Through The Years Of Wranglers
When the YJ Wrangler first hit dealer showrooms in 1986, it was the Jeep that many CJ owners loved to hate. Ourselves included. But once we got over ourselves, the square headlights, and the lack of “CJ” in the model name, we found a fairly capable Jeep underneath.
More than 25 years later, Jeep is still making Wranglers, and we’ve lived the whole thing. Now if you are new to Jeeps, or just looking to buy your first, it is hard to go wrong with a Wrangler. But with over two decades of them to choose from, the pros and cons of each could take you forever to figure out. And asking a car salesman is akin to talking to a politician: they are just going to tell you what they think you want to hear…and ultimately, what best suits them, not you.
Unlike our school years, we actually paid attention to the years of Wranglers and have amassed a lot of information about them. Not only that, but we’ve owned a whole passel of them as well. So who better to help you unravel the mysteries of the Wranglers than us? Read on, intrepid shopper.
The YJ Wrangler was the first of the bunch and despite some really good upgrades from the CJs it replaced, it was off to a rough start thanks to some really horrible parts. We’d like to blame Chrysler for this, but the reality of it is that the first Wrangler was actually brought out under the AMC badge. Chrysler bought Jeep that first year and so is often mistakenly blamed for a lot of the issues the early Wranglers had. But the fact of the matter is that we didn’t see Chrysler’s influence until the ’90s, when it began fixing many of the AMC-design shortcomings.
We split the YJ up into sections because between the early YJ (1987-1990) and the late YJ (1991-1995), there are quite a few differences. The easiest way to tell the early YJ from the late YJ is the rollbar, but the rollbar doesn’t tell the whole story since it didn’t go from a triangular to a squared-off style until 1992—so you will have to keep your eyes peeled. Generally, the early YJ Wrangler came with a 258ci inline-six with a Carter 2bbl computer-controlled carburetor, your choice of three-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmissions, an NP231 T-case, and front high-pinion Dana 30 with Center Axle Disconnect (CAD) and rear Dana 35 axles without C-clips. The four-cylinder was a throttle-body-injected unit and made more power reliably than the same AMC four-cylinder it replaced with a different induction system.
The ’87 model year was a rough year for the Wrangler. The T-case started out with a less-than-desirable NP207 and the manual transmission choice for the six-cylinder was the craptastic Peugeot BA10/5 which can be identified by its clamshell-like case. That is, there is a left and right case half and they are bolted together at the top and bottom. Many of these have been swapped out, but keep an eye out for the clams and either avoid them, or bargain the price downward if the Jeep has one. The four-cylinder engine was backed by an AX5. A four-speed AX4 is said to have been the base transmission, but we’ve never actually even seen one. The three-speed auto was a TF904 behind the four-cylinder or a TF999 behind the six. Also unique for 1987 was the fact that the side mirrors mounted to the windshield for the half-door models, and the half doors were available without a lock or key.
By 1988 the NP231 was the T-case of choice, but the Peugeot BA10/5 was still plaguing the six-cylinder. Half-door-equipped Jeeps came with door locks and both full- and half-hard door mirrors were moved to the doors. The Islander package also debuted this year, which featured stripes and stylized suns on the sides and hood of the Jeep. Functional benefits of the package included an up-rated alternator and battery and a larger 20-gallon fuel tank.
The ’89 model year started off with the Peugeot transmission, but by the end of the model year, the manual transmission was a much-improved AX15. All the other drivetrain components carried over unchanged from the previous year.
The last year you could get the venerable torque-monster 258ci inline-six in a Jeep turned out to be the ’90 model year. We have heard of people saying they had a 4.0L in their ’90 Jeep, but we’ve never seen it. Sure, maybe the Jeep was made in 1990, but the ’90 model year actually included Jeeps built from about August 1989 through July 1990. If it was built later, it was most likely sold as a ’91 model year Jeep. Drivetrain stayed the same as the late ’89s.
The later YJ or ’91-’95 Wrangler (there was no ’96 model year) became more standardized, and there were fewer major changes to the drivetrain. The 4.0L HO six-cylinder was multi-port-injected and backed by either an AX15 or the TF999 while the four-cylinder also got multi-port injection and was backed by an AX5 or TF909 automatic. The NP231, front Dana 30, and rear Dana 35 all soldiered on, but the Dana 35 rear was now equipped with C-clips to retain the rear axleshafts. There was no ’96 model year YJ because by federal law for ’96, all vehicles had to adhere to the OBD2 engine-control protocol and it made no sense for Jeep to rework the YJ with the TJ so close on the horizon.
The ’91 model year can be easily identified by the triangular shape of the rear of the rollbar and the 4.0L High Output sticker on the rear of the tub. It was the only Jeep to leave the factory with this combination of parts. For 1991, Jeep also went from a cable-driven speedometer to an electronic speedometer, and it was the only year that the sending unit used only two wires. The addition of the HO engine was celebrated by bringing back the venerable “Renegade” edition Jeep. However, the celebration must have included some heavy-duty drugs because the fiberglass front and rear bumpers as well as fender coverings and flares just don’t lend themselves well to actual wheeling. The heater blower motor also got an increase in both size and power, resulting in better heat from the factory.
A few changes showed up for the ’92 model year, with the most notable being the rollbar. Gone was the triangular-shaped rear downtubes that all Jeeps before had, replaced by a square shape. This was done so that rear seat passengers could have three-point shoulder harnesses. This is also the only year that the square rollbar showed up without a high-mount third brake light. The speedometer sending unit used three wires, and gone was the dash-mounted factory clock. Instead the fifth gauge location in the center of the dash ended up with a big 4WD indicator light.
The ’93 model year picked right up where the ’92 year left off drivetrain-wise, with the only addition being a standard high-mount third brake light, which was standard on Wranglers going forward. Many of these have hit the scrap pile by now, but if you are trying to ID that square-caged YJ, check to see if the factory spare tire mount has holes drilled in the top. Antilock brakes showed up as an option, but they are horrible off-road, so either avoid a YJ with ABS, or plan on removing the system.
The ’94 model year saw no major changes in the drivetrain. One minor change which makes life a lot nicer is that the pesky hydraulic clutch throwout bearing was thrown out in favor of a more-reliable master/slave cylinder configuration with the slave cylinder being mounted on the outside of the bellhousing on the driver’s side. The full steel door Jeeps went from tiny unusable mirrors to the same mirrors that Jeep had been installing on the half steel doors since ’88 models.
By the 1995 model year, Jeep had basically figured it out and changed nothing. You can tell some later ’95 YJs apart by their hoods, however. Most YJs had two upside-down U-shaped rests for the windshield to rest on when folded down. These were accompanied by a metal footman loop. Some late ’95s ended up with hardware we associate as TJ parts—that is, the upside-down U’s were replaced by rubber bumpers, and some of the metal footman loops were replaced by larger plastic-covered units.