It’s the early 1980’s and you are president of AMC/Jeep. The question is this: How do you replace one of the most iconic vehicles in the world, especially when you are a struggling automaker facing extinction? You drive straight ahead as fast as you can, while keeping a close eye on your rearview mirror so that you can see where you came from and what’s chasing you.
What was directly in the rearview mirror was this, the most popular American vehicle specifically designed for off-roading ever. The CJ-7 was introduced for the 1976 model year, as a logical refinement of the long-running CJ-5 (which continued to be sold alongside the 7 until 1983.) The larger CJ-7 was made for the type of customer who was increasingly common in the ’70s: the lifestyle buyer who probably uses his or her Jeep as a daily driver more than off road. It had a 10 inch longer wheelbase for a better ride and roomier back seat and was available with an automatic transmission and a removable hardtop with metal doors incorporating roll up windows. In later years, it even had sound systems and air conditioning available. Redesigning this beloved vehicle while making it safer, more functional and appealing to more buyers without losing its charisma and off road abilities was the challenge.
A little further in the mirror was the CJ-5, introduced as a ’55 model with new styling and numerous other improvements. In CJ-5 and 7 guises, this basic vehicle had an amazing 32 year run.
Even further behind was the original civilian Jeep, Willys making them available to the public in late 1945 as soon as new car sales were allowed at the conclusion of World War II. Technically a CJ-2A, it was modified a couple of times to receive the new monikers of CJ-3A and CJ-3B, the latter being produced through 1968 and sold alongside the new CJ-5 after 1955. The Kaiser Corp. bought Willys-Overland in 1953.
Of course, the Jeep story started shortly before World War II, when the U.S. Army commissioned Willys and Ford to build them a small four wheel drive truck. Willys’ version was called the MB while Ford’s was called the GPW (becoming “Jeep” in Army vernacular.)
American Motors, which had made Jeeps since buying Kaiser/Jeep in 1970, was struggling by the early 80’s. The 1954 merger of Nash and Hudson into American Motors proved to be a big success under George Romney. It had survived and then thrived as the last small, independent U.S. auto company by building compact cars and being very careful about how it spent its development money and getting every last ounce of value out of the platforms it made. Some questioned the wisdom of purchasing Jeep, but that turned out to be one of their wisest decisions. Light recreational trucks became one of the biggest growth categories in the market in the 1970’s and ever growing Jeep sales turned huge profits for AMC.
The Jeep profits masked the automotive blunders they made, going back to the mid ’60’s. After Romney left the company in late 1962, the new management took the healthy, confident automaker in ambitious directions trying to compete with the Big Three directly in more categories. They spent precious development dollars building larger and/or sportier cars like the ’65 Marlin, ’69 Ambassador, ’68/’71 Javelin, ’74 Matador coupe and even the ’75 Pacer. Those cars didn’t sell enough to pay back their development costs, with the lack of profits (actually huge losses in many years) preventing any possibility of redesigned Jeep vehicles, which by the early ’80’s were getting a bit stale prompting sales to drop significantly for the first time. Eventually the lack of money to build new platforms drove AMC into the arms of Renault in 1980.
Fortunately for Jeep, AMC used the francs to hit a home run with the new 1984 XJ Cherokee/Wagoneer, replacing the 1963-vintage models (except for the Grand Wagoneer). That well-designed SUV kept Jeep viable enough to be attractive to Chrysler, who bought AMC from Renault despite the failure of their joint venture cars (Alliance, Encore, etc.).
With the development of the Cherokee/Wrangler, Jeep applied some of the engineering it did for that platform to the replacement for the 30+ year old CJ platform. The YJ Wrangler was introduced mid-year 1986 as an ’87 model (the Chrysler purchase went through in March 1987). It kept the same wheelbase, but had a lower center of gravity and wider track for stability. They shared the XJ’s Command-Trac shift-on-the-fly four wheel drive system as well as the XJ’s axles, panhard rods, thicker anti-roll bars and steering. Comfort was emphasized with a more compliant suspension and a modern dashboard. A soft top was standard for the first time, as were power brakes. Engines were mostly carryover, with a choice of 2.5L four (now fuel injected) or 4.2L carbureted straight six. Jeep introduced a brand new design 4.0L fuel injected straight six for 1987, but only for the XJ’s. The YJ would have to wait until the 1991 model year to get the new engine, but when it did, horsepower jumped from 112 to 180.
