 to '01.  It will also give you access to the bulbs if you just need to replace one of them.  From what I understand, '84 to '96 Cherokees are similar, but can be more tricky because they have an extra bolt to be removed.  Due to the placement of that bolt it can be harder to remove.  I'll mention where that bolt is when I get to the part where the instructions diverge, but if you have an older jeep you're going to have to figure that out on your own.

One more thing before we get started, some people (mostly people uneducated in the ways of the jeep) confuse the normal Cherokee with the Grand Cherokee.  If yours does not look look like the nice boxy beauty in the second picture these instructions aren't for you.  

Step 1: The Tools You'll Need

While I have a bunch of tools laying around I didn't have some of the stuff I needed for this job.  Even though the bolts look very accessible there's not much space between the tail light housing and the bolts so you can't use many of the sockets and wrenches you probably have laying around.  The sockets I have with a 3/8 drive (if you have no idea what I'm talking about read this ) were too wide and I couldn't get to the bolts.  I ended up needing to get 1/4 in drive sockets because they're narrower.  These are the tools I ended up using and you can see them in the picture.

1. Ratchet wrench, 3/8 in drive
2. Adapter, 3/8 in drive to 1/4 in drive
3. 6 in long extension, 1/4 in drive
4. 10 mm socket
5. 7 mm socket

There's a very good reason I didn't use a 1/4 in drive ratchet, I don't own one.  In fact, I didn't own a single 1/4 drive socket at all so I had to go out and buy some tools.  Now, I could have bought a 1/4 in ratchet for this job but I decided against it because the adapter was cheaper and works fine for this job.  Other than that I spent $30 on a cheaper socket set, an extension set, and an adapter set from the home depot.  These are sizes I'm only going to use very occasionally so unlike most of my tools I felt ok getting cheaper ones.  I highly recommend though when you buy tools like this you buy them in sets.  Sometimes you can buy single sockets or a single extension, but I guarantee for your next job you're going to have everything except the one socket that you actually need.  

Step 2: The Replacement Tail Light

Now for the most important part -- the replacement tail light.  If you're just replacing the bulbs you don't need to worry about this, any auto parts store will have those.  For the whole tail light though you need to make a choice: Original or aftermarket.

The original ones are guaranteed to be an exact match for what you have.  This is good if you're only replacing one tail light because they'll both match.  The problem with originals is that they can be hard to come by.  I don't know if Jeep dealers still sell the originals, but if they do they'll be pricey.  Junkyards are a good place for original stuff too but depending on the ones in your area they may not have any available.

Aftermarket ones tend to be decently priced and very available.  While your auto parts store may not have one on the shelf they'll be able to order one for you without any problems.  Unfortunately the after market lights may not look exactly like the originals and some aftermarket parts don't have as good of quality.  Check the part carefully before you buy it to make sure its what you want.

I ended up getting a junkyard tail light.  It was in good shape and was $15 cheaper than a decent aftermarket light.  I better not break this light again though, it was the last one the junkyard had.

Step 3: Removing the Bolts

If you have all the parts and tools, actually replacing the tail light is easy.  

1. Open up the hatch so you can get access to the bolts  As you can see in the picture there are 3 bolts, one above the light and two along the side.
2. Using your 10 mm socket and extension, remove the bolts.  
3. Take the bolts and the washers on them and put them aside in a place you won't lose them.   

Step 4: Pulling Out the Bottom Retainer

This is where the '97 and later cherokee tail lights differ from the earlier ones.  On the later cherokees there's a small flat piece of plastic that sticks into a hole on the back of the jeep.  You need to pull on the tail light to pull that piece of plastic through the rubber thingy around the hole.  I tried wiggling everything around to see if it would come out easily, but in the end I just had to give it a bit of a stronger tug and it popped right out.  I took a picture after I pulled it out, but you can see the flat piece of plastic and the rubber lined hole it goes through.

On the earlier cherokees instead of this flange there's a 4th bolt down there instead of that flat piece of plastic.  Apparently it's hard to get to because the bumper is in the way.  I haven't done this job on an earlier one so you're on your own for that.  

Step 5: Remove Bulb Sockets and Wires

Removing all of these are pretty easy, don't try to force them though because they're plastic.  Also, note how the wires are run and the location of the bulb sockets in the light.  It will help you get everything back together.  

1. Remove the small P shaped clip holding the wires for the two lower lights.  This will take a 7 mm socket.
2. Remove each socket.  I believe I turned the sockets counter-clockwise. 
3. If you need to replace a bulb this is the time to do so.

Step 6: Assembly Is the Reverse of Disassembly

Just like any set of car DYI instructions, assembly is the reverse of disassembly. 

1. Plug the lights into the new tail light (or old one if you were just replacing bulbs)
2. Install the sockets into the tail light
3. Install the P clip to hold the wires in place for the lower bulbs (if you forget this the wires will move around and get in your way)
4. Have somebody else get in the jeep and hit the turn signal, brake and shift into reverse so you can make sure all the lights work
5. Push the flat plastic piece on the bottom of the light through the hole
6. Replace the 3 bolts
7. Revel in your awesomeness

That last step is optional, but after finishing a job you should enjoy what you've done.