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Backward Glances: The First Luxury Sport-Ute Was Built In The USA!

Posted in Features on September 29, 2018
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Photographers: Courtesy of Jeff Kobs

Here is your 4x4 trivia question for the day: What was the first luxury SUV? If your answer was Range Rover, that’s a good guess, but an incorrect one. The Range Rover started out in 1970 as a modestly trimmed two-door 4x4 “Estate Car” (station wagon in Brit-speak), and it stayed modestly trimmed for most of a decade before beginning a march upmarket. Beating the British to the luxo punch was the ’66 Jeep Super Wagoneer.

The J-Series Wagoneer set a high mark when it debuted for 1963, answering new market demand for carlike four-wheel-drive station wagons. Full details on Kaiser Jeep’s early steps to the Super Wagoneer have not been found, but we know the company’s product-planning people had a clear market trend to follow. Documents from November of 1964 show the project had been underway for some time and likely started in 1963, soon after work began on a sorely needed V-8 engine option for the J-Series.

The AMC 327ci, two-barrel V-8 option was introduced in April 1965 as Phase 1 of a J-Series midyear refresh—the update that included ditching BorgWarner automatics in favor of the GM TH400, offering a two-speed transfer case with the automatic and adding Saginaw power steering. Phase II was implemented in June through August of 1965, depending on the J-Series model, and the 230ci “Tornado” OHC six was replaced as the base engine by the AMC 232ci “Hi-Torque” OHV six. Restyling included a new grille, badging, and body trim. Phase II also included a new model, the Super Custom Wagoneer, now known as the Super Wagoneer.

This ’66 Super Wagoneer is the 487th produced and was built in May of 1966. Resplendent in Glacier White with a Charcoal interior, it was delivered new to actor Danny Thomas in Los Angeles. The list price for this top-dollar rig was $6,047.88. Add transportation charges of $175, and the prices jumped to $6,222.88 ($48,401.33 today). For that you could buy a well-equipped ’66 Cadillac, Lincoln Continental, or Chrysler Imperial. Those cars may have been high on the luxo food chain but when faced with inclement weather or a long trail out to the ranch, the Super Wagoneer was the rig that could get you there and back—period—and do it in more style and comfort than anything else with four-wheel drive.

The Super Custom became a third trim level above Standard and Custom, adding the most luxurious package ever offered in a 4x4, plus a 270hp, high-compression, four-barrel version of the 327. The original planned features had included a three-speed manual transmission with a console shifter and a console-shifted overdrive, Deluxe wheels (exact type not described), plush front bucket seats, and “Super Custom” trim. The Super Custom trim was described as white exterior paint with a red interior, unique headliner with chrome ribs, full carpeting and kick pads, cargo area carpet with chrome skip strips, unique padded door panels and padded sunvisors, instrument panel dress-up, glovebox light, and a chrome inside mirror.

The first production Super Wagoneer, now officially the Model 1414D, was considerably different than that first styling prototype. The first Super Wagoneer, built in October of 1965, was reportedly displayed at the Los Angeles and Boston auto shows that year. The production interior had evolved from the first styling prototype. The manual overdrive transmission was no longer in the mix and a TH400/Dana 20 gearbox combo was standard behind the four-barrel 327. A dash-mounted air conditioning system, power steering, and power brakes were standard. With plush bucket seats up front and high-end upholstery throughout, the Super Wagoneer had a chrome center console with a clock and a console shifter for the automatic. The interior and exterior color options were expanded to include Glacier White, Empire Blue, Indian Ceramic, and Prairie Gold exterior paint with Marlin Blue, President Red, or Charcoal interior colors. A black vinyl roof was included along with a roof rack, gold anodized side panels, and styled wheel covers with spinners.

Super Wagoneers began showing up in select showrooms as early as December of 1965, but fewer than a hundred had been built to that point. It wasn’t cheap; prices ran a bit over $6,100—a thousand more than a base ’66 Cadillac Calais and about the same price as a base Fleetwood. There was only one option: a limited-slip rear differential. A respectable 657 Super Wagoneers were built for 1966, greenlighting the 1967 model year, in which another 455 virtually identical Super Wagoneers were built.

The ’68 model year was broken up into 1st and 2nd Series Super Wagoneers. For 1968, Jeep debuted a new V-8—the 350ci Buick—because the AMC 327 had gone out of production in 1967. Jeep still had a good stockpile of the four-barrel engines, so they were used up in Super Wagoneer production until March of 1968, when the 350ci two-barrel replaced them. Only 187 327 V-8 Super Wagoneers were built in the ’68 model year.