The YJ generation is most easily identified by its square headlights and swept back creased grille, which announced to the world that this was a new Jeep for the ’80’s! Purists then (and even now) didn’t like its face and joked that YJ stood for Yuppie Jeep, but the new Wrangler was accepted readily as customers found it still had the off-roading goods of its predecessors. Naturally, the aftermarket stepped in to offer plenty of products for those who felt the YJ wasn’t capable enough from the factory. Jeep sold 685,071 Wranglers over the nine model years of this generation.
Jeep was famous for its bold trim packages. A new one on the Wrangler was the Sahara, which included a number of options but quickly spotted by the earth tone colors and “saddle bags” on the seat backs and door panels.
This particular example of the YJ was obviously interesting beyond simply being a pretty well preserved 25 year old vehicle. As a Jurassic Park fan, it caught my eye immediately. My wife, who has never seen any of the movies because she refuses to, didn’t understand what the big deal was when I had to go over and photograph this Jeep as we were leaving the bowling alley.
“Sweetie, OMG it’s a Jurassic Park Jeep!!”
She’s used to my odd ways, though!
I was really impressed by the quality of this transformation into the spitting image of the movie Jeeps. It’s a 1993 model, which is the year the movie came out (of course the ones in the movie were probably ’92’s) and it’s a Sahara model like the movie ones. The graphics are spot on, even down to the front license plate and rear view mirror tag. It has the correct CB whip antenna, though no actual CB radio that I saw. The only things missing were a front winch and a spotlight frame over the windshield. The best touch, you may have noticed, was in the cupholder: a can of Barbasol shaving cream!
Jurassic Park was such a popular movie, it spawned two sequels and a recent reboot of the franchise, which has brought us two movies so far. You know a movie is big when it inspires people to create replicas of its vehicles. I’ve never seen a JP (Jeep?) replica before, but according to the internet it’s apparently a thing. A JP Jeep has been seen on Curbside Classic once before, spotted in Australia of all places. I even found the website of a club for Jurassic vehicle enthusiasts that tells you in detail how to create your own conversion.
While my wife still won’t watch Jurassic Park, even among those who have, not everyone is a fan. CC’s Jason Shafer, who had a great write up on the Branson Celebrity Car Museum containing one of the movie’s Ford Explorers, offered that he didn’t understand the movie’s popularity because the two hours he sat in the theater were squandered on as stupid and predictable a movie as had ever been made.
I can respect that, but I would submit that there were good reasons for the huge success of that movie. For one thing, it was based on a very good book by Michael Crichton. Brought to the screen by the master of action movies, Steven Spielberg, it was a tour de force of cutting edge special effects which made dinosaurs very realistic monsters while surprisingly also portraying them with respect as animals. Kids and former kids have long had a love for dinosaurs and are pre-programmed to want to see a movie about them. As a bonus, it was a very good story well told. The heroes were very likable and the villains were easy to love to hate and these great characters were played well by talented actors. The fall of Jurassic Park, the rescue of [most of] the good guys and the demise of the bad guys by dinosaur may have been predictable, but suspense wasn’t really the point. It was about watching the adventure, and at a deeper level it was about the hubris of man in thinking he can play God and bring back dangerous extinct animals for fun and profit. We, the audience, know it’s futile and doomed to failure and watching it all come crashing down is a big part of the fascination for us. And we love a good chase.
We know what was chasing the Jurassic Park Jeep, because I’m sure most of us remember one of the best movie gags ever. Sure, “OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR” is written on passenger side mirrors, not driver side, but has there ever been a more delightful use of a DOT-mandated safety feature?
What was chasing Jeep in 1986? Besides its past success, a couple of monsters were chasing it, one being the huge growth of the truck-as-personal-vehicle market. The other was the adaptation of Japanese makers from selling only small economy cars to taking on U.S. companies in every market category, including recreational off road vehicles and light trucks. This late model Toyota Tundra is a fitting beast to be chasing our Wrangler hero, with a grille about as big as a T-Rex’s mouth. Those monsters didn’t look like a huge threat in the early ’80’s, but they were closer than they appeared. And like the inevitably inadequate security features of Jurassic Park, human over-confidence and hubris arguably killed AMC, and nearly took Jeep along with it. Taking on the Big Three in their area of greatest strength with big, flashy, fast cars may not have been as ambitious as breeding dinosaurs but, in hindsight, had about as much chance of success.
