I have to confess something. I have a car crush on the Jeep Wagoneer. Maybe crush isn’t the right word, since that implies a short term infatuation, while mine has been going on since approximately 1987. I even owned one, and it didn’t go all that well, but I still can’t get over the trucky wagons.
In the last year, I’ve encountered three very nice Wagoneers. I know of two previous full Curbside Classic articles here on Wagoneers, so this is the third. Well, they say good things come in threes and I think that’s
doubly triply true here. The other articles are great but does anybody really think you can get too much of a good thing? At the risk of Wagoneer overload, I hope I can offer something new. In any case, we’ll take a bit deeper dive into the Wagoneer story and the vehicle’s features and you’ll find lots of sweet pictures new and old, none seen in previous CC articles and some historic ones seen here on the worldwide web for the first time that I know of. So if you also have a crush on Jeep’s classic wagon, or even if you are just wagon-curious, you should enjoy it.
The first example I happened on was a 1981 model at the Mecum Houston auction last April. I really enjoyed seeing this one because it brought back memories. My first car I bought when I was 16 was a 1980 Wagoneer Limited that was only 7 years old with about 70k miles. However, this was in Vermont where what was considered OK body-wise then, the current rust snob in me would call awful. I only had it for about six months, in which time the engine ran poorly and I managed to break the front drive shaft through abuse. I’ll leave that story for another time if I ever write a COAL on it. Our relationship was a rocky one, but I’ve always felt like I would like to get back together again!
This is a good place to pick up on the Wagoneer background story. In 1981, the Wagoneer was in its 19th model year, well on its way to an eventual 29. What’s amazing is that it did that with no body panel changes and it still looked great at the end. I believe that happened because of how extraordinary the original overall design was, which is a fact that has maybe been a little underplayed in previous still-excellent Curbside Classic profiles (see links at end).
When the Wagoneer blew on the scene for 1963 from Willys (under Kaiser Industries, which would change its official name to Kaiser-Jeep Corp that year), there was nothing else like it on the market. Simply put, the new Jeep was more car-like than any previous four wheel drive vehicle. In fact, no previous 4×4 had been at all car-like.
The closest was Jeep’s own Station Wagon, which when it came out in 1946 (four wheel drive available starting in 1949), bore some resemblance to the woody wagons of the time other than being all steel (with paint-simulated wood available) and two-door only. Really, though, it was more like a larger regular Jeep CJ with more functional, full bodywork.
Other manufacturers had been making some wagon-style 4×4’s for quite a while, including Chevrolet/GMC, Dodge and International. The Chevy/GMC Suburban, Dodge Town Wagon and International Travelall were all unabashed trucks. In 1961, International redesigned their Travelall and introduced the Scout, providing Jeep with their first serious competition. The Travelall, while still truck-like, was lower, sleeker-looking and gained a full four door body. The Scout was a smaller two door aimed squarely at the same market as the Jeep CJ and Station Wagon, with a removable steel top that made it useful as both a recreational vehicle and a small wagon.
In the postwar period, the small automakers survived by inventing and exploiting niche markets. Agricultural builder International had become successful in the light-duty truck market, adding four-wheel-drive in 1953 and increasingly well trimmed bodies that appealed to many potential Jeep customers. GM also jumped into the factory 4×4 market in 1956. With International’s new 1961 line, Jeep knew they had to respond to this threat decisively.
What Jeep came up with was a truck-based wagon that could legitimately be an alternative to a regular passenger car. While having fully capable four-wheel-drive, the body sat lower to allow easier step in and also a lower center of gravity for more car-like handling. Doors opened a wide 82 degrees. The rear window retracted into the tailgate, like many cars, and had electric power optional. The rear seat folded down easily. The interior had an attractive and stylish dash, steering wheel and door panels.
