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75 Years of Jeep Part 5: The AMC Years (1970-1986)

Posted in Features on April 11, 2016
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Photographers: Courtesy of Jeep

In the late ’60s, American Motors Corporation (AMC) thought of themselves as "The Last Independent." The business world called them "a dying company." The Kenosha, Wisconsin, -based manufacturer had been losing market share against the Big Three for years, and at the dawn of the ’70s, they were even farther off the curve. Kaiser Jeep was doing OK, but even with a solid bite of the utility market, it was clear they needed a more mainstream market anchor. Along came Roy D. Chapin Jr., the new CEO at AMC, with an offer.

AMC and Kaiser Jeep were not strangers. In 1960, Chapin was in charge of AMC's International Operations and recognized the potential strength of an AMC/Jeep merger. He proposed an offer to Kaiser but was rebuffed by AMC higher-ups. By the mid-’60s, Kaiser Jeep was buying AMC engines so business connections were made. Shortly after taking the AMC reigns in 1967, Chapin made Kaiser an offer, and by February 1970, the deal was done. Chapin later said the $75 million deal was one of his best: AMC got the truck and SUV models it desperately needed to round out their dealer offering and Jeep sales benefitted from a more mainstream dealer network.

1970-1986: CJ-5, CJ-6, CJ-7, and CJ-8


In 1969, Kaiser Jeep built a concept CJ called the 462, its code for a sporty package of options. In 1970, it became the Renegade I featuring a closed rear body with a swing-away tire carrier, unique upholstery with an included rear seat, V-6 engine, limited-slip rear diff, roll bar, gauge package, Kelsey-Hayes steel wheels, and F70-16 Polyglas street treads. In 1971, AMC kept the package, called it the Renegade II but added American Racing alloys with H78-15 Goodyear Suburbanite tires. It was offered in four lurid colors: Mint Green, Baja Yellow, and Big Bad Orange (shown here).


Step One for AMC was getting their powerplants into the entire Jeep line. Repowering the CJs took until the ’72 model year, requiring a 3-inch wheelbase stretch (81 to 84 inches) and a longer nose section. The long-past-its-prime F-head four was an easy cut, but many have questioned dropping the popular 225 V-6 option. The AMC inlines (232 and 258 ci) had advantages in smoothness over the GM-designed V-6. The 232 made roughly the same net power as the V-6, and since it was replacing a four as the standard engine, it kept bragging rights. More than anything it was a cost-cutting and consolidation move. The V-6 tooling was sold back to GM, and it had a long life back in the GM stable. The longer-stroke AMC 258 would be the middle option, and the top dog was AMC's new 304ci V-8. It was about time!

In 1972, work started on a new CJ model initially called the CJ-5.5. This upgrade featured a 10-inch wheelbase stretch, built-in doors, and an optional fiberglass hardtop. It was scheduled to debut for the ’76 model year with the new Quadra-Trac fulltime four-wheel-drive system and enough upgrades to make it the most comfortable CJ of that time. The new CJ-7 was an immediate hit and sales boomed. After the ’76s, the CJ-6 was deemphasized domestically (though still available) and became more an export model.

With the ’80 CJs came a big transition. As the pages of Federal emissions and fuel economy regulations grew like a bad rash, AMC Jeep worked on engines to better meet those challenges. For the ’80 model year, a 14-mpg fleet average was required so a GM-sourced 2.5L four (the "Iron Duke") was introduced as the base engine. The 258 and 304 soldiered on as options, but standard axle ratios went way tall, from 3.54:1 to 3.07:1 on the six and V-8. The gas-sucking full-time Quadra-Trac and TH-400 were replaced by the Chrysler Torqueflite and the legendary Dana 300 part-time transfer case.


The AMC 304ci V-8 in the ’72 CJs was a big deal, making it one of only two short-wheelbase 4x4s available with a V-8. The new 304 made 150 hp (net) and 245 lb-ft or torque, almost 20 more than the Ford Bronco 302 of the same year. In later years, CJ builders loved the AMC family of engines because they all directly interchanged. The additional nose length can be seen in the space between the rear edge of the fender and the wheel opening.


