COAL: 1986 Jeep Grand Wagoneer – Last Of The Independents


Of all the vehicle pictures I’ve taken over the years, this one is among my favorites. There it stands, rough, tough and proud, still conquering the elements, just as it was intended to do – vinyl woodgrain and all.

You might recall a past article of mine which told the story of a certain ’79 Cherokee. Not wanting to destroy it on Minnesota’s salt-drenched roadways, I sold it off and started looking for another. This was what I ended up buying: an ’86 Grand Wagoneer, made just months before AMC became a part of Chrysler.


What it looked like on the day of purchase – taken at a wayside rest, halfway through
the drive home. Sharp-eyed observers might also recognize the car parked next to it.

I had been scouring the classifieds, craigslist, eBay, junkyards, backyards, you name it. It took several weeks before this one stuck its head out. Sure, it had rust – but it also had a (supposedly) freshly rebuilt 360, four new tires, and was going for a mere $1000. Needless to say, I was all over it.

In talking with the seller, I understood him to be located in River Falls, Wisconsin – about an hour from me. We set an appointment, and I readied my cash, tools, and all the other components that made up my draggin-home-a-new-wreck kit.

But when the day came, something was wrong: there was no street in River Falls with the name he gave me. Another phone call revealed the miscommunication: the Jeep was in Black River Falls, Wisconsin – 3½ hours from home. Yaaaarrrrgh.

Armed with the correct information, I agreed to drive out the rest of the way. He told me that he’d be leaving for work, but that his wife would be home and could complete the deal.

Upon arriving, the Jeep passed what few tests I had for it, and was generally as described. I whipped out the cash and asked the wife for the title. She happily produced the unsigned title, which was in her husband’s name. Yaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrgh!

It took two more trips across the border before the deal was finally done – but I managed to become the Jeep’s new owner before the weekend was out.


I had always wanted a Cherokee or Wagoneer in burnt orange with those ’70s AMC slotted mags. My hope was that this Jeep, with the addition of some bodywork, paint, and various parts from my stockpile, would eventually be molded to fit that image.

But as I sanded away at all the rust, and began doing the math on which panels would need to be reworked or replaced, it quickly became clear that getting this Jeep paint-ready would be unpractical. So I went for Plan B: use it for what it was, and keep it together as long as possible.


Don’t be too disappointed, though. It may not have been a prime body candidate, but it still had a lot going for it.

It was very capable, had a strong drivetrain, was comfortable to drive, and basically did anything I asked it to without complaining. Unplowed road? No problem. Some other vehicle froze in? Grab the tow strap. Panicking customer in the middle of a blizzard? Just so long as I’m getting time-and-a-half to offset the 8 MPG. If I could have afforded to drive it every day, I would have.


Its interior wasn’t going to win any beauty contests, either, but it was still mighty comfy. I swapped in a smattering of junkyard parts to make everything functional (even the back glass).


For my own part, I was willing to suffer along with the ripped front buckets (hey, you can’t see them if you’re sitting in them!). But I felt the backseat passengers deserved better. So I did sacrifice one pristine part from the treasure trove in my attic: this honey leather fold-flat. I decided it was better off being used, than laying in wait for the day when I decided to go all Top Gear on my living room decor.


After owning the Jeep for a few years, its fate changed once again. The business was expanding, so I moved out of the brick office (seen above) and into a new building just outside town. This meant that I now had a parking lot and driveway to clear. Coincidentally, a local junkyard had taken in a ’77 Wagoneer at about the same time which had a complete Western hydro-turn plow setup. I bought it for a couple hundred bucks, rebuilt and repainted each piece, and mounted it on the Jeep.


By my second year in the new building, still more changes were afoot. Plowing needs were being better met by a Farmall with a loader. There were heavy trailers to be towed into and out of snowy situations, so a 3/4 ton 4WD Suburban joined the fleet. And before you knew it, the Jeep was merely a backup; somehow in the shuffle of things I had managed to outgrow it.

One of my new neighbors had been in love with the Jeep at first sight, and even more so once the plow went on. I had declined his past offers to buy it. But with the situation changing, I decided to pass it on rather than let it fall into non-use and disrepair. He got the machine he’d been longing to own, I got a small profit, and the Jeep got to live out its twilight years in an easy state of semi-retirement.