You’d be forgiven if you didn’t remember the Jeep Wagoneer’s 50th birthday this year. No need to send a card, but it’s an important date in SUV history. The Wagoneer brought the SUV into the mainstream of the American automotive consciousness, perhaps more than any other early SUV.
By the mid-’50s, it was painfully clear to the newly formed Kaiser-Willys organization that the old Utility Station Wagon, which had looked so stylish when it debuted in the late 1940s, was behind the times. Some of the first design studies for a replacement took shape in the late ’50s under the J-100 codename. By December of 1959, there were several running prototypes of designs called the Malibu and Berkeley. Though highly developed, neither of those made the cut but when the final design went into production, J-100 was its model designation and Wagoneer the trade name.
The early Wagoneer is both lauded and notorious for some of it innovations. Two that fit in both categories are the OHC Tornado six-cylinder and the IFS front suspension. The Tornado was designed by A.C. Sampietro, a talented engineer with experience designing sports car engines. The Tornado was the first American OHC truck engine and one of only a handful of American OHC engines up to that time. Sampietro was given a clean slate, but a small budget, to design a new engine for the new model. He took the basic lower end architecture of the reliable Kaiser Supersonic six, which was also known as the Continental Red Seal and the Willys Super Hurricane, eliminated the valve-in-block features, designed a free-breathing overhead cam head and the Tornado was born.
The engine was very snappy and one of the most powerful sixes on the market when it debuted. Unfortunately, it had some teething problems that permanently damaged its reputation. On top of that, it was “just” a six (and the only available engine to 1965) in a V-8-or-go-home era. The Tornado was replaced by an AMC six after 1965, which became the base engine, and a V-8 option (also an AMC) was made available at the same time, problems solved. The Tornado went south to the Argentine arm of Kaiser, where it had a long and happy life into the early ’80s. It reappeared briefly in the USA to power the ’67-’69 Gladiator-based M-715 military truck.
The optional 4x4 IFS came from the fertile mind of Mike Ordorica, the chief chassis engineer at Willys. It was the first such offering by a United States manufacturer. Based on the small number of survivors, it appears to have been a rare option. There are some reports of alignment issues, but they are not well documented. For whatever reason, the IFS was only available thru 1965, just like the Tornado six.
Late 1965 brought a true innovation, the world’s first luxury SUV. The Jeep Wagoneer Super Custom, or Super Wagoneer, was the first “cowboy Cadillac,” having the trim level and features to compete with many luxury cars even though it was still a fully functional 4x4. Trail performance was diminished by a lower stance, street tires and a single-speed transfer case, but it was perfect all-weather transportation for those with deep pockets and country estates. The Super Wagoneer was offered thru 1969. A slightly lower rent version was built as late as 1971.
The Wagoneer gradually moved upmarket in the ’70s. When the Cherokee was introduced in 1974, just three years into the AMC buyout of Jeep, it took over the mundane duties of the bottom dollar big Jeep. Low-end Wagoneers were no longer offered and the model became more or less the flagship. In 1975, what became the signature faux woodgrain side panels appeared and that is the look many people remember when they think of the Wagoneer.
When the gas crunch hit and AMC’s financial problems were dire, the XJ Cherokee and Wagoneer were designed to replace the big, thirsty Wagoneer, which by default became the Grand Wagoneer, and it was left to die on the vine. But the big Jeep wouldn’t die. It remained popular with the gentry, especially equestrians, who still found it a great tow rig and people hauler. Even after the stiff-upper-lip Range Rover made its American debut in 1987, the year Chrysler took over AMC and Jeep, the big Jeep was still selling well.
The Wagoneer finally died under Chrysler management. Many say it was corporate euthanasia rather than a natural death. It was still popular and still selling in the 15,000-20,000 annual units range, but became a nightmare to produce because it used so many of the AMC-only components built in AMC factories being closed. The Wagoneer probably died shouting, “I’m still a contenda!” as the last one rolled off the assembly line in Toledo. That its popularity had not waned is backed up by the vibrant boutique market in restored or pristine Grand Wagoneers that started up a short time after Jeep quit producing them. Happy 50th, Wagoneer!
Vehicle: 1964 Jeep Wagoneer 2-door
Owner: Jim Marski
Estimated value: $20,000
Engine: 230ci OHC Tornado I-6
Power (hp): 140 @ 4,000
Torque (lb-ft): 210 @ 1,700
Bore & stroke (in): 3.44 x 4.37
Comp. ratio: 8.5:1
Transmission: 3-spd automatic, BW AS-8W (opt); 3-spd manual, T-90 (std)
Transfer case: 1-spd, Spicer 21 (automatic only); 2-spd, Spicer 20 (manual only)
Front axle: Spicer 44F (std); Spicer 44IFS (opt)
Rear axle: Spicer 44
Axle ratio: 3.73:1 (4.09, 4.27 opt)
L x W x H (in): 183.6x75.6x64.2
Wheelbase (in): 110
GVW (lbs): 4,500
Curb weight (lbs): 3,806
Fuel capacity (gal): 18
Min. grd. clearance (in): 6.8
Approach angle (deg): 39
Departure angle (deg): 20