The ’81 model year was another significant one. The CJ-6 had left the domestic lineup after 1979 but died for good in '81 and the CJ-8 was born as a mid-year intro. Marketed as the Scrambler, the CJ-8 was an attempt to capitalize on the mini-pickup market. Execs signed off on the project in September 1979 for an '81 intro. Production didn't start until January 1981, and the official intro was March 25.

The Scrambler was essentially a CJ-6 in a new suit. It sat on the same 103 1/2-inch wheelbase with more or less the same running gear but with an extended rear body, full doors and a bulkhead behind the seats. A soft half-cab was optional. A long rear overhang extended the CJ-6 cargo space from 59 3/4 to 61 1/2 inches. That underwhelming increase says more about a roomy cab than it does cargo space. The CJ-8 was only a couple of hundred pounds heavier than a similarly equipped hardtop CJ-7 but had the same GVWR. The V-8 was not made available in the CJ-8, even though it was still nominally optional in CJ-5 and CJ-7 that year. The ’81 model year is when the V-8s were phased out of the CJ. Most of the V-8 CJs produced for the ’81s were built early in the year before the CJ-8 was coming off the line.

Despite new-model hoopla, the Scrambler was all but ignored by the mini-truck buyers. Magazine reviews were mixed. The Scrambler didn't compare well to mini-trucks in cargo capacity, and it cost more than most of them. It did better as an export vehicle, and just about as many export models were sold as domestics. Production of the CJ-8 stopped in November 1985, but domestic sales of the leftovers continued into 1986. The Scrambler got a lot more respect in the years after its death than it did while alive.

The ’83 model year was significant for the CJ as it was the last for the CJ-5. Faced with dire financial straits, the need for upgrades, and growing negative attention by consumer magazines, the easy answer was to kill it. Just three years later, the entire CJ line died in the name of "safety." The King was dead. The last in a line of civvy Jeeps that dated back to 1945 and back to 1955 in that general body style—the CJ, as we know it—ceased to exist.

1987: Wrangler YJ—Real Jeeps Have Round Headlights


The Interloper! The YJ was still fresh off the stocks when Chrysler took over. Production started in March 1986, and they went on sale in May as ’87s. Old-time Jeepers generally couldn't repress a sneer, but they sold well. There was a lot to like once you got past the square headlights. They were generally a lot more streetable and daily driver–capable than the CJ. Die-hard Jeepers began to change their opinion when they found the YJ just as buildable as the CJ. This is the first preproduction Wrangler YJ off the line.


In 1987, the model year when Chrysler bought Jeep, the CJ was gone and had been replaced by the Wrangler YJ. While the consumer magazines had contributed to the end of the CJ, it was really as much natural market evolution as anything. The YJ was largely reviled by Jeep die-hards early on, but that would change later during the Chrysler reign. Though it originated with AMC, the YJ had more history with Chrysler.

1970-87: Wagoneer SJ—Old Dependable


Few cosmetic changes marked the start of the AMC-era Wagoneer, but depending on when you bought it, you might have the last of the Buick V-8 powered rigs or the first of the AMC V-8s, with February 4, 1971, marking the end of the former and the beginning of the latter. This Wagoneer Custom illustrates the kind of work the average Wagoneer was required to do.


The big Wagoneer had a smooth transition to AMC livery. Integration of the AMC powerplants was easy, and the process was done early in 1971. A three-engine lineup was offered: a base 258ci six, with 304ci and 360ci V-8s optional. Very minor restyling was done initially, but AMC moved the Wagoneer more and more upmarket, making it beloved of the horsey, outdoorsy affluent. It would remain a cornerstone through much of the AMC era.

Big Wagoneer news came in 1973 when Quadra-Trac debuted. The full-time system was a perfect match for an upscale all-season rig. By that time, the 304 was gone, the 360 two-barrel had taken the middle spot, and a four-barrel 360 was the top option. AMC's biggest block, the 401, came for the ’74s, and the 258 left, leaving the 360 2V as the base engine. This coincided with the intro of the lower-cost Cherokee SJ. Emissions and fuel economy directives killed the 401 and 360 four-barrel after the ’78 model year but that didn't blunt the Wagoneer's upmarket appeal.

