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 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
This is one of those vehicles that plopped itself into a quiet little corner of the market and stayed there, while eventually everyone came its way. The Travelall/Suburban was another.
This car has always looked so much larger than it actually is, at least to me. I looked it up, and that 110 inch wheelbase is right about that of a Falcon wagon, and 3 inches shy of the 1960 Lark wagon. I imagine we have to attribute this to really good visual design – it is hard to think of how the basic styling on this Jeep could have been improved.
When I was a kid I knew of precisely one person who had one of these. Now, try to find a neighborhood where at least half of the vehicles are not 4wd wagon-ish and of around this size.
These were not uncommon in southern New England in the 80’s and 90s when I was growing up. I think SUV sales have in general always been a bit stronger in the NE and PNW than other parts of the country. I knew several people that had them.
One in particular hits alot of the stereo types. At my mothers families lake house a neighbor had one for most of the 80’s into the early 2000’s when it was replaced be a Lexus RX. He was originally from NYC but had moved his business to Albany and the lake house was in Western Mass, and another house in Boca. The Jeep was used for local trips around the lake house and shuttling back and forth to Albany every once in a while. But sitting under the trees on the steep gravel driveway on a hill above the lake made it look like a Jeep ad every time we walked down the hill to the cottage.
“These were not uncommon in southern New England in the 80’s and 90s”
I’m evidently older than you. I was thinking more like 1970. These were fairly plentiful in the Midwest as well by the mid 80s.
I almost think of these early versions as entirely distinct vehicles from the wood-paneled-leather-upholstered ones that these morphed into early in the 80s.
I agree. Back in 1970 we used a friends ’66 to scout out our mythical incursions into the Man Fromm U. N.C.L.E’s ( Robert Vaughn) reputed place on the other side of a mountain which also held the Carthusian monks near Manchester Vt. The plan was to get close in 4 wheel drive then snowshoe or cross country ski in. Usually we just ended up going to a bar called the Roundhouse. Lol!……Kids!.
That’s a nice find. Given the paucity of sedans sold by the Big Three in the US today, and the fact that Ford now has a Mustang-branded eSUV, I’d have to agree with the title.
The Tornado 6 was also used in the M715 military truck built from 1967-69.
Funny thing about jeep fans is they’re a divided group and always have been. They’ve been screaming THATS NOT A REAL JEEP since the jeepster. Wranger drivers have never waved to cherokee drivers. The more things change the more they stay the same. I’ve always found it amusing.
Lacklustering for one of these since childhood. Came close to buy one last year. A ’86 in red with woody elements. It was for sale in my town and for a reasonable price, but I finally decided better to save money..but still thinking about this nice “influencer”
That Willys Malibu concept reminds me of the soviet GAZ M 24 Volga. Could also be it’s 4×4 version, style wise.
My ’75 J10 has a 360/TH400. This combination was used in the truck until the TH400 was replaced by the 727 TorqueFlite in 1980. I suspect the J10 powertrain was shared with the Wagoneer. I don’t believe the BW automatic was ever used behind the AMC V8s in Jeeps. My theory is for the difference between AMC Jeeps using the TH400 while AMC cars from the same years still used the BW auto was a continuation of the practice of using the TH400 in Buick engined Jeeps.
What was strange about the Jeep TH-400 fit-up is that it had the old “Nailhead” case, utilizing an adapter to mate to the various engines, despite that for some engines there was a direct-fit TH-400 case in production. Meanwhile, post ’66 there was no other current production requiring the Nailhead case.
I wonder if anyone has estimated the number and dollar amount Chrysler made on licensing and producing the TorqueFlite for other manufacturers. I bet they would be sizable numbers.
That width figure seems awfully narrow for a “full-size” Jeep platform, but according to another source, the later J-10/20 pickups and Cherokees were a more typical 79″ wide. Must have been the standard fender flares.
It’s a common mistake to think that the Gladiator is just a pickup version of the Wagoneer, and vice versa. The Gladiator had a substantially different chassis, with wider axles on both ends, for starters. It was a genuine truck that borrowed the Wagoneer’s cab, for convenience’s sake. Quite similar to the Studebaker Champ, actually.
A friend had a ’64 Gladiator and it did feel like a real truck. The OHC engine was a bit of an oddity at the time. Oh, and it was the same beautiful metallic turquoise as the featured Wagoneer.
You mention the Willys Station Wagon, but if one keeps going back, there are all sorts of influential Willys vehicles, that were not necessarily popular or widely acclaimed at the time. The 4WD Willys pickup beginning in the late ’40s, which was the first regular production line precursor to all the 4WD pickups today. The original Jeep, of course (yes, stolen from Bantam), which led to the enduring Jeep/Bronco/Land Cruiser thing. Before that, cookie-cutter, small, basic 4 cylinder cars with no options (VW Beetle/Toyota Corolla, anyone?), which built on the Model T idea without really leaving it, as the rest of Detroit did in the ’30s. The building of an industrial conglomerate around cars, but far beyond cars, which J.N Willys did right after WW1, and before most others.
Most of these points can be argued, but the basic theme here is that Willys was one of the real car business innovators, both during John North Willys’ interesting life, and after his passing in the ’30s. Willys did not go from one sweeping success to another, grandly reshaping the automobile and the car business, as Ford and GM did. Instead, Willys tinkered with what was available to him, combining and recombining parts and enterprises, spending wildly when financial success came his way, and then blowing it all on mistimed and mispriced projects. It was not that Willys was not one of the great innovators, it was that the innovations were somewhat random, and often done in the shadows. There was no great theme and sweep to his work.
