Curbside Classic: 1989 Jeep Grand Wagoneer – Dorian Gray Goes to Horse Country

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Some cars have had longer lives–the Volkswagen beetle comes to mind–but not very many, certainly not in the U.S.  From its introduction in late 1962 as a 1963 model, until its cancellation in 1991 (or 1992, depending on the source), the Jeep Wagoneer was one of the few American vehicles that stayed in production for virtually 30 years.  The Wag even managed to remain evergreen during its entire long run.

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Thirty years is a long time.  As this vehicle was being readied for market in 1962, there were missiles in Cuba, Frank Sinatra was still putting music on the pop charts and a Studebaker was pacing the Indy 500.  In 1991, the Berlin Wall had been down for only a couple of years and the pop charts were ruled by Paula Abdul and Mariah Carey.  Through a span of seven presidential administrations,  one thing was constant – you could still go and buy a Jeep Wagoneer.  And not a different vehicle with the same name, like an Olds 88 or a Chrysler New Yorker.  You could buy the same Jeep Wagoneer.  Only its level of sophistication (and its price) were different.
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It is hard to tell the story of the Wagoneer without starting with the the original all-steel Willys Jeep station wagon that debuted in 1946.  By 1961, this Brooks Stevens-designed civilian offshoot of the military vehicle so familiar to millions of returning servicemen had been in production for 15 years –an eternity by contemporary standards–and it would stay for a bit longer, remaining available through 1965 in a 20-year production run.  Brooks Stevens was brought back to design the Jeep Wagon’s successor, the Wagoneer.

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The 1963 Wagoneer (made by what was by then the Kaiser Jeep Corporation) was a thoroughly modern and unique vehicle.  It was trimmer than the International Travelall, and unlike Chevy’s Suburban, came (at least at first) with a choice of two or four doors.  Though initially available in two-wheel drive, the four-wheel-drive version sort of defined the vehicle for its entire life.

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From a power train standpoint, the Wagoneer was always a bit of a mongrel.  Little Kaiser Jeep never had the luxury of a full line of engines, so early versions of these wagons came with a confusing array of Willys, AMC and Buick power plants.  AMC’s 1970 purchase of Kaiser Jeep settled the issue by making all future power plants pure-AMC.

It's a shame that neither of these grilles survived past 1978.

It’s a shame that neither of these grilles survived past 1978.

All through the 1960s and 1970s, the Wagoneer continued its march upmarket, with the 1974-on Cherokee (here) offered as a more basic vehicle.   The Waggy brought out ever-nicer versions, culminating in the Wagoneer Limited, which morphed from a trim package in 1978 to a full-boat luxury vehicle by 1982.

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The 1984 introduction of the XJ Cherokee resulted in the big boy’s final name change: Grand Wagoneer.

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In the 1980s, the Wagoneer/Grand Wagoneer seemed to follow the general upward mobility of American society.  By that time, the Wag had become a favorite of what would later be called the Range Rover set.  All of that leather, thick carpet and extra equipment had added about 750 pounds to the vehicle, bringing the total weight to around 4,500 pounds.  Even so, you’ve gotta give the customers what they want, right?  I remember quite clearly being of the mind that AMC had let the GW go soft, that it was selling out to The Man by swaddling Dr. McDollar in such luxury in what was supposed to be a real man’s basic Jeep.  But I should have realized that the market for a basic Wagoneer with a vinyl and metal interior existed only in my mind.  AMC did what it was supposed to do: it followed the money.

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Except for a 1980 low of around 10,500 units, the AMC-era GW was consistently good for no less than 12-14,000 units and, in its best years, sales approached 30,000.  By the time Chrysler purchased AMC, in 1987, these things were generating profit-per-vehicle of around $5-6,000–a good reason why the Wag continued to roll down the lines in Toledo after the GW’s companion pickup truck, the Gladiator (CC here), was axed following the Chrysler purchase.

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Many vehicles with long production runs often finish out their lives as inexpensive fleet queens, or de-contented blandmobiles for buyers too cheap or conservative to spring for the hot new replacement.  Not this one.  The consensus seems to be that the GW’s last five years were its best.  Contrary to popular belief, Chrysler did not completely ignore the thing, but instead oversaw the rollout of its final 1988 upgrades, which included remote keyless entry, an overhead console and a rear wiper.  The old girl even got upgraded to a four-speed automatic transmission in 1990, albeit one still made by Borg-Warner.  However, the basics remained the same: The carbureted AMC 360 V8 (and not the identically sized Chrysler V8) would be used through the end of production.  In those years, buyers of GWs were among the industry’s most highly educated, highest earning, and most loyal buyers.

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So with all of this going for it, why did Chrysler pull the plug?  There are several reasons, not least of which was that the vehicle’s sales dropped precipitously in its final years.  In 1989, production dropped below the 1980 low, to just barely over 10,000 vehicles, and it would get worse, down to 6,449 units for 1990 and 1,560 for the final year of 1991.  At least one source indicates that a smattering of them might have been made in 1992 (here).  True, the economy was not particularly good during those last three years, but there is no denying that the old GW had seen few significant changes for years.  Chrysler also seemed to have stopped promoting it, at least to any significant degree.

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In fairness to Chrysler, the XJ Cherokee was about to be joined by the new Grand Cherokee in 1993, and  it was probably  not unreasonable to believe that GW buyers would migrate to the top-line version (called – you guessed it – Grand Wagoneer).  It turned out Chrysler was wrong, as fewer than 6,400 ’93 GW-trimmed Grand Cherokees found buyers before that particular trim level was trimmed from the Jeep catalog.

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We cannot, of course, avoid the question: did Chrysler make a mistake?  Might a small investment in airbags and Mopar Magnum power have extended the life of the Grand Wagoneer  and made it a booming success as a Range-Rover fighter in the go-go 1990s?  Or would the ancient platform have been a gigantic financial sinkhole that would sell no more than about 15,000 per year despite how many millions were invested?  The debate will rage on for years.

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In a way, the Waggy continues to live.  The Wagonmaster (here) is a company in Texas whose business is to restore and resell Grand Wagoneers to those who really want (and can afford) them.  I guess it’s easy to spot the vehicles with the most dedicated fan bases by how much interest there is in the old ones.  By this measure, the GW has to be in the top tier when refurbished versions regularly seem to sell for 40 large.

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In the classic Oscar Wilde novel, Dorian Gray was an attractive young man who sells his soul so that he can remain forever young while his portrait ages from his relentlessly hard living.  The Jeep Wagoneer had a run of nearly 30 selling seasons.  Like Dorian Gray, the Wagoneer looked good during its entire life, and some of its best years were its later ones.  And, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, the Jeep’s first two makers (Kaiser Jeep and then American Motors) quickly aged and took on a deathly pallor.  It took longer, but the same happened with Chrysler.

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In fairness, the Waggy was not a perfect Dorian Gray, as it had been the beneficiary of quite a few updates to keep it new.  But upgraded or not, the Grand Wagoneer finished out its life using the same sheet metal stampings and a lot of other hardware that was brand new in the 1963 version.  Many of us who have passed a certain age like to joke that we get better looking every year.  It’s usually not true, of course, but for a certain long-lived Jeep 4×4 wagon, its multiple makers managed to pull off that very feat.

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Note the wreath. The Cadillac of SUVs?