On the outside, the unique things that mark a Wagoneer are a black vinyl roof (missing on this one and replaced by a previous owner with a black textured coating), the gold anodized side panels with a “Super Wagoneer” badge, the spinner-style hubcaps, and the “gunsights” on the front fenders. Many of the high-end Wagoneer Custom features were standard, including the power rear window, roof rack, and the full chrome treatment.

The first 350-powered Super was built in December of ’67, likely as a test unit, but larger-scale production of 350-powered Super Wagoneers started in February of ’68. Another 177 2nd Series Super Wagoneers would be built. Production of the ’69 Super Wagoneer would start in July of 1968, but as far as can be determined from the production figures, not many were built, and production stopped some time in January of 1969 with an approximate total of 1,482 1st and 2nd Series being built. The King was dead, but was there a new monarch? As it turned out, yes. The ’68-’71 Custom Special 1414X, which shared some features with the 1414D, took over, but the package content was reduced and some items that had once been standard, such as air conditioning, were made optional. It’s often confused with the Super Wagoneer, but the Custom Special is a topic for another day.

The Super Wagoneer’s place in history has often been overlooked, and other brands have attempted to crown themselves as having built the first “King of the SUV.” Jeff Kobs, of Wagoneer World (wagoneerworld.com), doesn’t intend to let the Super Wagoneer languish in obscurity and misinformation. He was among the first to recognize their significance and has been rescuing them since the early 2000s, bringing them back to their original splendor and finding them new homes with appreciative owners. To date he has owned 11, including the ’66 seen here. That number includes the earliest known survivor, the seventh Super Wagoneer built. Jeff is building a website dedicated to the Super Wagoneers (superwagoneers.com), and it should be up in some fashion by the time you read this. Special thanks to Keith Buckley, Guillaume Herve-Gruyer, Jeff Kobs, Bill Norris, and Brandt Rosenbusch for information and research help on this story.

Bucket seats, a center armrest on the console, a console shifter for the automatic, tilt steering wheel…this was the groove for 1966.
The Super seats were a big upgrade compared to the Standard or Custom Wagoneer, both in look, quality, and butt-coveting comfort.
Plenty of room for your Ventura or American Tourister luggage and more besides. The combination of luxury and practicality is common today, but in the ’60s it was rare in a 4x4 of any type.
The Super Wagoneer was the first Jeep to feature dash-mounted air conditioning. Up to this point, an underdash setup had been offered. We must check, but this may also be the first time dash air was offered in any SUV. In the days when everyone had a cigarette in their mouth, dual ashtrays were a must. In 1966, AM radio was “it,” and FM was just getting started in cars.
The AMC 327ci V-8 is almost forgotten these days, but once upon a time it was a potent and durable powerplant in its class. The 327, 270hp, four-barrel unit used in the Super Wagoneer was the production performance pinnacle, but the few who tinkered learned there was more to be had from this mild-mannered powerplant. The engine family was developed in 1956 for the higher-end Nash and Hudson cars and appeared in three cubic-inch displacements from 1956-67: 250, 287, and 327. The first iteration was 250 ci, but it grew to 327 cubes for 1957, and it powered the Rambler Rebel in more or less the same form as seen here. In the small Rambler, 270 horses made for a very sprightly car. The Super Wagoneer wasn’t exactly a rocket ship, but the 360 lb-ft of torque could propel the 4,400-pound Jeep to 60 mph in 10 seconds, and that’s about the same as any of the big luxo “tuna-boat” cars of the era and about 2-plus seconds faster than a two-barrel 327 Wagoneer.
Provenance is everything, and star power adds to it. Actor Danny Thomas owned this Jeep for several years, after which it had two owners in Las Vegas, Nevada—one of them for more than 20 years. It went to Texas in 2010 and Jeff later acquired it.

The Details

Vehicle: ’66 Jeep Super Wagoneer 1414D
Owner: Jeff Kobs
Estimated value: $60,000
Engine: AMC 327ci four-barrel V-8
Power (hp): 270 @ 4,700 rpm
Torque (lb-ft): 360 @ 2,600 rpm
Bore & stroke (in): 4 x 3.25
Comp. ratio: 9.7:1
Transmission: TH400 3-spd auto
Transfer case: Dana 20 2-spd
Front axle: Dana 27AF
Rear axle: Dana 44
Axle ratio: 3.31:1
Tires: 8.45-15
Wheelbase (in): 110
Curb weight (lb): 4,388
Fuel capacity (gal): 18

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