The woodgrain side appliqués became a signature part of the line starting in 1980, the same year the Borg Warner 1339 Quadra-Trac/TH400 combo was replaced by a Chrysler 727 and a New Process 219 fulltime system. Very little happened to the Wagoneer from then on, and that's just the way buyers liked it. When the XJ debuted for the ’84 model year, an upscale "Wagoneer" model was part of the lineup, stealing the name from the SJ, which became the Grand Wagoneer. The Jeep product planning folks no doubt had the SJ on a euthanasia timeline, but the Grand Wagoneer refused to be killed and lasted several years into the Chrysler era.

1970-73: Jeepster Commando—Lost in Space


In the last years of the Commando, the Station Wagon remained the most popular variant. The V-8 option (note emblem on front fender) was popular and made for a sprightly and sporty SUV. The ’72 model year was a mix of the old Kaiser Jeepster Commando C-101 that were built into July 1972, and the AMC-updated C-104 Commando that started production shortly thereafter. Production of C-104s ended in June 1973. Only 9,319 of these rigs are listed for the ’72 and ’73 model years, making them one of the most rare Jeep models of this era.


Like the CJ, the C-101 Jeepster Commando required more effort to fit AMC engines than the big Jeeps. They also needed wheelbase stretch (from 101 to 104 inches) and a nose job. This gave the AMC stylists their first chance to change the face of a Jeep. The ’72 Commando (Jeepster was dropped and the designation changed to C-104) had a very AMC-like front wrap and there is no grey area about the look. You either liked it or hated it. From the cowl back, it was almost identical to the previous years and was offered in the same trio of styles: Roadster, Pickup, and Station Wagon. The engine lineup matched the CJ, with a 232ci six as the engine and a 258ci six and 304ci V-8 optional. Sales were a little ahead of the C-101 model’s previous years, but its days were numbered and a new Jeep would take its place.

1974-83: Cherokee SJ—Two Doors, No Waiting


Jeep production was greatly consolidated with the introduction of the Wagoneer-based Cherokee and the elimination of the Commando. The Cherokee was offered only as a two-door lower-cost alternative to the upscale Wagoneer. Later four-door Cherokee's were offered with similarly bare-bones trim. Shown here is the upper end of the Cherokee line for ’74 model year, the Cherokee S. You could add a lot of goodies to a Cherokee to make it plush but not quite to the Wagoneer level.


As the Wagoneer moved upmarket, a lower-cost rig was needed that didn't sully the Wagoneer cachet. They dusted off the old two-door idea, which had been discontinued after ’68, and called it Cherokee. You could have it as a bottom-line, bare-bones rig or option it up to near Wagoneer standards with the Cherokee S package. It was also the big Jeep home of sporty packages. The ’76-’83 Chief, Golden Eagle, and Laredo packages had lots of sporty attention-getting appeal. With the optional 401, wide-track package, and big 10-15 tires, the ’76-’78 Cherokees had as much go as show. The Cherokee SJ was a big part of the lineup through 1983, when another Cherokee took its place.

1984-1987: Cherokee XJ—Jeep Savior


Tip your hats, boys: the Jeep savior has arrived! The XJ was a very big deal for Jeep and a pretty big deal for the auto industry in general. With the help of Renault, AMC Jeep produced a very unique product that changed the face of the SUV world. A base two-door four-cylinder rig like this barely tipped the scales at 2,900 pounds. That offered significant improvements in fuel economy, but the light unitized structure didn't equate to wimpy. Time has proven the XJ to be pretty stout.


The project that would become the Cherokee XJ was inspired by the 1978 news that GM and Ford were both working on compact SUVs. The XJ's novel market direction was a direct result of Renault's 22 percent purchase of AMC in 1979. The huge French automaker pushed for a Euro look, compact size, less weight, high fuel economy, and better ergonomics. Along the way, a new method of bringing a vehicle from concept to production was perfected and called Product Life Management. The transplanted Renault engineer most responsible, Francois Castaing, would go on to reshape the entire auto industry.

The XJ would take many steps into new territory and several would become industry benchmarks. The first was a lightweight unitized body. This idea had been only dabbled with in the 4x4 realm but had never been applied to a civilian production four-wheel-drive SUV. Next was the focus on a four-door model. This was a pivotal choice that made just the right music to lure new customers to the SUV realm. Finally, the Quadra-Link coil front suspension would add to the sum total by delivering great ride and handling without restricting off-road ability. The XJ would also bring Jeep back to offering low-cost 4x2 models.

