In 1991, the Jeep Grand Wagoneer had been on sale for 28 years, and still at the top of an important demographic. By the dawn of the 1990s, Mercedes-Benz and BMW had replaced Cadillac and Lincoln at the top of the luxury market. Lexus had proven that the Japanese could play in the premium segment too. And yet for well-heeled, college educated households with a median income of $98,200 (about $171,500 today), the most popular vehicle in this rarefied market was a body-on-frame truck that had barely changed since Kennedy was in the White House.
This was the dawn of the SUV era, the time when the Ford Explorer was taking the middle class by storm, and the original Range Rover was capturing the hearts and dollars of their bosses. Stalwarts like the Ford Bronco and Chevy Blazer were going strong, but they were still considered too rugged for most buyers. While the segment was just beginning to appeal to most of the country, the Grand Wagoneer was being eagerly scooped up by the type of buyer who was likely to have a Cadillac Fleetwood or Mercedes S-Class in their garage. It was an unlikely legacy for a model that survived through three different owners, three decades, and a rapidly changing automotive industry. By the time the last Grand Wagoneer rolled off the production line in 1991, it had already become a legend.
Today, Jeep is working on a new Grand Wagoneer for 2019, to compete with the Range Rover, Cadillac Escalade, and Mercedes GLS-Class. And believe it or not, the Wagoneer name still has cachet where it counts. For the market Jeep wants to appeal to, the truck evokes nostalgia for a time gone by. But like most nostalgia, the rosy memories of the Grand Wagoneer’s long life obscure just how tumultuous things really were. The Grand Wagoneer is an indisputable icon, sure. But the fact that it got to be one at all is something of a small miracle.
World War II had been over for nearly 15 years, but Jeep was still stuck in its utilitarian past in 1959. Its pickup and station wagon models had barely changed since their introduction in 1946, and its attempt at a civilized, sporty model, the Jeepster, was too niche and too expensive to find a wide audience. In the age of chrome and tail fins, Jeep had little appeal for anyone who wasn’t interested in leaving the nation’s new highways.
But the Kaiser-Jeep Corporation had a new pickup truck in development, and the go-ahead was given to develop a station wagon variant to compete with the likes of the Chevrolet Suburban. Striking, Brooks Stevens-designed prototypes were spotted as early as 1960, and in late 1962, the Wagoneer was introduced as a ’63 model, available in both two-wheel and four-wheel drive.
True to Jeep form, the original Wagoneer was sold as both a family-friendly station wagon and a utilitarian truck. It had the largest, lowest tailgate opening in its class. It also had one of the largest cargo areas, and could haul up to 1,200 pounds inside. And underneath its boxy exterior, it was also fairly advanced for the era. The rear-wheel drive truck had an independent front suspension, giving it surprisingly civilized road manners, and the four-wheel drive truck had a single “shift on the fly” lever for drive settings. Power came from the robust “Tornado” straight-six that made 140 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque, mated to either a manual or automatic transmission. And perhaps astonishingly, the big truck still managed to weigh less than 2 tons.
The Wagoneer quickly won buyers over who were looking for something rugged yet comfortable; in the mid ’60s, there really wasn’t anything else that really compared with it. But Kaiser-Jeep was in trouble. Kaiser hadn’t sold a model under its own name since 1955, and while Jeep had a small but steady customer base, it was having a difficult time staying afloat. In 1965, it began offering a 327-cubic-inch Vigilante V8, which made an impressive 250 horsepower and 340 pound-feet of torque. More importantly, it began selling the range-topping Super Wagoneer, a loaded luxury model with a full-width chrome grille. At the end of the decade, Kaiser would sell Jeep to American Motors, and the Wagoneer would enter its second act.
By 1968, the Grand Wagoneer had bowed to top the lineup, selling for over $6,000 — as much as a new Cadillac Eldorado. And people were buying them; Grand Wagoneers began popping up in wealthy enclaves like Nantucket, The Hamptons, Malibu, Aspen, and any other locale where it was stylish to show off your wealth, albeit in a down-to-earth, low-key way.
