This Very Rare Jeep Cherokee Model Was the First SUV

The SUV has all but completely dominated the automotive market. In fact, it isn’t an overstatement to say that the SUV/Crossover has mortally wounded the sedan market. Despite the massive popularity of SUVs, the origins of the term and who came up with it are unknown. However, we do know the first model that the SUV name was used for in official OEM brochures, the legendary Jeep Cherokee “Golden Eagle.” This rare special edition Cherokee makes a strong case for being the first SUV, or, at least, the first vehicle to be called one officially. 

profile view of a 1978 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle, the first SUV
Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle | Images Courtesy of Mecum Auctions

What was the first SUV? 

The Jeep Cherokee debuted in 1974. According to Silodrome, the Cherokee was based on the Jeep Wagoneer platform. The goal was to target younger 4×4 enthusiasts with a less family-oriented truck but might have still outgrown the tiny Jeep CJs. Jeep gave the Cherokee only two doors, making the “sporty” argument add up a little better. 

With the branding for Jeep’s new model locked and loaded, all Jeep needed was a slick new marketing term to seal the deal. This is when we see “sport utility vehicle” first used to describe this type of vehicle in an official OEM capacity. 

At the time, adding a new kind of vehicle, meant to be both large and sporting, was seen as a risk. Well, the risk paid off handsomely. The Cherokee has been in production nonstop since 1974, with many millions of units sold. 

What is the Jeep Golden Eagle trim? 

Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle hood with giant Golden Eagle decal
Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle hood | Images courtesy of Mecum Auctions

Although many other earlier vehicles were retroactively named SUVs, the Jeep Cherokee was technically the original SUV. There is no denying the significance and coolness of that. Alright, Jeep. But even cooler still is the Golden Eagle trim on this 1978 Jeep Cherokee heading for sale at Mecum this May. 

This first-gen Cherokee Golden Eagle has everything you want in the ultimate Cherokee. The Golden Eagle trim is one of the coolest graphics packages that any OEM has ever made. Like many other Jeep trims from the era, the Golden Eagle package was strictly a cosmetic decal and paint package. The crown jewel of the trim is the massive golden eagle spread across the massive hood of the Cherokee. But Golden Eagles also came with special paint colors, gold or bronze wheels, and model-specific decals. If that weren’t enough cool factor, this 1978 example also comes with the rare Levi’s interior package. 

How much is a Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle worth? 

Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle Levy's interior in tan
Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle Levy’s interior | Images courtesy of Mecum Auctions

As with all classic cars, naming a single value will inevitably be wrong. This, not perfect, but pretty clean, original Cherokee is estimated to bring anywhere from $60,000-$80,000 at Mecum. 

Again, this impressive price tag is mostly due to the rare trim and options, but the performance parts are all still normal Cherokee equipment. However, that isn’t to say that the Cherokee SJ was spartan. 

​​Silodrome says that this SJ also has the popular 360 cubic inch (5.9-liter) V8 producing 195 bhp. That power is sent to all four wheels via an automatic transmission, and it has air conditioning, a luggage rack, and chrome bumpers front and back. It may not sound all that luxurious by today’s standards, but in 1978, that was a pretty uptown spec. 

So, whether you love SUVs or despise them for killing your rear-wheel-drive sedans, the first SUV was undeniably cool and will suffer no disdain. Crossovers be damned! Today’s SUVs have come a long way from their forefathers.

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