Toyota and others devoured Jeep in the pickup truck market (remember the Comanche?), but the YJ was a solid hit. It helped keep Jeep alive and one step ahead in the growing SUV market while motivating Chrysler to pay good money for an otherwise dying car company. Somehow, the Wrangler has avoided having any serious direct competition in the U.S. since the YJ came out. Were it not for the pluck and determination of a small band of Jeep designers and engineers making the most of a limited budget, the Jeep brand and the Wrangler might not still be with us.
photographed Houston, TX June 30, 2018
Standard Catalog of 4×4’s 1945-2000 2nd ed. by Robert C. Ackerson
American Motors: The Last Independent by Patrick R. Foster
Hemmings Classic Car magazine, July 2015
1986 Jeep CJ-7 and 1987 Jeep Wrangler brochures
Very nice tie-in with Jurassic Park in describing the Jeep Wrangler’s fortunes (although I think the Ford Escape should get equal billing). Also highlights the difficulty Jeep’s owners have had maintaining the Jeep lineage, yet staying somewhat in the modern world. The latest Wrangler shows just how good Jeep has been at doing exactly that, particularly with the upcoming Jeep Gladiator pickup truck. FCA has done a superb job of softening up the Wrangler to make it just civilized enough for street duty while maintaining that tough-as-nails off-road image.
As an aside, I can’t say I’m a fan of Spielberg’s movies, either. Most of them are just a tad too contrived, designed specifically for maximum mass-market appeal (to make the most money). Absent the overt product placement in Spielberg movies, it’s the same sort of disdain I have for the whole Star Wars franchise.
You probably meant Ford Explorer, but the ESCAPE would have been a much more fitting car to use in this movie!
In the quarter century since Jurassic Park appeared, and the umpteen follow-ups that followed (chased by the original? 🙂 ), you have made the best case for this movie I have yet encountered. Rudiger sums up my thoughts pretty well directly above, likely more eloquently than I did originally.
I admire your tying this Jeep to a movie; in contrast I could see a forty acre parking lot full of these and never once think of that movie. Writing about any vehicle associated with a movie or television show is tough particularly when you aren’t enthralled with the movie. You enjoyed the movie and embraced it. Good job.
”…I could see a forty acre parking lot full of these and never once think of that movie.”
Same here, and if you’d asked me which vehicle I remembered from Jurassic Park, my first response would be the Ford Explorer!
I believe the Explorers had more screen time than the Jeeps, especially during the tense moments…
As an aside, in the first reboot movie, “Jurassic World”, the kids (in trouble due to a big bad dino hunting them) come across two of these in a shed, and get one running so they can escape back to the park. If memory serves, the older kid says to the younger one before the wrenching begins, “Remember when we fixed up Grandpa’s old Malibu?” or something to that effect.
…in a weird sorta CC Effect, that line is reminiscent of LT Dan talking the other day about bonding with his Dad over fixing up a car.
The Explorers got the most intense action since the T.rex attacked one, but the Jeeps were probably on screen about as long. They entered the park in them, Newman used one to attempt getting to the docks with(and was killed inside of) one was used them to look for survivors after the T. rex attack, followed by a quick chase, and at the end escaped the park in one.
Yeah, you’re probably right Matt. And the T-Rex popping the Firestone Tire (assumption on the tire brand… I’ll have to watch the movie again), what with the bad rollover press and such for the Explorer was priceless.
Oh, and +1 for calling him “Newman”. I can’t even remember his character’s name in the movie, so that’s what I call him too. ;o)
This Jeep made the connection with the movie itself. I might not have gone there with the YJ story except for encountering this great conversion.
I can see what you and Rudiger say about Speilberg. What I like about Speilberg is that just when you may be tempted to dismiss him as a maker of light popcorn action fare like Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, and this movie, he’ll make something heavier like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan or Munich. His career has been so varied, he really defies easy categorization.
The first two Jurassic Park movies, which he directed, were by far the best. His lack of involvement with the three since shows in that the stories don’t hold up nearly as well apart from the dinosaur action.
Yeah, but even when Spielberg goes full-dramatic like Schindler’s List, his movies will still have cliche-ridden, manipulative flaws, and they’re easily spotted when compared with what was, to me, a similarly-themed movie of the Holocaust that was released around the same time but much better without the Spielberg touch: The Pianist.
Of course, you also have to overlook that The Pianist was directed by Roman Polanski whose character is quite a bit more suspect than Spielberg.