Under the hood was the Tornado OHC six, developed by Kaiser Chief Engineer A.C. “Sammy” Sampietro. Since Willys/Kaiser could hardly afford a new block, the old long-stroke 226 CID flathead six as used in Kaiser-Frazer cars and Jeep trucks and wagons was used. Sampietro increased the bore slightly to yield 230 cubic inches, and crowned the venerable block with his alloy hemi-head SOHC cylinder head, driven by a chain in the front. Somewhat oddly, the same camshaft lobes activated both the intakes and exhausts. The Tornado was actually used in the US starting in 1962, in the Jeep Station wagon and pickup, and then in the all-new 1963 Jeep Wagoneer (and Gladiator trucks). As used in the Jeeps, it was rated at 140 hp @4000 rpm. Unfortunately, the Tornado six had some teething issues and would be gone by 1965, sent to Argentina, where it went on to have a very long and successful life. The AMC 232 six replaced it.
A very innovative torsion bar independent front suspension was initially standard on the 2WD versions and optional with 4WD. This is one of the few photos that can be found that shows its unusual configuration, here in the 4WD version, with torsion bar sprung upper control arms. The axle shafts, which have a center pivot, function as the lower control arms, similar to the ’63 Corvette IRS. Apparently very few Wagoneers were sold with the IFS. Was it because of issues with it? It’s interesting to speculate if the Wagoneer had only been built with IFS; it would have been even more car-like and refined without its solid leaf-sprung front axle.
Air conditioning was optional starting in the second year and a 327 V8 (from AMC), in the third. Most significant was the optional automatic transmission. The Wagoneer was the only 4×4 available with an automatic in 1963 (numerous trucks offered automatics in 2WD versions). The four-wheel-drive versions of the Suburban and International Travelall wouldn’t get an automatic until 1969 and 1970, respectively.
Brooks Stevens, the independent industrial designer used by Willys for their 1946 Station Wagon and other designs, really outdid himself with the Wagoneer design. He penned styling that was more car-like than other trucks while still looking rugged and masculine. The very modern greenhouse was airy like a passenger car with excellent visibility. The lines were graceful in a way not previously associated with trucks, yet still simple, finding an excellent balance between sophistication and toughness. Jeep’s new pickup trucks came out simultaneously and shared the same general styling, but sat higher and had a wider track with flared fenders as well as other visual differences.
The Wagoneer was a solid success for Kaiser Jeep. Overall Jeep sales increased 40%. While Jeep sales would flatten out at this level for most of the 60’s, the Wagoneer was a solid player in the lineup.
As has been discussed in prior articles, a notable highlight was the 1966-68 Super Wagoneer, a vehicle Jeep proclaimed as, “the most elegant 4-wheeler auto ever crafted.” It had a long list of standard features including bucket seats with full length console and shifter, vinyl top, gold and black trim panels on the sides and tailgate, air conditioning, auto transmission and a 4 barrel version of the 327 c.i. V8 (regular Wagoneers could only get a 2 barrel version). It was clearly an important harbinger of the future of SUV’s, but alas, it was too far ahead of its time. Only 1,485 were sold over its three elegant years.
By 1968, Jeep dropped the independent front suspension, two-wheel-drive and two-door models, making Wagoneers henceforth the exclusively 4×4, four door wagons we would come to love. Two doors would return in 1974 as the Cherokee. 1968-1971 Wagoneers used the Buick 350 V8
American Motors bought Kaiser Jeep Corp in 1970 in a brilliant move that ended up keeping AMC a viable company for longer than they otherwise might have been. As the last independent U.S. automaker, AMC was well versed in finding and exploiting niches. Though still a small market, off-road vehicle sales would grow hugely in the 70’s and Jeep sales soared.
AMC came up with a number of variations and packages that kept the line reasonably fresh despite the lack of substantial new designs. One of those was the Wagoneer Limited in 1978. Like the Super twelve years earlier, the Limited was unprecedented for both trucks and 4×4’s. It had a long list of standards including 360 c.i. V8, automatic, air conditioning and new features like leather seats, full woodgrain trim, styled aluminum wheels and power windows, locks and seat. It also continued the generous standard load of marketing hyperbole: Jeep called it “a cut above excellence…built for the man who demands the ultimate in four-wheel drive performance without compromising on luxury.” It didn’t compromise on price either, at $10,715 (78 Cadillac Sedan DeVille base price $10,924, and not available with four wheel drive!). Unlike the Super, this time the ultimate Wagoneer sold well. In fact, the Limited name had more meaning than Jeep would have liked, because they had waiting lists and couldn’t build enough to satisfy initial demand.
