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75 Years of Jeep: The 10 Best

Posted in Features on August 10, 2016
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Photographers: The Manufacturers

An auto manufacturer doesn't roll 75 years on inertia alone. There have been plenty of one-hit wonders in the American auto industry, and the World War II Willys-Overland model MB 1/4-ton truck could have been another. A combination of correct choices, hard work, timing and luck created the foundation for a brand that has stood the test of time, time after time: Jeep.

Yes, we know Willys-Overland didn’t invent the type of vehicle that became known as the jeep, nor did it produce the first one. What it did was make the lowest bid on a large production contract for a standardized model, win it, and then ran with that ball for a cosmic touchdown. The standardized WWII 1/4-ton had DNA contributions from many sources, not the least of which was the American Bantam Car Company. Bantam turned a vague concept into a reality. The other primary players—Ford and Willys—took that concept into slightly different directions, and the diversity in the engineering approaches actually strengthened the concept when they were all mixed at the end. And don’t forget the various U.S. Government agencies that supplied input in the usual obtuse bureaucratic way. The creation of the jeep was chaotic, rancorous, and highly political, but the end result was a marvel in its day.

Winning the 1/4-ton 4x4 contract was a Hail Mary play for Willys, who started the ’40s teetering on that slippery slope of a financial meltdown. They played a serious game of hardball getting that contract, besting even the mighty Ford Motor Company in the bidding process. When the war transitioned from an uncertain and desperate battle for the survival of the free world to having an end in sight, Willys had time to consider its future.

Future planning at Willys-Overland in 1944 and 1945 induced more than a little corporate schizophrenia. War production had alleviated its financial problems, but factions within the company argued over a post-war direction. Should they return to car building, a game that would leave them another small fish in a big pond, or should they take a new path into utility vehicles like the jeep and move into a smaller pond? They didn’t have the resources to do both. The choice to pursue utility rigs is one reason why Willys-Overland and its jeep weren’t one-hit wonders. As the company evolved and corporate ownership changed over the decades, the people in charge of the Jeep brand made similar choices that were crucial. What follows are what we think are the 10 most pivotal choices they made in vehicles.

1. A Strong Foundation

’41-’42 Willys MB Slat Grille

When the first standardized 1/4-ton Willys-Overland MB rolled off the line in late November 1941, the design was not yet a done deal. There were to be many ongoing changes—some dictated by changing Army requirements, others due to production expedients and design upgrades. Among the most notable features of the early Willys MB (M=Military Contract, B=Model B) was the welded bar stock grille. That grille was a legacy from the earliest military requirements. The first 25,808 Willys MBs, built into March 1942, would have this grille, but ironically, it would be Ford who developed the now-legendary nine-slot stamped sheetmetal replacement. As they tooled up to build standardized jeeps, Ford engineers developed a one-piece stamped grille as a production expedient. It greatly streamlined production and was quickly adopted as the new standard for both manufacturers. Nobody at the time had an inkling that grille would become an icon. There were many other differences between the Slat Grille MB and later Willys MBs or Ford-built GPWs, but the Slat Grilles were the first production jeeps issued to the U.S. Army. Relatively few went overseas to fight. By the time American forces were engaged in combat, the jeep had evolved past the Slat Grille and the frontline units going to fight generally got the latest jeeps.

The Willys MB Slat Grille was a hit with the Allies, but how did it stack up against the Axis equivalent, the Pkw Type 82 Kübelwagen (German for “bucket car”)? Quite well. The 4x2 German rig had the jeep beat for fuel economy but that was the only major advantage. This Kübel was captured by the British in North Africa and sent to the U.S. for evaluation. It’s shown here in the winter of 1942-1943 at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds being tested against an early MB slat grille. The German Kübel was surprisingly capable, but as a military vehicle, the American jeep was far more versatile.

2. Sport Utility Before It Was Cool

’46 Willys Station Wagon and ’49 Four-Wheel-Drive Station Wagon

The ’46 Jeep Station Wagon has been called “America’s First SUV.” That’s not accurate in a literal sense, depending on how you want to define “Sport Utility Vehicle,” but there are a lot of branches on the SUV family tree. One of the common terms for a passenger utility vehicle in those days was “carryall.” The Willys wagon generally fit in that category but was more compact, easier to drive, thriftier, and a bit better appointed than the very austere truck-based carryalls of the day. The result was a handier day to day vehicle for most American families. The Willys wagon didn’t get four-wheel drive until 1949, but when it did, sales of the 4x4 version soon outstripped the 4x2s. So, while you can’t say the Jeep Station Wagon was the “first” SUV, it could be called the start of an important branch on that family tree, the one that most directly leads to today’s rigs.