What makes the original Jurassic Park so good is that there are no real cliche villains in it, which is almost unheard of in a typical popcorn flick. The main antagonist is Newman from Seinfeld, but he was only about as villainous here as he was in the sitcom (bumbling get rich quick scheme) and killed almost immediately. All else working against the protagonists was hubris and Mother Nature to the very end. None of the sequels can make that claim, which have everything from cliche black ops characters trying to weaponize dinosaurs to dinosaurs themselves that are genetically modified to be super evil.
What I will say though is Jurassic Park is pretty much a copy of the original Westworld, but other than the story I think that movie completely sucks (bad acting, bad dialogue, poor direction, ponderous pacing, lame effects, cheap sets, etc.). Not every movie has to or should be gripping tearjerking sanctimonious Oscar bait. Spielberg brought quality to what would otherwise be known as B-movies, you can resent the fact that his movies were so successful that they spawned imitatiors and ruined mainstream Hollywood as a result, but that’s not a reason to be dismissive of his talent.
Good point, it is unusual to have no out and out bad guys. Even Nedry (Newman!) didn’t intend to destroy the park, he just wanted to sell the embryos. The lawyer who also got eaten was kind of a bad guy, but not a villain. The character who gave Nedry the Barbasol can was Dodgson, who played a bigger part in the book and is more of a conventional villain.
I never saw Westworld, but wasn’t that directed by Crichton? I suppose he took some of the ideas from that story and incorporated them into the much better Jurassic Park.
That there is a connection between JP and Spielberg is a tidbit I didn’t realize until today; I guess this is simply a reflection to my level of paying attention to such things! It’s hard to indict him or his body of work based upon one particular movie as nobody ever bats one thousand.
I’d ridden in many Wranglers over the years, but only drove one for the first time relatively recently. And driving one of these really heightened my appreciation for them.
The Wrangler I’ve driven belongs to my in-laws — they live on 40 acres in the rural Midwest, about a mile off of a paved road. Getting to their house in the winter is not for the faint of heart. For their purposes, a Jeep is perfect. The fact that an elderly couple would drive a 30-year old bare-bones manual-transmission Jeep, with no a/c, power steering, windows, etc., speaks volumes to their hardiness.
I love that Jeep. When driving it, you can’t help but be taken back to an earlier time when cars were machines, and you could feel and hear everything going on with them. It’s noisy, bumpy, and uncomfortable… and wonderful. It can also get you anywhere at any time. Owning a Wrangler (especially for folks living in rural areas) is like carrying a pocketknife; it’s nice just to know it’s there.
One last thing about their Jeep is that it doesn’t have a back seat. So when my kids were little, they loved having me take them for rides, with them (legally) sitting in the front seat. For kids ordinarily confined to low-visibility back seats, that was almost heavenly. Even though they’re older now, they still love the Jeep. And so do I.
“Toyota and others devoured Jeep in the pickup truck market (remember the Comanche?)”
Comanche was itself a decent truck for what it was, whose only major flaw was the lack of an extended-cab model. That could have been rectified.
What killed Comanche was the Chrysler takeover, and for two reasons:
1. in the new Chrysler hierarchy, Jeep was for SUV and Dodge was the truck line.
2. the Dakota already existed (and had an extended-cab variant) and the bosses felt that the Comanche was just a duplication of (and competing with itself on) an existing product.
I’m sure you’re right that Chrysler didn’t have any enthusiasm for the Comanche. It’s curious, though, that they didn’t kill it outright for a while, continuing it through 1992 (five years after purchase.) I imagine if it had been a huge hit that they would have been glad to keep it indefinitely and even promote it. Its two “highest” sales years were in 87 and 88, when it sold around 40k. It quickly dropped off after that.
True. The only answer I have is that continuing the Comanche was an essentially free way to amortize development/tooling costs and/or fully utilize production capacity.
My first question was whether the owner’s other vehicle was an Explorer.
My kids were young when Jurassic Park came out and I guess that allowed me to watch the movie with kids’ eyes too. I am a fan, but then I have always been a fan of the classic Hollywood popcorn flick. Adventure is adventure, whether the protagonists are battling gangsters, pirates, The Empire or dinosaurs.
It is amazing to think that we have only just now entered the 2nd generation after this design from the 80s. I will admit that at the time I didn’t like these. My first real Jeep exposure had been to a 76 CJ-5 (with a 304 V8) owned by a cousin. The new one seemed too plasticky in comparison. But as time has passed I have become a fan, especially after they did a modest restyle that brought the return of the round headlights.