The good times didn’t last too long, though, as the second Gas Crisis in 1979/80 sapped the public’s appetite for 4×4’s and cut 1980 Jeep sales by more than half. The Limited remained relatively popular, though, and was an important part of the lineup through 1983. In fact, it was so popular and profitable, it stayed on as the Grand Wagoneer when the 1984 Wagoneer/Cherokee line was redesigned as the smaller XJ platform. And of course, Jeeps were so popular, they survived the demise of their parent company when it was bought by Chrysler, who quickly ash-canned most of AMC/Renault’s other products.
Back to the 1981 Limited I found. One way Jeep dealt with the Gas Crisis was to make the 258c.i. straight six standard across the whole line, including in this particular Limited . If I ever knew this, I’d forgotten it and a little research revealed that the six was standard in the big Wagoneers through 1987. I couldn’t find any take rate figures, but I can’t imagine the six was very common in the luxury SUVs, especially in later years.
The Wagoneer didn’t sell at that auction last April despite being bid to $18,000. However, it went to the Mecum Kissimmee event in January this year with an apparently more motivated seller who let it go for $14,300.
The second Wagoneer I encountered was delightfully right around the corner from my house. I don’t find many curbside classics in my neighborhood and this one doesn’t live here. It showed up for an apparent party and I saw it again there at another gathering a few months later.
It’s a 1989 model and its condition looks way too nice to be a daily driver, but you never know. It had the sunroof option with maroon interior (or Cordovan as they called it).
The third was the nicest of all. This 1991 beauty was parked outside a restaurant we ate at one morning. When the guy sitting next to us in the not-crowded restaurant left and got into the Wagoneer, I kicked myself thinking I should have asked him if that was his, because an older gentleman having a relaxed breakfast is exactly the sort of person you might expect to drive something like this.
1991 models, being the final edition of the Grand Wagoneer, were called Final Editions and had a small plaque on the top of the dash, seen here just above the climate controls. This one was just as nice inside as outside and I prefer the tan (or Dark Sand they called it) interior color.
For the article I wrote in April on a 1978 VW Westfalia camper van, I found an almost identical van (but with only 994 miles!) which recently sold at auction for $110,000. As luck would have it, in January Barrett-Jackson auctioned a 1989 Wagoneer which looked very similar to my curbside finds (same exterior color as the 91, same interior as the 89), but this had 7900 miles and sold for…you guessed it: $110,000.
Do you think maybe there’s a pattern here that highly regarded cult classic vehicles in time capsule condition sell for $110k? It was the most B-J had ever gotten for a Wagoneer, by far. The auction had some high quality pictures attached, so let’s take a close look at some details on this sweet like-new wagon.
The engine is the 360 c.i. (5.9L) V8 making 144 h.p. and 280 ft.lbs. torque, the six cylinder having been dropped for 1988 with Chrysler’s takeover of Jeep. You might think that Chrysler would have put their own 360 in these, which was fuel injected starting in 1989. But alas, Wagoneers continued being powered by AMC’s venerable 2-barrel carbureted V8 through 1991.
Jeep redesigned the dashboard and steering wheel for 1986. Now the woodgrain on the dash matched (more or less) the trim on the doors! The leather and “Cumberland Cord” fabric upholstery and thick 18 oz. carpeting were still exactly like my old 1980 model’s. The seats gained headrests in 1985.
Door panels hardly changed at all over the life of the Limited/Grand, with the exception of dropping separate pull handles above the armrests in 1987. There certainly is ample woodgrain on the doors. The “wood” on the tops of the doors is applied directly over the metal (where earlier regular Wagoneers had bare body paint). It’s probably a decal but it looks a lot like the painted metal dashes of the 30’s/40’s which often look surprising like real, highly-polished wood to me. I always liked it on the Wagoneer.
Though limited a bit by the wheelhouses, the back seat is roomy. Passengers sit a bit higher than in the front seats. The cargo area reveals its 60’s truck roots with plenty of bare paint.
The thick carpeting makes a very soft looking storage area for your saddles or antique lamps or whatever the classy buyers were supposed to carry back here. The metal rub strips give it an old-fashioned charm.
