If you think about it, most of the basic design elements that make up today's modern sport utility vehicles have been around for a long time: things like automatic transmission with four-wheel drive, four doors, fancy interior, power everything, and lots of optional equipment. But to place an exact date on it, they came together for the first time in one vehicle in the fall of 1962 when the all-new Jeep Wagoneer debuted.
Wagoneer is probably the most influential four-wheel-drive vehicle in history after the original military Jeep MB. It didn't just change the way people looked at utility wagons: Wagoneer revolutionized the four-wheel-drive industry by effectively creating today's SUV market. It introduced new concepts and features years ahead of the competition. In its time, Wagoneer was known as the best luxury SUV, period. Today it's recognized as the first modern sport utility vehicle, blazing a trail that others followed.
Although it's true that four-wheel-drive wagons had been on the market for years, in 1963 most people still considered them utilitarian work trucks. Wagoneer, though, was viewed as a different, almost revolutionary vehicle.
Cruse Moss, former executive vice president at Willys Motors says, "It was really the first sports utility wagon. The Willys wagon had been the first station wagon with four-wheel drive, but Wagoneer was the first true sports utility wagon. No other company had any product that even approached it."
Wagoneer came in response to growing competition in the four-wheel-drive market. Up to 1960, Willys had the light-duty four-wheel-drive market pretty much to itself. Then in 1961, International Harvester (known today as Navistar) introduced its new line of Scout sport utility vehicles. The Scouts looked a lot more modern than the Willys wagon, which dated back to 1946, and the public really liked them. Willys realized that to remain competitive it had to develop a replacement for the venerable Jeep wagons. With Jeep's future riding on the success of the new vehicle, the company knew it had to be spectacular. It was.
Cruse Moss remembers: "We developed the Wagoneer in Detroit. Three of us handled it: Engineering VP Dan Hammond, Styling Director Jim Anger, and myself in charge. We had a dozen or so guys working on it, and we did the whole thing there in our facility on Cass Avenue."
That contradicts traditional histories, which claim that independent designer Brooks Stevens designed the first Wagoneer. We asked Moss about that.
"Stevens was brought in late in the game as a consultant," he says. "He argued strongly for a more distinctive, vertical grille design, and we adopted his recommendation."
Another man who worked in the Willys styling department in 1963, Jack Wildman, recalls, "The Wagoneer was designed in Detroit by a team led by Jim Anger, director of styling. Willys Styling had space in the Blake Business Machines building on the corner of Cass and Canfield. We were on the second floor: a heck of a place for styling studios when you consider that some of the clay models we worked on weighed anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 pounds."
The Willys Motors division of Kaiser Industries introduced its new vehicle in November 1962 as a 1963 model. Wagoneer was noticeably larger and much more family-oriented than the old Willys wagon. The new Jeep also displayed a number of innovations and groundbreaking new ideas. It offered both two- and four-door models, providing a range of choices previously unseen in SUVs. It was, said Willys, "the first station wagon to offer passenger-car styling in combination with the advantages of four-wheel-drive traction." Engineering boss Dan Hammond wanted the doors to open 90 degrees. His mother was an invalid, so he realized how important ease of entry and exit was. Although the public responded enthusiastically to the entire Wagoneer lineup, they were almost passionate about the four-door versions. It was the most exciting innovation since the original Willys wagon.
Window areas on the Wagoneer were unusually large, giving an airy, spacious feel to the passenger compartment. Also, Wagoneer's interior trim was almost posh compared to other SUVs, which back then resembled construction vehicles.
Standard equipment on four-wheel-drive Wagoneers was a 2,500-pound-capacity front axle and 3,000-pound rear axle. Standard tires were 7.10x15s - tiny by today's standards but considered a pretty good all-around tire back then.
Innovations abounded. Wagoneer was the first production four-wheel-drive wagon to offer a smooth-riding, optional independent front suspension. Much more significant, however, was Wagoneer's optional automatic transmission (made by Borg-Warner), the first ever offered on a family sport utility wagon. The automatic opened up the SUV market to hundreds of thousands of drivers who wouldn't or couldn't drive a manual gearbox. Wagoneer also offered Selector Drive Lights on four-wheel-drive models to let drivers know at a glance which drive range they were in.
