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