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Jeep's 75th Anniversary: Looking Back at the Iconic Automaker

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author photo by Joe Tralongo March 2016

If one automotive brand best captures the rugged "let's go conquer something" spirit of America, it's Jeep. On its 75th anniversary, Jeep vehicles continue to take us to remote places that make for great weekend escapes and legendary Facebook posts. But Jeeps weren't always just for fun. It all began with the Willys-Overland MB, which was created as a do-it-all military vehicle. After the war, Willys filed for a patent on the Jeep name and began producing the first civilian CJ-2, a vehicle marketed mostly to the rural and agricultural community. Shortly thereafter, the CJ-3 debuted and is considered by many to be America's first recreational off-road vehicle. Over time, the CJ line grew, as did Jeep, adding new, larger vehicles such as the Comanche pickup and Wagoneer SUV. Today, the Jeep line consists of six distinct models, all of which share a little bit of DNA with the Willys MB.

To celebrate 75 years of off-road excellence, Jeep is offering a commemorative 75th Anniversary Edition for most of its models. The package consists of unique paint, interior trim, wheels and badging, as well as upgraded features.

We here at Autotrader are celebrating by remembering a few of Jeep's most significant vehicles both past and present.

Jeep: The Early Years

Jeep CJ-5

Arriving in 1955, the CJ-5 was the first true off-road vehicle designated solely for civilian use. With an ability to remove the top, doors and even the windshield, the CJ took open-air motoring to the extreme. A capable 4-wheel-drive (4WD) system allowed owners to venture off road at will, which probably explains why Americans immediately fell in love with the Willys/Jeep CJ. Over the years, the CJ grew in size and power, spawning the CJ-6 and CJ-7. The CJ-7 saw the first major change in the CJ design, changing the chassis, rear suspension and, most importantly, the 4WD system. Offered for the first time in 1977, the Quadra-Trac system featured a center differential that allowed full-time mode in 4WD Hi. The system was later modified to include full-time 4WD in both high and low modes. The CJ line also expanded to include flashier, more upscale models, such as the Renegade trim that featured colorful graphics and sporty wheels. The wildly popular Laredo added leather seats, a tilt wheel and other high-end features previously unknown to the CJ line. Other special-edition models included the Golden Hawk, Jamboree and Limited trims. Near the end of its production cycle, the CJ even gave rise to a pickup version, known as the CJ-8 Scrambler. The last CJ rolled off the assembly line in 1986, after which the all-new Wrangler would take up the mantle as off-road king.

Jeep Wagoneer/Grand Wagoneer

Luxury SUVs are as common as snow in winter these days, but it wasn't always so. Jeep set the entire idea of a luxury SUV in motion when it created the Wagoneer. Beginning its life in 1963, this large family-friendly SUV offered all the room, comfort and style of a family wagon, but with the added benefit of 4WD. Although Jeep ownership would change hands multiple times over the years, the Wagoneer survived and thrived, growing more powerful and more luxurious. By 1978, the Wagoneer Limited cost nearly as much as a full-size Lincoln Continental. After a brief lag in sales brought on by a mild recession, Jeep introduced the 1984 Grand Wagoneer, a fully loaded model with every conceivable option. The Grand Wagoneer survived another merger, this time with Chrysler, and continued production until 1991, when a mere 1,560 models were produced. Ironically, the Grand Wagoneer has now become a collectible, with the Hunter Green Metallic Final Edition trim fetching top dollar.

Jeep Cherokee

While the Cherokee name has long been a part of the Jeep story, it was the downsized 1984 model that changed the marketplace forever. Like the Wagoneer, the Cherokee ushered in the idea of an SUV as a daily driver. Boxy, rugged and equipped with a choice of economical 4- or 6-cylinder engines, the Cherokee developed a loyal following that remains strong today. The popularity of the Cherokee led to numerous trims, ranging from a basic 2-wheel-drive, 2-door work truck to the off-road ready, 4WD 4-door Laredo. In 1987, Jeep replaced the Cherokee's V6 with a powerful and durable 4.0-liter inline 6-cylinder engine and added a 4-speed automatic. A 5-speed manual was also available. In 1997, a major upgrade somewhat diminished the Cherokee's brutish good looks, but much-needed improvements to the vehicle's cabin were widely hailed. 2001 marked the final year for the 1984 design, but not the end of the Cherokee name.

Today's Jeeps Carry On a Proud Tradition

Wrangler

Today's Wrangler is the proper heir to the original CJ. Retaining the boxy exterior, slotted grille and rugged off-road ability, the Wrangler is considerably larger than the CJ, an attribute that has its fans and detractors. While the original CJ was fun, it wasn't very safe. The Wrangler addresses this issue with a host of modern safety features such as airbags, anti-lock brakes and traction control, as well as roll bars, shoulder belts and a choice of hard- or soft-tops. There's even a 4-door model (perfect for those who lament the loss of the 1984 Cherokee) called the Wrangler Unlimited. In a nod to hardcore off-road enthusiasts, Jeep has created the ultimate off-road vehicle in the Wrangler Rubicon. Equipped with Dana 44 axles, an electronically detachable front sway bar, 32-inch tires, a low crawl ratio for the upgraded transfer case, and electronic locking front and rear differentials, there's almost no trail the Rubicon can't defeat.

Grand Cherokee

The Grand Cherokee carries on where the Grand Wagoneer left off. It serves as the most luxurious member of the Jeep line, with room for five, a carlike ride and ample powertrain choices, including a diesel V6, powerful HEMI V8 and rowdy high-performance 6.4-liter HEMI V8 on the enthusiast-oriented SRT model. Nearly as competent off road as the Wrangler, the Grand Cherokee rivals the luxury and ability of more expensive models from Land Rover, Lexus and BMW, yet for all its features and capability, the Grand Cherokee is still attainable to most, with the 4x4 Laredo V6 model priced right around $33,000.

Cherokee

A familiar name now inhabits an unfamiliar platform, one rife with controversy and yet also necessary for the survival of the Jeep brand. The latest Jeep to carry the Cherokee name was introduced in 2014, riding on a FIAT-based car platform with styling as far removed from the 1984 Cherokee as a circle is from a square. Jeep loyalists may have howled, but in a growing compact-crossover market filled with the likes of the Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester and Ford Escape, Jeep needed to make its presence known. Styling aside, the public seems to agree with Jeep on this one, accounting for brisk sales and an expanded lineup. Despite its car-based roots, the Cherokee is still a Jeep and, unlike most of its rivals, offers a sophisticated multiterrain 4x4 setup that allows it to go places most compact crossovers will never tread. The top-line Trailhawk goes one step further by adding a rock-crawl mode, more aggressive tires, skid plates and tow hooks.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Jeep's 75th Anniversary: Looking Back at the Iconic Automaker - Autotrader