Another innovation was the all-new overhead-cam six-cylinder engine, which debuted in the 1962 Jeep pickups and wagons. It was the only U.S.-built overhead-cam engine in production back then and was designed for heavy-duty performance with maximum efficiency. Amazingly robust for its size, the hardy Jeep Tornado-OHC six produced 140 hp (and that was net horsepower, not gross) with excellent fuel economy. In fact, tests showed Jeep's Tornado-OHC engine had the lowest specific fuel consumption of all production gasoline engines on the market; however, Wagoneer was relatively trim: curb weight on the four-wheel-drive Wagoneer was 3,701 pounds. For the first two and a half years, the OHC six was the only engine available.
The new Jeep offered both two- and four-wheel-drive models. The two-wheelers could even be ordered with an optional overdrive transmission for smoother highway running and improved fuel economy. In addition, a panel-truck version was produced; however, the panel wagon is considered a commercial truck model, separate from the Wagoneer. In catalogs, it was listed with the Gladiator trucks, which shared sheetmetal and much of their underpinnings with the Wagoneer.
Wagoneer instantly became the new style leader among truck-based wagons. Why not? Compared to its competitors, the handsome new Jeep was trim and athletic. Although Wagoneer's 110-inch wheelbase was nearly 1/2 foot longer than the old wagon's and its overall length more than 7 inches longer, it remained an easy-handling, efficient-size family vehicle. "Some competing designs sketched out by Brooks Stevens had separate front fenders like the old Willys wagon," recalls Jack Wildman, "but (Design Chief) Jim Anger went for a modern design, incorporating the front fenders into the body."
One particularly innovative feature was the large number of comfort and convenience options available, including power steering, power brakes, upgraded interior trim, wheel discs, and an electrically operated tailgate window to name a few.
Yet for all its comfort and luxury features Wagoneer remained a true Jeep: tough, rugged, and supremely competent. A sturdy frame and heavy-duty underpinnings ensured Wagoneer would safeguard Jeep's "go-anywhere" reputation. Road testers of the day raved about its off-road performance.
In that era of planned obsolescence, Wagoneer plainly offered lasting value. Buyer response was overwhelmingly positive: The public went wild for the new Jeep. It was noted that in many cases Wagoneers were being purchased to replace conventional automobiles, and that's where today's SUV market got its start. The company reported new sales records during the 1963 fiscal year as retail deliveries of new Jeeps rose an amazing 55 percent over the prior year. New dealers flocked to the Jeep banner, and the dealer network increased 20 percent.
For 1964, Jeep stretched the envelope further, adding air conditioning to the option list - an unusual and very exclusive feature for sport utility vehicles back then. In April 1965, the company added a potent 327-cid AMC V-8 engine to the option list. Offering 250 hp (75 percent more power than the Tornado-OHC six), it turned the Wagoneer into a hot rod. A midyear styling change replaced the original keystone grille with a more modern full-width grille Jeep dubbed the "Action Look." A new Super Wagoneer model arrived for 1966 loaded with more standard features than most luxury sedans had back then, making it the most sumptuous sport utility anyone had ever seen and a forerunner of the high-end SUVs that would appear in the 1990s.
The move to greater luxury was no accident. "It was a conscious decision," recalls Cruse Moss. "The market was in its infancy and we were a small company pioneering a new product in a new market. And it turned out to be an explosive market."
In the '70s, Wagoneer introduced full-time four-wheel drive, a major innovation seen on virtually all premium SUVs today. Leather upholstery debuted in 1978, earning Jeep an award as the first American company to offer it in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
For more than a quarter of a century, Jeep Wagoneer remained the standard by which other SUVs were judged. Year after year, Wagoneer continued to be a favorite among automotive road testers. Ten years after its debut, magazines still judged it "the best 4WD vehicle in the world." Its external appearance saw very little change - only minor alterations such as a new grille or the addition of standard wood-grain side trim. In 1987, a magazine described it as "honed close to perfection."
In all, Wagoneer remained on the market from the fall of 1962 to the end of the 1991 model year. It's been gone now for nigh on 17 years, but Wagoneers are still a common sight on the road and off, and they're still respected as a landmark Jeep vehicle.