Taillamps were modified for 1984. The auction car has a dealer-installed tow hitch.
Wagoneers got their final grille in 1986, a big improvement I think from the oh-so-AMC style grille of 79-85. Rather like a square-headlighted version of the attractive 66-78 grilles.
Jeep had very sophisticated four wheel drive systems for their times. In 1973, they came out with Quadra-Trac, a full-time system with a central differential/clutch mechanism that automatically proportioned torque to front or rear as needed. Perhaps we could say this was the first “All Wheel Drive” vehicle. A low range was available optionally, with an engagement lever under the dash. Quadra-Trac worked well, but gave poor fuel mileage, so it reverted from standard equipment to optional on Limiteds, owing to the 1979 Gas Crisis. Quadra-Trac was replaced in 1983 by Selec-Trac, which was similar and could be used full-time but allowed the system to be disengaged to save fuel.
The final evolution of Selec-Trac added shift-on-the-fly in 1985, which didn’t require the vehicle to be stopped to engage four-wheel-drive.
My old 1980 had the standard manual four wheel drive, with manual hub locks and an engagement lever on the transmission hump. Selec-Trac models had a small lever on the dash to the right of the steering column, as seen above.
Selec-Trac Wagoneers had a Four-Low range standard, with a stealthy lever below the driver seat for engaging Four-Low. This is also the location of the shift lever on manual models like my 1980.
Did you know the late Grand Wagoneers were available from the factory with a woodgrain delete option? Neither did I until researching this article. I certainly have never seen one in person and haven’t been able to find much info, but imagine they are rare as hen’s teeth.
A stately ornament took up residence on the hood in 1986, to go with the new grille. Woodgrain siding was altered a bit for 1987, with a slightly different tone and new divisions between the front fender and leading edge of front door and the trailing edge of rear door and rear fender. Compare the ad picture just below to the 1981 pictures above.
Jeep finally ended production of the Grand Wagoneer at the conclusion of 1991*. The Wagoneer has become a true cult classic and some have wondered why they terminated it, as it never really stopped being popular with the type of folks who like that sort of thing. Chrysler would have had to put some investment into it to meet new passive restraint standards and probably give it a Mopar drivetrain, which they surely would have got back given the huge profit margins this long-ago-amortized luxury vehicle generated. Why not give it a few updates and keep it going for at least another five years?
I think the answer is simply in the sales. The Limited/Grand consistently sold 14-20k until it’s last three years when it fell off fast to 4,253 ’91 Final Editions (some sources say 1,560, but that appears to be wrong, thankfully as that would be pathetic). With the SUV market maturing quickly in the 90’s, it seemed to auto execs that even an evergreen favorite like the GW had a shelf life that was probably passing. Besides, Jeep under Chrysler didn’t have the niche mindset it had in earlier days. It aimed to be a major player, with the new 93 Grand Cherokee staking out its place in the premium SUV market. Top-trimmed Grand Cherokees sold for close to what the old GW did, and Grand Cherokee sales were well over 200k per year for the rest of the 90’s. People may have still loved the simple, rugged and perpetually-elegant Grand Wagoneer, but it was not wanted or needed by Chrysler anymore.
The old girl got the last laugh, though, since mint original and refurbished Grand Wagoneers sell today for more than a new Grand Cherokee!
*Most sources say that Jeep sold approximately 300 1992 model Grand Wagoneers, even though it wasn’t listed in brochures or published sales figures. The Grand Cherokee went on sale in spring 92 as an early 93 model.
All original photos taken in Houston, TX April 2019 (1981), September 2019 (1989) and January 2020 (1991)
Curbside Classic: 1991 Jeep Grand Wagoneer – Iconic, by Brendan Saur
Jeep Wagoneer Ads Through the Decades, by PN, An entertaining collection of factory ads and brochure pics with minimal commentary. Last ad is from 1985, which as I noted above seems to be when Jeep scaled back promotion for the GW.
Motor Life Editorial, January 1960: Where’s The Crossovers?, by PN just recently, very interesting review of pioneering SUV’s from the perspective of a 1960 editorial calling for more practical cars.