Legends: Jeep Wagoneer SUV
The Jeep Wagoneer was the first luxury SUV and one of the few family vehicles that could be considered cool. Maybe that’s just the nostalgia talking, but it must have done a lot of things right to remain in production for almost 30 years. It couldn’t have been just the exterior wood paneling.
Believe it or not, the Wagoneer has something in common with the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. They were both created by renowned industrial designer Clifford Brooks Stevens, who was also responsible for the highly influential ’49 Harley-Davidson Hydra Glide, the logo for Miller beer (yes, Stevens was born in Milwaukee), and (amazingly) the styling for the Briggs & Stratton gasoline/electric hybrid car from 1979. And he once coined the term “planned obsolescence, ”which seems ironic now, given the Wagoneer’s life span and subsequent legacy.
Stevens had previously worked on the Willys Jeep Station Wagon, a forerunner to the Wagoneer, turning a military application into a consumer product. This vehicle had more than its fair share of wood paneling as well. Following the accepted practice of a body-on-frame construction, the fullsize Wagoneer was based on the Jeep Gladiator pickup, otherwise known as the SJ platform. Incidentally, some examples of the Wienermobile were also built onto a Jeep chassis.
Yet the Wagoneer offered features that, at the time, were pretty advanced, like an independent front suspension, an automatic gearbox, and power steering. This was actually the first vehicle to link four-wheel drive to an automatic transmission. At its debut for the ’63 model year, the initial engine was a 3.8L inline-six making 140 hp. After a couple of years, a 250hp 5.4L V-8 became an option.
Jeep also made the Wagoneer extremely practical, endowing it with a large tailgate aperture and generous cargo space (both best in class, according to its makers), and the load floor was set conveniently low (despite the useful ground clearance). The controls for the all-wheel-drive system were also simplified and featured dashboard lights to let the driver know its status.
From ’66 to ’69, Jeep made the Super Wagoneer. These days, we’re pretty stoked if a Chevy Tahoe has a powered tailgate, but the Super Wagoneer had one that long ago. Plus, it also came standard with air conditioning and much of the equipment that was optional in the regular Wagoneer. It’s this high-end iteration that really established the notion of a luxury SUV.
The Wagoneer was updated again in 1970 when AMC bought the Jeep brand from Kaiser. The Wagoneer was refined even further. A new frame was deployed in ’76 and a more upmarket Limited trim arrived in ’79. During this time, Jeep launched its Quadra-Trac full-time all-wheel-drive system, which included a center limited-slip differential (in addition to those at the front and rear axles). The company’s other system, Selec-Trac, which used a viscous coupling, came along in ’83 and became standard equipment along with an automatic transmission. The Limited became the Grand Wagoneer in ’84 and came with a cassette player. Bitchin’!
In 1987 came another change of ownership, this time to Chrysler, whose management was smart enough to leave well alone, even retaining the AMC engines. The brand was diluted somewhat with a Wagoneer trim level of the Cherokee, although the Grand carried on as a model in its own right. Those made from ’87 to ’91 are much prized. As well as being younger, their quality was considered better than what had come before. Prices for a good example have risen to beyond what they cost new, which reached the $30,000 mark.
The last Grand Wagoneer rolled off the Toledo production line on June 21, 1991. Sure, it was an aged vehicle by then, with styling that hadn’t changed significantly in nearly 30 years. But customer loyalty was said to be an impressive 60 percent and buyers earned an average annual income of $98,200. That’s a lot of money now, let alone more than a quarter of a century ago.
Just like the Cherokee (an offshoot from the same platform that became Jeep’s best-seller), it looks like the Wagoneer name will have a second wind. A seven-seater Grand version is set for production and should be with us in 2018. Please let it have a cassette player and wood paneling!