Perhaps it was because Willys, and the firm that followed and was reconstituted after his bankruptcy and death in the ’30s, was not “all about the cars”. It was arguably, instead, an industrial conglomerate that happened to manufacture cars as part of its business line (as Kaiser also did). Making cars was a money making opportunity when Willys started out, as he was a car salesman, that took over the Overland car company to insure a steady supply of cars for his wildly successful sales enterprise. Willys was always about making a sale (and often failed at that), rather than about making cars.
The Willys story, both personally and the business, are fascinating ones, the big swings of which will put the likes of Studebaker or Nash to shame. Out of it came all sorts of niche and mainstream vehicles, the thread from which can be followed out to today, as this Wagoneer story does. Because Willys never had a widely heralded and enduring success, other than the original Jeep, at least until the later Kaiser and AMC/Chrysler eras, Willys gets short shift, and the Willys stories aren’t widely written down and told. But if one was doing a dramatic mini-series, the stories of John North Willys and his company are the ones I would go to, for maximum dramatic effect, and for the idea of telling a story not often told, other than in bits and pieces.
Yes. The Willys 77 is the basic landmark. The 77 picked up the small four-cylinder car at the same time when Ford and Plymouth laid down their small fours. The 77 spawned the Jeep, then after the war the 77 chassis became the Station Wagon. From 1933 to now, Willys maintained the same basic DNA while everyone else abandoned it… then returned to it.
The Willys 77, conceptually, came from the (Willys) Whippet of 1927, and shared the engine from the Whippet. The Whippet was somewhere between the Model T and Model A in specification (think of a proto-Model A without quite the looks and an inferior engine), and was initially quite popular, as it filled the need for a combination of size, capability, and economy that the Model A later occupied so well. Ford had actually stopped car production for a period of months between the end of the “T” and the start of the “A”. Willys got to fill that void with nice, cheap cars to sell.
Speaking of the engine, that basic Whippet engine, continually modified and improved over the years, went into the Model 77, the later Willys cars, and some of the Jeeps and Jeep branded vehicles all the way up through 1971. 45 years is quite a run. It went into the Kaiser Henry J, branded as the “Supersonic” engine. It also found its way into a multitude of heavy-duty “portable” (on a dedicated trailer or a skid) welders and generators, from the WW2 times through the ’60s. Those stationary engines are now often used as sources of low-hours engines for keeping old Jeeps going. There was a rare marine inboard engine application, using alternate OSCO-branded manifolding. Empire-branded tractors used the engine, too.
I know this is a bit into the weeds, but the Willys story threads all through the first two-thirds of twentieth-century industrial America. When our host cites the Wagoneer as a most influential element of American autodom, he actually scratches just the surface of an interesting (to me, anyway) subject. Did you know that Walter Chrysler left a leadership post at Willys to successfully start his own company, after a high-profile shareholder battle with J.N. Willys that he lost? (OK, I’ll stop now…).
To compare to the current Jeep Cherokee–
Wheelbase 106.7 in.
Width 73.2 in.
Height 66.2 in.
Length 182 in.
Weight 3960 lb.
“Sweet spot” indeed. Many cars are inhabiting those approximate dimensions.
Tesla Model 3, a bit lower, with a longer wheelbase (but shorter overhangs)–
Wheelbase 113.2 in.
Width 72.8 in.
Height 56.8 in.
Length 184.8 in.
Weight 4031 lb.
What a perfect SUV for an old car guy…the color, the Buick 350 (I like Buicks), the shape. I imagine that using a Buick 350 meant that a lot of other parts in common with the Buick V6 could be used, which had to have saved some money somewhere. Radiators, starters, wiring, motor mounts, etc. might have been shared among models to some extent. I believe all Jeeps were built in Toledo, weren’t they? Did the Wagoneer come down the same line as CJs?
Regardless, great find in great shape.
In the classic book, the Insolent Chariots the author really skewers the car based suburban wagon. The longer, lower, wider, styling made them suitable only for suburban trolling. Loading one up and taking it into the back country for camping, fishing and hunting clearly displayed their limitations. Remember back in the early 1960’s there were still a lot of unpaved “secondary ” roads. I used to seek them out on my motorcycle when I was a kid. The excessive overhangs, lack of ground clearance, combined with the excessively soft suspension made them miserable on gravel and dirt roads.
Yesterday I saw a mid 1970’s Ford big wagon complete with wood grain panels, entering the freeway. It looked so out of place in modern traffic. It’s no wonder that the mid size SUV became so popular.
Wow, that is a honey of an early Wagoneer. Not quite early enough to have the vertical central grille (as commanded in Scripture), but that front end swaps easily onto any SJ right up to the last dinki-di ’91 model. The combination of round reversing lamps, this second-type grille, no side marker reflectors or lights, and the 350 engine point this up as a ’68 model.
I didn’t know about the IFS, but it’s too bad I’ll probably never get to drive one of these with that and the OHC engine. Speak of which: same cam lobe for intake and exhaust seems like it would make it impossible to optimise the valve events. Strikes me you’d have to have a compromised lobe with compromised timing to give acceptable intake and exhaust events, but optimisation of the intake would come at the expense of the exhaust and vice versa.
If someone will please retrieve my comment from the trash where it landed, I’ll appreciate it.
What a great find! I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that old in person, at least not in nice original condition. Great technical info, thanks for the good write up.
Good point that so many moden SUVs inhabit roughly the same dimensional sweet spot pioneered by the Wagoneer. The RAV4 may be better in every function, but it sure doesn’t look better!