Believe it or not, they are actually in their fourth generation of Wrangler (post CJ Jeep). They’ve had the YJ (87-95), TJ (97-06), JK (07-17) and JL (18-present). Motor Trend gave its SUV Of The Year award to the JL this year.
My favorite is the TJ, which kept a very similar body to the YJ but went back to the original style front end and gave it all coil suspension.
Oops, I was conflating the YJ and the TJ. Even so, each generation has been remarkably long-lived with incredible consistency with each model change.
My sister just bought a new JL Wrangler Unlimited. I had driven her JK Wrangler Unlimited (Rubicon 6 speed) and am hoping for a turn behind the wheel of this one (also a Rubicon 6 speed) soon. She plans to outfit it with a camper top and figured that if she is going to go to that expense it would be better to start with the new generation of Jeep if she eventually decides to sell the camper top.
A camper shell sounds interesting! Actually sleep inside the Jeep?
There is more than one company that makes these, you replace the factory hardtop with one of these. It will supposedly sleep two and you can stand up in part of it. My sis and BIL have been tent campers for a long time but she says they are getting to the age where this looks really appealing.
I guess this would be kind of the opposite of the Niedermeyer Promaster – extremely basic accommodations and 4 wheel drive.
Neat. Puts new meaning into the name Wrangler UNLIMITED!
There was also an LJ Wrangler, a long wheelbase 2 door TJ variant which preceded the 4 door JK. Not to be confused with the Suzuki LJ. You know, the Wrangler name has been around long enough now that I hear some younger enthusiasts, who should know better, refer to older CJ’s as Wranglers. Similarly, I hear people call older “Series” Land Rovers, Defenders.
The CJ-5 had an additional obstacle. it’s propensity to roll over. I remember the late 70s “60 Minutes” piece demonstrating this. CJs were fitted with roll bars, but some of the bars were a bit weak, and many people then, as now, refused to use seat belts, so they became projectiles when their roofless, doorless, car went greasy side up.
The CJ-7. by virtue of it’s longer wheelbase, was a bit more stable.
If you want “elemental” driving now, the hot ticket is the Roxor. Mahindra was at the Detroit show last week, and people were all over the Roxors. By being for off road use only, the Roxor apparently ducks most of the safety regs. It’s very close to the size of the old CJ-7, with the same level of crudity.
Good write up.
Did I ever mention I’m originally from Butler, PA?
My grandfather – and my senior pastor – both worked at the old Pullman-Standard plant in nearby Lyndora, which in 1941 had been the American Bantam plant building the very first GPs.
I’ve lived west of Pittsburgh since the 80s. Two houses away from me, there’s a Jeep family, and they currently own a Comanche pickup. Not sure if it may be a project or a toy, I can’t remember the last time I saw it move.
My father used to own a red 1991 YJ and he loved it. Sadly, it was a rusty mess, having come from up North and the frame was shot. He sold it after only owning it a few months.
It’s been written (in at least one corporate retrospective; I don’t recall which) that the rectangular headlamps on the YJ were at admitted Frenchman Francois Castaing’s insistence. Which stands to reason; the French cultural vehicle-headlamps tic included a fetish, strong at times, for rectangular or oblong headlamps.
But then came the American real-Jeeps-have-round-headlamps brigade to print up their shirts and hoist their placards, and the round lamps returned on the subsequent model, probably never again to go away.
When AMC announced that they were replacing the CJ with Wrangler, the news media wrongly said “Jeeps are ending production!” Not knowing it is a brand not a vehicle model or type. There were protests by fans saying “How could they?”
Once the Wrangler was out on the lots, then the hysteria ended. There’s still people who think a ‘Jeep’ is only a Wrangler and its CJ predecessors, not knowing what a Grand Cherokee/Patriot/Liberty/Compass is.
I like the YJ. It came out when I was a 10 year old kid and stayed around until I started college in fall of 1995. I like (and have always liked) the square headlights. I think it gave the Wrangler a modern look. I still will stop and look at a YJ when i see one in a parking lot. The CJ’s and their round headlights and the current crop of Wrangler(starting with the 96 TJ) with their round headlights do nothing for me at all. Of course I am a fan of the XJ Cherokee and they also had square headlights
Found a similar Jurassic Park one in Querétaro, Mexico last year. Only looking at the photos I’m noticing this one’s actually a later model. Doesn’t matter much, the look is still cool.
That ad for the ’55 CJ-5: To borrow a phrase from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this is some strange usage of the word “streamlined” of which I wasn’t previously aware.