The 4x4 Willys Station Wagon debuted in June 1949 and fully set the stage for the SUV movement to begin. Of the carryalls and station wagons available in the day, none had factory-installed four-wheel drive. The Willys was more user friendly than the big carryalls of the day and far more boonie-capable than the car-based station wagons of the era. The Willys wagon could be used as a daily driver, as well as a work rig. The play aspects had not yet come to the front but recreation was a part of it too. The powertrain was much like the military jeep: a 134ci flathead four making 63 hp, a three-speed T-90 transmission and Spicer 18 transfer case, Spicer 41 rear, and Spicer 25 front axles with 5.38:1 differential gear ratios.

3. The People’s 4x4 Pickup

’47 Willys Pickup

If you get run over tomorrow, heaven forbid, it will likely be by a 4x4 pickup. The four-wheel-drive pickup is now a part of mainstream American life, but looking back to 1947, it was a pretty big deal. When Willys debuted their 4x4 “Jeep” Pickup, it was one of only two factory built 4x4 pickups you could buy new, the other being the Dodge Power Wagon that had debuted for 1946. The Willys was more compact and economical and, again, more everyday-people friendly. The 4x4 Willys was optimistically rated as a 1-ton and came with the same 63hp Willys four as the wagon, the same Warner T-90 three-speed, Spicer 18 transfer case, and Spicer 25 front axle. The rear axle came from Timken, a split-case semifloat unit with a 3,750-pound rating (versus 2,700 pounds for the wagon and the 1/2-ton 4x2 truck’s Spicer 41). Factory-built 4x4 pickups didn’t become generally available until after 1956, so the Willys and the Dodge shared a small, but growing, market.

4. Smoothing the Edges

’55 Jeep CJ-5

The ’55 CJ-5 was not a particularly noteworthy technological achievement in Jeep history, but it had many advances in user-friendliness that puts it in this Top 10. Some of you probably made a rude noise at the idea of a ’55 CJ-5 being considered “user friendly.” That's because you are looking at it through 2016 eyes. By 1955 standards for vehicles in that class, it was a big advancement towards the mainstream. With the options available, a CJ-5 or CJ-6 could be a family's second car—an in-town runabout, dad’s go-to-work vehicle, and a weekend fun rig all in one. The CJ-5 and its derivatives evolved and helped carry Jeeps and SUVs into the mainstream.

5. The SUV Defined

’63 Jeep Wagoneer SJ and ’66 Jeep Super Wagoneer

Next to the first Willys jeep of WWII, the ’63 Jeep Wagoneer may be the most historically significant vehicle in the company’s history. Debuting in November 1962 after roughly four years in development, the J-100 Wagoneer was the vehicle that bridged the gap between the car and the 4x4. Even though the term and category of “Sport Utility Vehicle” was a few years away, the Wagoneer fully embodied, if not defined, the concept. It was not nearly as trucklike as the other 4x4 wagons of the era, even the legendary IH Travelall. The Travelall beat everyone to the draw by offering four doors starting in 1961, but the Wagoneer beat it with more carlike manners and that is just exactly what the market was looking for at the time. The Wagoneer was truly a daily driver, with appointments and options that made it suitable for doing the same things as any self-respecting station wagon of the era. It could go beyond the station wagon by towing and hauling more, getting through inclement weather more safely, and taking the family down a rough road that would turn the average “Griswold-mobile” into scrap.

No doubt the grizzled trail runners out there have a super-sized sneer on their faces looking at this image and thinking of luxury “wuss-mobiles.” Fair enough, but remember a big part of the expansion of four-wheel drive and SUVs came with the addition of luxury features. The ’66-’69 Super Wagoneer 1414D was the first of the breed and nothing would rival it until the late ’80s. A limited-production model, it had every luxury feature Jeep knew how to add. The interior was as plush as a Caddy. The only features noticeably lacking were power seats and windows, items that probably required a little more engineering than was cost effective at the time. The outside was period stylish. So, grizzled gear-grinders, sneer away, but you know you’d rather do a cross-country trip in a luxury SUV than in your spartan trail rig, even if you won't publically admit it. The majority of the SUV-buying public agrees, and that's why luxury SUVs are so numerous today.