The XJ would begin life with an AMC-designed 2.5L four standard and a GM-sourced 2.8L V-6 optional. The new four was based loosely on the AMC inline-six family. From ’86 to ’87, Jeep would contribute to the diesel craze by offering an advanced 2.1L intercooled Renault turbodiesel as an option. An upgraded inline six-cylinder was on the drawing board but wouldn't debut until 1987. It isn't clear if the new six was originally intended for the XJ, since it required body upgrades to fit, but as the anemic 2.8L became somewhat problematic, introduction of the vaunted 4.0L six would cement the XJ as a Jeep legend.

The Cherokee and all its offshoots would long be the star players in the Jeep lineup, and whether you personally like them or not, it can't be denied that it's the model most responsible for Jeep surviving the recession of the early ’80s.

1986-87: Comanche MJ—The Midi-Pickup


It was only logical that a pickup based on the Cherokee would appear. It debuted for the ’86 model year in four levels: Base, Custom, X and XLS (X shown). They were offered in two- or four-wheel drive. Oddly, the sales were about equal: 12,646 4x4s and 12,933 4x2s. Three engines were available: the 2.5L four that had TBI injection at this point and made 117 hp; the 2.8L V-6 (last year) that still made 115 wimpy horsepower; and the new 2.1L Renault TDI that made 85 hp and offered 30 mpg fuel economy.


The Comanche MJ was an offshoot of the Cherokee. Call it the XJ's underachieving younger brother. It grafted the unitized front section of the Cherokee to a new conventional chassis to carry the pickup bed. It was a little bigger than a compact but smaller than a fullsize truck. While there was absolutely nothing wrong with it conceptually or operationally, it never made huge sales headway against the many other compact pickups on the market. Powertrain options followed the Cherokee, and it was offered in two or four-wheel drive. Chrysler killed it after the ’92 model year because it competed with their Dakota pickups.

1970-87: J-Series Truck—The Gladiator is Vanquished


The ’71 J-Series trucks emerged in February 1971 powered by AMC engines. The camper craze was on, so AMC Jeep wisely offered a J-4000 Camper Truck option. Standard was the AMC 360ci two-barrel engine, close-ratio T-18 four-speed transmission (TH-400 automatic optional), 4.09:1 axle ratios, 7.50-16 10-ply tires, and an 8,000-pound GVWR. This one obviously has the Custom Cab option and two-tone paint. The allowable payload was 3,550 pounds, and this massive El Dorado camper must be eating a sizable chunk of that payload.


At the start of the ’70s, AMC dealers desperately needed a pickup line, and Jeep's J-Series was the answer. At first, the Jeep trucks flourished, but as AMC's financial woes deepened, less and less energy was devoted to keeping them competitive in the growing light truck market. Keeping up with Ford, GM, and Dodge was tough on the best of days, let alone on a shoestring. Whatever development occurred followed the Wagoneer and Cherokee, but low sales numbers prevented them from being very profitable. By the time 1987 rolled around, the J-trucks were seriously behind the times and a production afterthought. It was no wonder they died soon after Chrysler took over, with only a few ’88 models having been produced.

AM General


Dead truck walkin'! This J-10 image was clipped from a 1988 J-truck brochure. Much of the literature had been produced for the '88 J-Series trucks and the production sheets show a small number built, which were virtually identical to the ’87s. Given Chrysler had a well-known and good-selling line of pickups, a Jeep-branded truck was redundant. Adios Gladiator!


In 1971, AMC spun off the General Products Division in the old Studebaker plant at South Bend, Indiana, into a wholly owned subsidiary called AM General. They built military and commercial vehicles and developed the HMMWV (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle) in the late ’70s. It would win a contract to build them in ’83. Isn't it ironic that a branch of the company that originated the military jeep is the one that designed and built its replacement? AMC would sell AM General to LTV Corporation for survival cash in September 1983.

Renault, the Death Of AMC, and a Rebirth for Jeep Jeep and Renault had history going back to the ’60s with some collaborative experimental developments and other business dealings. When AMC's growing financial problems were near the breaking point, Renault's purchase of a 22 percent interest in AMC added needed cash, but also opened the door to Jeep sales in Europe through the huge Renault dealer network there. That fix didn't last long and in 1980, Renault reluctantly stepped in to preserve its investment, buy a 47-percent stake, and take a controlling interest.

