Curbside Classic: 1968 Jeep Wagoneer – The Most Influential Vehicle Of The Post War Era – Not Just A Passing Fad

That’s a pretty strong title I chose for the Wagoneer. But considering that SUVs/CUVs have come to dominate the sales stats outside of pickups, it’s going to be hard to contest, but help yourself. Yes, there were plenty of other influential cars too, but their influence wasn’t nearly as enduring, by a long shot. The Tesla Model S is the closest competition in my book. And there’s a relevant comparison between these two: both were extremely ambitious projects that almost killed their small makers.

We’ve had quite a few Wagoneers make appearances here, and I’ll give you the links at the end, but this is the oldest original one I’ve found yet, since the ’63 I found turned out to be a restomod.  So let’s turn the time machine back to the mid-sixities, and imagine the impact the Wagoneer made. And is still making, today.

Since the most prolific progeny of the Wagoneer’s offspring is the Toyota RAV4 (reviewed here), I took a chance in assuming that it was quite close in dimensions to the Wagoneer. Sure enough:

I’m not going to go into a comprehensive comparison of their respective subjective and objective qualities, as they were designed for quite different tasks in very different times. But given that a hybrid RAV4 is capable of some 40 mpg as well as performance, handling, safety and convenience that would have been considered crazy flight of fancy back then, there really is no comparison, except for the obvious one of similar size. Which alone says something. It’s the sweet spot.

The Wagoneer was revolutionary; its predecessor, the Jeep Station Wagon was really just a WW2 Jeep with a bit more wheelbase and a boxy steel body. Well, that was actually pretty revolutionary in 1946, the first all-steel wagon and the first production 4×4 wagon. It opened up a whole new niche, but that was a pretty small one still, primarily folks who genuinely needed such a thing for their ranch, work, hunting, or such. The 4×4 wagon as a suburban family hauler was still a ways off.

And it was compact, considering that it was three inches shorter than a Falcon wagon. And the Willys Malibu concept (top) was undoubtedly influenced by the Falcon, which instantly became the best-selling compact wagon starting in 1960. Why not? It was clean and practical.

That’s a significant factor to keep in mind; these Wagoneers were not large vehicles, presumably to avoid competing directly with the four door International Travellall, which had carved out a niche for itself, as well as the Suburban. And just the fact that compacts were the hot category in the early ’60s, when the Wagoneer was being developed.

But Willys (renamed Kaiser Jeep in 1963) was feeling quite ambitious, and wanted something significantly more sophisticated than the traditional solid axle 4×4 truck, even if it did have a modern body sitting on it.

So they designed an independent front suspension (IFS) for it that was rather advanced and unusual. I know it looks like a swing axle at first glance, but it’s not. The driveshafts are jointed at both ends, so they function like lower control arms. And there’s upper control arms, so it’s essentially a short-arm, long-arm (SLA) system. There were both 4WD and RWD versions.

In a 1963 Motor Trend vintage review we posted here, it was praised for its comfort and good handling. The IFS was a $160 option, not exactly cheap for back then. That undoubtedly is why the majority of them were sold with the standard solid front axle, and within a few years the IFS was phased out. Too bad, as if it had been standard, it would have continued to make the Wagoneer decidedly ahead of the pack.

The other ambitious undertaking was to drastically update the venerable 226 flathead six, as it was hopelessly obsolete.  Created by Italian engineer  A. C. Sampietro, who had also designed a high-performance head for the Nash-Healy, it was mostly a classic European style true hemispherical combustion chambered-head cast from aluminum alloy and featuring an OHC, a true rarity on this side of the ocean on production engines. An unusual feature was that the same cam lobe operated both the intake and exhaust valves.

The block was still based on the old 226, now making 230 cubic inches. Power was a respectable 140 hp (gross) @4000rpm., and torque was a healthy 210 lb.ft @1700rpm. For the times, performance was considered quite good, given that most pickups and utilities had sixes back then, and expectations were different.

Like the IFS, the “Tornado” OHC six had a short life, at least in the US. By 1965, both were withdrawn; the solid front axle would be the only one available for the rest of the Wagoneer’s long life. And the Tornado six was shipped off to Kaiser’s Argentine subsidiary, IKA, where the Rambler-body Torino powered by ever-more powerful versions of the 3800 OHC six became legendary.

Why did this happen? At this time, Edgar Kaiser, CEO of Kaiser Industries, was streamlining and rationalizing all of their automotive holdings, after years of losses and inconsistent results. The lease on the former Continental engine factory where Kaiser had built its engines was let go, as it simply was uneconomical for Kaiser to build their own engines, so the tooling was shipped to Argentina. And undoubtedly the IFS was also seen to be too expensive and unprofitable.