And with its cachet, AMC believed that it could expand the Wagoneer line to boost Jeep profits. In 1970, all Wagoneer models received the upscale “electric shaver” grille and extra chrome. In 1972, the Wagoneer saw a substantial redesign inside and out. In 1974, it introduced an entry-level model, the Cherokee. A stripped-down, two-door version of the truck, the Cherokee was a rugged, full-size truck that could compete with the likes of the Ford Bronco, Chevy Blazer, and International Scout. It quickly became one of Jeep’s best-sellers.
As the Cherokee held down the low end, Wagoneers continued to win over wealthy buyers. By the late 1970s, the trucks were laden with faux wood paneling inside and out, and stuffed with plush leather and deep-pile carpeting. Weight had ballooned to over 3 tons, but the frame and suspension were reinforced in 1976 to handle the extra mass.
The late ’70s and early ’80s saw big changes for the Wagoneer — new trim levels, the more modern QuadraTrac four-wheel drive system in 1980, another exterior redesign for ’81, and an interior update for ’82. Power now came from either Jeep’s 4.2-liter straight-six, or a 360-cubic-inch V8. But no matter how much the old truck changed, it was still beginning to show its age. Americans were finally beginning to come around to small, domesticated SUVs, with models like the Ford Bronco II and Chevy S-10 Blazer both appearing for 1983. Not to be outdone, AMC-Jeep debuted its groundbreaking uni-body XJ Cherokee in 1984. Eager to compete in the new compact SUV market, it discontinued the full-size base Wagoneer, and introduced an all-new XJ model.
And while the XJ Cherokees were a major success (remaining in production until 2000), loyal customers were still snapping up Grand Wagoneers, averaging 15-18,000 sales a year. A final redesign came in 1986, with a new grille, interior, and suspension. Just over a year later, a struggling AMC would be taken over by Chrysler, which bought the struggling company to get to the Jeep brand. And through it all, Grand Wagoneers continued to roll off the assembly line.
At the dawn of its fourth decade, the Grand Wagoneer still had its share of loyal buyers, with many being repeat owners that had been trading up for years. Chrysler wisely chose not to meddle with the popular model, instead culling it down to its most popular elements. Final year trucks had wood grain trim, thick-pile carpeting, plush leather, a digital overhead console, and improved fit-and-finish.
By now, the generation that had grown up in Wagoneers were now buying them for themselves. At nearly 29 years old, it was the longest domestically-produced vehicle built on a single platform. Even at the end of its production run, loyal buyers forgot about the utilitarian roots, the uncertain quality as it transitioned from Kaiser to AMC to Chrysler, the dizzying array of powertrains, and the styling changes. Overall, it wasn’t much different from the truck Brooks Stevens penned around 1960. To thousands of loyal buyers, the Wagoneer became a tradition, and that’s something that doesn’t happen very often in the automotive world.
In 1993, Jeep reintroduced the Wagoneer, but it was little more than a trim level on the all-new Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Grand Cherokee proved to be incredibly popular, but the new Wagoneer never caught on, and it disappeared after just one year.
And while the nameplate faded from view, the trucks began to take on a cult following. The Wagoneer became an icon of preppy culture, appearing in everything from movies to fashion ads. A cottage industry sprang up to maintain and restore the cherished Jeeps, and as the collector car market has exploded over the past few years, the Wagoneer — especially the Grand Wagoneer — has become a hot commodity. Today, meticulously restored later examples can fetch as much as $70K.
And that’s the rarefied air Jeep hopes to return to, come 2019. We doubt the 21st century Grand Wagoneer will have wood paneling, hard angles, or a power rear window. But if it can convey that perfect blend of go-anywhere ruggedness, low-key, handsome styling, and world-class luxury, then it should more than live up to its iconic name.