The French say that cuisine is the art of repurposing leftovers. It’s also about making the best out of what you have. Take a tough old rooster, simmer it for ages in the cheapest plonk you can find with whatever vegetables you can scrounge and you get coq au vin. This philosophy, applied to the automotive field, gave us the Cherokee.
AMC were top chefs – no wonder they tied the knot with Renault. Take a rustic Toledo-made Willys Jeep, dress it in a brand new Brooks Stevens-designed body, chuck in some direly needed creature comforts and let simmer until Kaiser decides to sell out. By that point, in 1970, the Wagoneer’s kinks all ironed out thanks to seven years in production, AMC got to work squeezing every atom of flavour out of the Jeep brand in general and of the big SUV in particular.
The original Wagoneer was available as a two-door, but the four-door had edged it out of the range by 1968. So AMC just reintroduced the two-door in 1974 with a slightly modified side window à la Chevy Blazer and dubbed it Cherokee. Always give your “new” dish a new name, that’s another secret: replace the old bird in your coq au vin with otherwise inedible chunks of geriatric cow and voilà, it’s bœuf bourguignon.
They also put a great big 6.6 litre V8 in there as a performance option, just to give their “new” Jeep variant a bit of extra zing. But you could still get the old 6-cyl. and a manual box if you really wanted to punish yourself for succumbing to temptation.
And so AMC kept the pot boiling for years and years, with minor adjustments here and there. The grille and headlamps are an egregious example. It’s as if because the sealed beam law was changed in 1976 that everybody just had to get the square-eyed look. It was the hip new ingredient, like chia seeds or Himalayan salt. It didn’t agree with the rest of the dish too well, but fashion dictates what it dictates.
Same for the plastic grille. The original Stevens upright grille and the mid-life AMC-era horizontal chrome nose (which to me bears an uncanny resemblance to the GAZ-24 Volga, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing) both have their dedicated followers, but the ultimate incarnation of the big Jeeps were a bit bastardized.
Perhaps with a design that lasts this long, this is an inevitable hazard. Certainly, the same thing ultimately happened to the aforementioned Volga too. Only a handful of designs lasted through to their third decade and still looked ok. I’d put the VW Beetle, the BMC Mini and the Citroën 2CV in this category – small cars are perhaps more amenable to staying evergreen. In the AWD world, the Land Rover might also qualify, but I’ve always wondered if that one had really ever been “styled” in the proper sense. The original Jeep wagon really takes the cake: made by Mitsubishi (in slightly modified form) until 1983, it looked just as cool in the end as when Willys launched it in 1946.
That being said, the original Cherokee is iconic – much more so than the K5 Blazer for my taste, even if this particular one is slightly less glorious than the early model version. A good stew gets better as you re-heat it, at least initially. Then, it can start to smell a bit strange and finally become downright indigestible. Just ask AMC.
Cars Of A Lifetime: 1979 Jeep Cherokee – So Proud To Live, by Junkharvetser