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A Look Back at the Jeep Wagoneer

Jeep is once again considering the revival of the Grand Wagoneer, the vehicle that started the luxury SUV concept. Although most know the Grand Wagoneer name, for most of its life this venerable SUV was simply called the Jeep Wagoneer. Launched in 1963, the Wagoneer offered the same room and power as a family station wagon, but with the added benefit of 4-wheel drive (4WD), additional ground clearance and an adventuring image. The first Wagoneer included 2-door and 4-door models, as well as a 2-door panel truck. Features such as an automatic transmission and an independent front suspension set the Wagoneer apart from the crude trucks being offered by GM, Ford and International Harvester. Over the years, the Wagoneer name would change hands many times, first in a merger with Kaiser, then sold off to AMC and finally bought by the Chrysler Corporation in a deal pulled off by none other than Lee Iacocca himself.

The Early Years

The first Jeep Wagoneer rolled off the production line in 1963. Powered by a 140-horsepower overhead cam inline 6-cylinder engine, the Wagoneer wasn’t only ahead of its time, it was actually quite fuel-efficient, too. The 1964 and 1965 models retained the famed “Rhino” grille front end, but would offer more features such as seat belts and air conditioning. Late in 1965, a 250 hp 5.4-liter (327-cubic-inch) V8 was offered as well as a new 3.8-liter inline 6-cylinder engine. In 1966, the company introduced the trademark “Razor” grille and a new luxury model dubbed the Super Wagoneer. This vehicle had such luxury features as air conditioning, a power tailgate window and a tilt steering wheel. By 1968, the slow-selling rear-drive and 2-door models were discontinued. Going forward, all models were powered by a GM-sourced 5.7-liter (350-cubic-inch) V8.

AMC Takes The Wheel

In 1971, the Wagoneer debuted under new leadership after American Motors acquired the Kaiser Jeep Corporation. The GM 5.7-liter V8 was soon replaced by AMC’s 5.9-liter (360-cubic-inch) V8 with a 6.6-liter (401-cubic-inch) V8 offered as an option. In 1973, AMC debuted the Quadra-Trac full-time 4WD system. Quadra-Trac proved popular because it allowed the Wagoneer to remain in 4WD during normal driving conditions, plus eliminated the need to be outside the vehicle to lock the manual hubs. In 1974, the 2-door Jeep Cherokee was introduced, basically the rebirth of the old 2-door Wagoneer but with fewer features and a more affordable price. In 1975, Wagoneer sales topped 16,708 units. In 1978, AMC took the Wagoneer upmarket with the launch of the Limited trim. Nearly as expensive as a full-size Lincoln, the Limited offered such luxury features as power seats, cruise control, premium audio systems and leather seating. It also featured a large swath of vinyl wood grain veneer around the Wagoneer’s exterior.

A recession in 1980 and 1981 caused sales to slide, but AMC kept upping the ante with an all-new Brougham model in 1982. Sales began to bounce back and by 1984, AMC had decided to merge all the trim variations into a single, fully-loaded model, giving birth to the Grand Wagoneer. This was also the first year for the smaller and highly successful Cherokee SUV. By 1986, the Grand Wagoneer was in its prime with amenities such as leather and corduroy seating, a digital clock, full power accessories, AM/FM/CB radio and stalk mounted controls for the headlights and wiper/washer.

The Last Hurrah

In 1987, Chrysler Corporation bought AMC. Lee Iacocca saw little use for AMC’s cars and quickly did away with them, including the all-wheel-drive Eagle. For Iacocca, the value in buying AMC was the Jeep brand, or more specifically, the Cherokee and Wrangler. But sales for the aging Grand Wagoneer were still hovering around 15,000 units per year, so Chrysler wisely kept production going. In its final years, Chrysler made some minor improvements to some known Grand Wagoneer shortcomings, but kept the old carbureted engine, suspension and 4WD system in place. Production numbers dwindled to just 6,449 units in 1990 and Chrysler pulled the plug on the Grand Wagoneer in 1991 with a mere 1,560 models produced. The 1991 edition has proven to be the rarest and most sought after iteration for collectors, especially the Final Edition trims painted in Hunter Green metallic, of which fewer than 200 were produced.

Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as... Read More about Joe Tralongo

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