The transfer of people, technology, marketing, and products increased. AMC dealers got a line of compact cars, something AMC didn't have the finances to develop on it's own. The beneficial result for Jeep was the Cherokee XJ and later the Grand Cherokee ZJ. AMC was still down and shaky but on an upward transition. Renault's investment was huge, and some back in France wanted to divest but not Renault's recently installed chairman, Georges Besse. He saw AMC and the American market as up-and-comers. His assassination by French Anarchists late in 1986 freed the opposition to sell their majority interest to Chrysler Corporation in 1987, and yet another "New Era" for Jeep began. Jeep was definitely the prize in that AMC Crackerjack box. Stay tuned to read Part 6 of 75 Years of Jeep next month to find out how it all worked out.

This shot of what was then called the CJ-5.5 was included in the Engineering and Research Booklet dated December 1972. It's complete with a 304ci V-8 and Quadra-Trac, and the wheelbase stretch and door work has been prototyped and is partly done. Interestingly, it has a closed rear body and old-style chrome bumpers.

The CJ-7 goes down as one of the most significant developments for Jeep. It finally put a short-wheelbase Jeep into what many in the motoring public would consider the daily driver category. The ’76 CJ-7 is shown here with the Renegade package and all the bells and whistles. Quadra-Trac, V-8, automatic, power steering and brakes would bring the CJ-7 way up in the world and make it civilized enough for an outdoorsy person to endure it day to day, as well as on the weekend.

Here's a refreshingly simple Base Model CJ-8 Scrambler from 1983. The base engine was a 2.5L GM four that made 82 hp, backed by a Borg-Warner T-4 manual trans. At this point, the only option was the 258ci six with 115 hp. The BW T-5 manual was optional for both engines. This was the last year for the GM four, which was replaced by an AMC design for 1984. A top of any kind was an option on the Base.

The Rubicon Trail–based Jamboree had been Jeep's marketing gift that kept on giving. To celebrate the 30th year, they decided to build 2,500 Jamboree Edition CJ-7s. They were sequentially numbered and painted a special Topaz Gold Metallic. They mounted the 258 and five-speed transmission, with power brakes, power steering, 31x10.50 tires on chrome spokers, and a whole lot more. The Ramsey winch was a dealer accessory.

It was announced in November 1985 that the CJ line would end early in 1986. In fact, production stopped in January 1986 with only 25,929 CJs built for the ’86 model year. The line was moved to Canada for the Wrangler YJ and a new era began. Toward the last of CJ production, stocks of AMC 20 rear axles ran dry, so Dana 44s were substituted. This is one of the last CJ-7s built.

By 1986, the last full year of AMC ownership, the Wagoneer had become Grand and the line had settled into a stodgy, upscale familiarity that sold well. By this time, the SJ had a base 258ci six with an optional 360ci two-barrel. It had a Torqueflite with a NP-228 Selec-Trac fulltime/part-time system. The lowest available axle ratio was 3.31:1, with 2.73:1 standard for the V-8. The tow package allowed for a 5,000-pound trailer, which was about enough for a brace of horses.

For 1976 (’77 model shown), the wide-track Chief was introduced. With a 65.5-inch track (versus the standard Wagoneer/Cherokee 59.2 inch), wide tires on spoker wheels, and extended fenders, it was a mean looker. The $360 package was plenty sporty looking, but could be ordered with a less-than-sporty six-cylinder powertrain. That was easily fixed with either a 360ci four-barrel or a 401ci four-barrel. Quadra-Trac was standard with V-8s and you could get gears as low as 4.10:1. With 3.54 gears and the 401ci V-8, 0-60–mph times of around 10 seconds were recorded.

Though it purloined the Wagoneer title and look, the XJ variant offered a healthy dose of luxury and comfort in a compact and economical package. It came in two levels, the base and the Limited (shown), with a woodgrain appliqué. Standard was the new AMC 2.5L four (105hp) with a five-speed manual. Optional was the 2.8L V-6 with 115hp and it was a bit zippier than it looks on paper, but not by much. An automatic was optional for both engines, with either Command-Trac part-time or Selec-Trac full/part-time four-wheel drive. They were popular, with 20,940 sold for '84 (12,752 with V-6 and 8,188 with fours).

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