6. Best of Both Worlds

’76 Jeep CJ-7

The CJ-7 may have done more to bring the average American into four-wheeling than any other Jeep. By 1972, AMC Jeep knew they had to mainstream the CJ line more and started on an update project dubbed CJ-5.5. It involved a 10-inch stretch of the CJ-5, the addition of a hardtop, hard doors with rollup windows, and enough of an interior upgrade to pass basic daily driver muster for ’70s America. The CJ-7 debuted for the ’76 model year and took off. You could get a V-8, an automatic, and full-time four-wheel drive, along with niceties like air conditioning, carpets, power steering and brakes, and enough soundproofing that you could actually enjoy that optional stereo sound system. Best of all, the changes didn’t emasculate the Jeep. It could still wheel! No, it wasn’t a car, but it was close enough that a person could drive it day to day and not suffer while doing so.

7. Jeep Savior

’84 Jeep Cherokee XJ

The ’63 Wagoneer maybe the most historically significant Jeep next to the first, but the ’84 XJ Cherokee is the rig that may well have saved the Jeep name from extinction. In many ways, the marriage of AMC and Jeep in 1970 was one of those proverbial “made in heaven” deals. When the ’80s dawned with tough competition, a certain level of mismanagement, and a domestic economy in the toilet, AMC was close to going under. Jeep wasn't much of a contributor to that. The company was still strong in its market but was being pulled down with AMC. In the late ’70s, Renault stepped in, eventually buying nearly 50 percent of AMC and pulling it back from the brink. With a majority interest in the company, they didn’t take a hands-off management approach. That was troubling for many old hands in the company but one of the results was outstandingly positive. The ’84 Cherokee XJ was a trend-setting and market-leading SUV that helped put Jeep more into the mainstream than it ever had been. So much so it overshadowed the AMC marque, and until Chrysler bought the company, Jeep was the headliner of AMC in most ways that counted. The XJ was a big part of that. So, Jeep lovers, next time you see an XJ, remove your headgear or render a hand salute because you just saw the rig that saved Jeep.

8. Grand Reality

’93 Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ

The SUV market had moved strongly upscale and the Range Rover was leading it around by the nose, even though it wasn't the biggest seller. When Range Rover entered the U.S. market in 1987, Jeep was already well on the way to a higher-end replacement for the XJ by around 1990. At that same time, Chrysler Corporation bought Renault’s shares of AMC Jeep and soon bought all but a handful of the remaining shares. They were impressed with the new SUV called the ZJ but didn't hesitate to influence the design. The result was more than a year delay in the intro date for the Grand Cherokee, but the 5.2L V-8 option and a much improved interior gave the debut a lot more hoopla. Once again, Jeep set a high bar for the other SUV manufacturers. The ZJ would be a best seller for Jeep until it was replaced by the WJ for 1999.

9. The Just-Right Jeep

’97 Jeep Wrangler TJ

If you look for a rig that combined high-performance trail attributes, street manners, and passenger comforts, it would be hard to not put the Wrangler TJ at the top of the list in its era. The engineers and stylists really got it right and made a rig worthy of the Jeep legend. That they did so on the cheap, relatively speaking, makes the feat even more noteworthy in automotive history. The TJ was a hot seller and put even more Jeeps into the hands of budding four-wheelers. Its popularity also made it the darling of the aftermarket, and if you can name some aftermarket thingamajig, it was probably made for a TJ.

10. King of the Trail

’03 Wrangler Rubicon

The Rubicon: Legendary trail. Legendary Jeep. If you had asked auto-industry experts of 2003 if a factory-made trail Jeep could be designed, built, and sold to the tune of 10,000 copies in the first model year alone, the answer would have been: “Impossible!” Generally speaking, the auto industry these days is too risk-averse to offer a factory-fresh 4x4 with a lift, big tires (relatively speaking), low gears, and lockers at both ends. That it happened in the first place borders on a miracle. That it continues to happen is probably a direct result of Jeep enthusiasm and customer appreciation for four letters that have gone way beyond a brand or a trademark.

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