In today’s world where SUVs/CUVs come in all shapes and sizes, with everything from car-based, front-wheel drive, inline-3s to truck-based, four-wheel drive, V8s and everything in-between, and in fact outsell sedans in the U.S., it’s hard to believe there was a time when SUVs didn’t seem to rule the world.
Flash back half a century and in fact, SUVs did exist, but hardly as the family-friendly vehicles we find all over suburbia. Back then, SUVs existed solely for utilitarian purposes of getting where no other vehicle could go. People nearly exclusively purchased SUVs out of the necessity of four-wheel drive, as few other vehicles were capable of confidently conquering unpaved roads.
The original “SJ” Jeep Wagoneer debuted in 1963, replacing the vintage-1946 Willys-Jeep Station Wagon as Jeep’s largest sport-utility vehicle. Based on the Jeep Gladiator pickup, which was also introduced for 1963, the Wagoneer was available in 2- and 4-door versions, as well as a 2-door “panel” wagon with no rear windows and a split barn door tailgate.
Despite its availability in both rear-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, the latter overwhelmingly outsold the former, resulting in four-wheel drive becoming standard in 1968. The less popular 2-door Wagoneer was discontinued after 1968, although it would return as the Jeep Cherokee in 1974.
Basics aside, Jeep proved they were truly on to something with the 1966-1969 Super Wagoneer, a range-topping model that may very well be considered the first “luxury SUV” available in the U.S. Upgrades included a more powerful (270 horsepower) V8 with four-barrel carburetor, special center console with car-like console shifter, air conditioning, upgraded interior trim, fancier wheels, and a special grille among other features.
Although it wasn’t produced in high numbers, the idea of a luxury SUV stuck, proving it was here to stay. Following AMC’s buyout of Kaiser-Jeep in January 1970, the eight-year old Wagoneer was treated to a number of mechanical and cosmetic upgrades over the next year, most notably the addition of a woodgrain accessory package (though just a thin strip at this point), something which would prove to be one of the vehicle’s most iconic traits.
Jeep’s Quadra-Trac full-time four wheel drive was introduced for 1973 as standard equipment on all Wagoneers. Featuring front and rear differentials with a limited-slip center differential, it eliminated the manual-shift transfer case and locking hubs, making Wagoneer operation more car-like.
Cashing in on the Wagoneer’s appeal to wealthy buyers, the following years would see a more prominent rise in its levels of luxury, price, and status. The ensuing years saw it gain features such as a redesigned dash, upgraded interior materials and finishes, standard 360 cubic-inch V8, standard front disc brakes, redesigned leaf springs for increased ride comfort, and various new options. As a result of the Wagoneer moving upmarket, an entry-level 2-door model, dubbed “Cherokee” was resurrected in 1974. A 4-door Cherokee would arrive in 1977.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, 1978 saw the debut of the Wagoneer Limited, a range topping model that included standard leather interior, woodgrain instrument panel trim, 22-ounce carpeting, air conditioning, AM/FM/CB radio, aluminum wheels, and extra sound insulation.
The vehicle’s last significant exterior refresh came in 1979, with new grille and headlight styles. Mechanical revisions and enhancements were almost a yearly treat, with items such as available part-time 4WD (for better fuel economy), return to standard 6-cylinder power (with the V8 still optional), redesigned engine block for the I6 that saved weight, and newer, more modern transmissions occurring between 1979 and 1983.
1981 saw Jeep split the Wagoneer lineup into three distinct trim levels, Custom, Brougham, and Limited, with only the latter featuring standard full-woodgrain sides. Despite offering buyers these choices in levels of equipment and price, the Wagoneer was increasingly purchased in top-spec Limited guise, a nod to the social standing of both its core demographic of buyers, and that of the Wagoneer itself.
By the time the vehicle officially became the “Grand Wagoneer” in 1984, a result of the introduction of the compact XJ Cherokee and it luxury Wagoneer sibling, just about every previously available option was now a standard feature on the SJ vehicle. Everything including leather interior, power windows/door locks/mirrors/front seats, AM/FM stereo with cassette deck, digital clock, and halogen fog lamps were included in the base MSRP of $20,407 ($48,202 adjusted to July 2017 USD) carried by all 1984 Grand Wagoneers. Interestingly, Grand Wagoneers inherited the vertical taillights of the SJ Cherokee.
Also by the time the vehicle officially became the “Grand Wagoneer” in 1984, it was a vehicle entering its 22nd year of production in the same bodystyle. While this is a deplorable act in a highly competitive segment, in the case of the full-size luxury SUV during the 1980s, there was virtually no competition besides the Range Rover, which was nearly as old and more expensive.
Buyers, however, didn’t seem to care much about the Grand Wagoneer’s age or price. Well-heeled customers, many of them repeat, kept scooping up the quintessential American luxury SUV, probably full cash purchases too, “For a better deal, right?”. Maybe the case back then, though today it’s actually quite the contrary.
Sales of the Grand Wagoneer actually shot up for 1984, to their highest level in five years. Sales hovered around the 20K mark for the next few years before slowing dropping off, though not by a drastic percent until the final two years. Regardless, the Grand Wagoneer always remained a favorite among the wealthy, particularly college-educated professionals with median incomes of $100K.
The last significant update occurred in 1986, highlighted by a new instrument panel with revised woodgrain and improved climate controls, and a new steering wheel. Headlights and wipers now featured more modern steering column-mounted stalk controls, and the front fascia gained a new grille and standard stand-up hood ornament.
The Grand Wagoneer’s lengthy production had its benefits too. Reliability was good, better than most American cars of the time, due to its tried-and-true and relatively simplistic mechanics. With tooling having been paid for long ago, profit margins on Grand Wagoneers by the mid-1980s were upwards of $5,000, or 25% of total vehicle price. This latter fact made the Grand Wagoneer a very nice bonus prize in and an influential factor in Chrysler’s decision to buyout AMC for ownership of the Jeep brand in 1987.
Under Chrysler’s ownership, an effort was actually made to improve build quality and refinement on the quarter-century year old vehicle. Between 1987-1989, upgrades included revised interior color schemes and door panels, a more reliable A/C compressor, a new optional tilt/slide sunroof, remote keyless entry, and an overhead console coming from Chrysler’s minivans.
With sales steadily declining and an onslaught of modern competitors (including its own ZJ Grand Cherokee successor) flooding the market, Chrysler ended production of the Grand Wagoneer after a limited run of just 1,560 Final Editions for the 1991 model year. Surviving through three decades, three different owners, and an always changing automotive landscape, at the time of its discontinuation, the Grand Wagoneer was the longest produced American vehicle on a single platform.
The story of the Jeep Grand Wagoneer is truly one for the books. Already a classic while still in production, interest and demand for the vehicle has never truly lapsed, with values remaining high and professionally restored examples going for multiples more. So many other classic cars turn heads, but the Grand Wagoneer does it with a level of admiration few others can match. Is there truly any other truck more iconic?
Photographed: Rockland, Massachusetts – May 2017