The solution was to buy engines. Initially, that was the 327 cubic inch V8 from American Motors, available in the Wagoneer and Gladiator from 1965. And later in the ’65 MY, the AMC 232 six replaced the Tornado six. Kaiser obviously had a good rapport with AMC at the time, although this was still some five years before AMC purchased Jeep. But there are indications that AMC had been expressing interest for some time already. Quite likely Edgar’s rationalizing of Kaiser-Jeep was with the intent to make it more attractive and valuable as an asset for another company to buy.

Somewhat curiously, in 1968 Jeep switched to Buick as its source of V8 engines, buying the 350 cubic inch version. I used to wonder why, but it just occurred to me: the 350 V8 was essentially the Buick V6 with two more cylinders, or vice versa. Jeep had bough the right to build Buick’s 231 V6 back in 1965, to use in the smaller CJ and Jeepster models. These engines shared the same architecture and quite likely a number of internal parts, so it presumably made sense at the time.

But given AMC’s purchase of Jeep in 1970, that quickly stopped making sense. By 1972, the Buick V8 was gone, replaced by AMC’s own 360 V8 (and 401 in later years). That was also the same year that AMC replaced (and mothballed) the V6 in favor of their own sixes for the CJ and Commando. Within a couple of years, Buick would be back at AMC’s door asking to buy back the V6 tooling, and turn it into their evergreen V6 engine.

Although the Wagoneer started out life with the Borg-Warner three-speed automatic as an option teamed with the Tornado six, the superior and very sturdy THM-400 was teamed with the AMC 327 V8, as well as with the Buick V8, and presumably with the AMC six too, although I’m not quite certain of that right now, and can’t find a ready answer. Perhaps the B/W, which AMC used too, was used behind the AMC six? And almost certainly, that’s what was teamed up with the AMC 360 after the acquisition.

So this one, powered by the Buick V8, is most likely a THM-400, but I make no guarantees.

This wagon has its rear seat flipped down. But that very intrusive rear wheel well substantially impacted rear seat width. These Wagoneers, befitting their compact origins, were never roomy vehicles, and so it was not that hard to build a much lighter but more modern Cherokee XJ in the early 80’s that had as much or more room than the Wagoneer that it was intended to fully replace.

The view from the rear makes its rather narrow interior quite obvious.

The evergreen qualities of the Wagoneer were in not inconsiderable measure due to its compact size, as that meant it never had to compete with the full-size SUVs and Suburban head on, leaving it in a niche mostly to its own. And as the Wagoneer morphed into the increasingly upscale Grand Wagoneer, its size was again an asset, as its owners were looking more for a personal-SUV rather than a big truck.

I don’t know the exact year of this one, but it’s somewhere between 1968 and 1971. There were some very minor detail differences that are lost to me at the moment (after a long day hiking in the mountains).

Sometime between 1967 and 1969, the slow-selling 2WD versions were eliminated, as was the very rare two-door.

I could go on, but it’s getting late, and we’ve covered the Wagoneer so many times before, so I’ll give you ample links if you want to plumb the depths further. But just why exactly have SUVs become so omnipotent in the market? There have been so many automotive fads since WW2: sports cars, little imports, bigger/lower/wider sedans and wagons, pony cars, muscle cars, personal coupes, broughams, minivans; I’m probably forgetting some more. But the Jeep Wagoneer and its ilk represented something more enduring: our ever-more tenuous connection with nature. The more urbanized we became, the more eager we were to embrace the myth of the great outdoors.

Of course it’s not just a myth: outdoor recreation has boomed over the decades, and is at an all-time high. But as we all know, the percentage of CUVs and SUVs and 4WD pickups that are ever driven off the road is in the single digits. There was a myth behind all of those automotive fads I listed, but the myth of the great outdoors is the most powerful and enduring of all, as it promises to connect us to our roots and escape our urban ills. Nothing can top that. So don’t expect this fad to play itself out anytime soon.



CC 1946 Willys Jeep Station Wagon: The First All-Steel Station Wagon and SUV   PN

Willys Malibu and J-100 Concepts: The First Two Tries At Styling the 1963 Jeep Wagoneer  PN

Vintage Motor Trend Review: 1963 Jeep Wagoneer  JS

CC 1989 Jeep Grand Wagoneer  JPC

CC Jeep Grand Wagoneer  JS

CC Outtake: 1963 Wagoneer – Explorer Edition  PN

Vintage R&T Review: 1978 Jeep Wagoneer  PN

CC For Sale: 1990 Grand Wagoneer  GS

CC Outtake: 1977 Jeep Wagoneer  PN

CC Outtake: 1983 Jeep Wagoneer Brougham  JG