Retro Chic For The Big Jeep Suv? Who'd Have Thought It?
It's been more than 12 years since the final Grand Wagoneer rolled off the Jeep assembly line. As the last of the "Big-Iron" Jeeps, the Wagoneer died not from lack of sales or popularity, but in the name of Corporate Average Fuel Economy and manufacturing convenience. The Grand Wagoneer should have ridden off into the sunset, like old cowboys are supposed to do, but it didn't. It has continued to ride proudly, first with loyal original owners and later with buyers who rediscovered its unique cachet. Soon after Chrysler pulled the plug, an unusual commodity market was spawned and the Grand Wagoneer began its second life as a beloved American retro classic.
The Grand Wagoneer is often heralded as the prototypical SUV. That's an accurate portrayal, though it certainly cannot be said it was the first SUV. The Wagoneer, as it was known before the name was purloined in 1984 for a new compact SUV, was the first large production 4x4 to feature comfortable, truly carlike appointments. It stood out with driving manners that were far more civilized than those of the average boorish four-wheeler of the era. The Wagoneer moved steadily upmarket during its first decade and a version of it eventually became the first true luxury SUV. Clearly, the Wagoneer founded a kingdom that it ruled for many years.
Not long after becoming a production cast-off, Grand Wagoneers became seriously trendy and exclusive. It's a variation on the old orphan-makes-good story. The big question is...why? When compared to the sleek new SUVs, anyone would be forgiven for calling them anachronistic behemoths that rely upon stone-age technology. If you ask Leon Miller, though, he'll give you a big smile and say, "The Grand Wagoneer is the automotive equivalent of John Wayne in a tux with a six-shooter tucked into his belt."
By all reports, this retired Kerrville, Texas cattleman was the first entrepreneur to spot the possibilities in finding pristine Grand Wagoneers for hungry buyers. In 1992, Miller went looking for a replacement Grand Wagoneer to fill his own garage and found they had been quietly nixed from the Jeep lineup. This inspired a quest to find himself the nicest, newest preowned rig in the country. His successful campaign had him scaring up more nice ones for friends and neighbors. By the end of that first year, he had sold 12 and came out of retirement to form Wagonmaster, a company specializing in pristine, low-mile Grand Wagoneers. Since then, Wagonmaster has sold 862 units worldwide and within the last five years, several other entrepreneurs have begun to dabble in the same market.
If you ask Miller what attracts buyers to Grand Wagoneers he cites the "woody" look as the biggest draw, but customers are also attracted to the great visibility and the solid feel. With a curb weight of around 4,500 pounds, the Grand Wagoneer is likely to come out on top in most sheetmetal-to-sheetmetal altercations, but it's actually lighter than a Tahoe or Expedition and much smaller than a Suburban or Excursion. Though EPA fuel mileage is abysmal at 11 city, 13 highway, it's not that much lower than the current range offered by today's big SUVs, and understandable when its archaic 360ci, two-barrel carbureted V-8 engine and three-speed automatic are considered.
There are more esoteric reasons for the Grand Wagoneer's trip down trendy lane. For the younger crowd, it's often a case of love at first sight. The solid lines, roomy interior and muscular chassis of the Grand Wagoneer reflect an era they know only from movies or family albums. For others, it's a case of love at remembrance. Grand Wagoneers often find homes with people wanting to replace one fondly recalled or to finally own something they coveted before they achieved financial success.
Miller's customers are a good yardstick for measuring the phenomenon; they run the gamut of occupations and lifestyles. The main commonality is being the ability to afford the $15,000-$20,000 price tag. An understandable first thought is that the Grand Wagoneer is strictly a male seasoned-citizen's rig, but the average age of his buyers runs from the late 20s to the early 30s, with a slim majority being women. As a bloc, the biggest number of Miller's Grand Wagoneers go to people in professions that require an artistic eye. Fully a third of his customers are either architects or interior designers. Some of them are quite well known, such as world-famous interior designer Philipe Starke. Realtors account for another big block.
Celebs have also gone shopping at Wagonmaster. Current or past customers include NFL quarterback Kordell Stewart, actors Mykelti Williamson ("Bubba" in Forrest Gump) and Michelle Williams, as well as country crooner Alan Jackson. Wagonmaster rigs have also gone to movers and shakers in the business world. If you get run over in the Microsoft parking lot, the odds are good it will be one of Miller's Wagoneers. Goldman Sachs financier John W. Rodgers also tools around in one. Nantucket Island is ready to sink under the weight of those big ol' Jeeps and the gentrified Connecticut countryside is crawling with them.
The Grand Wagoneer was well into automotive middle age when it was put out to pasture by Chrysler execs. They counted the old fella out, underestimating the appeal of a well-dressed, still-fit older gentleman. In 1993, Jeep tried to plug the culture gap in the lineup by introducing a Wagoneer version of the Grand Cherokee ZJ, complete with the woodgrain sides. It didn't fly. If you're expecting John Wayne and his "Big-Iron" six-shooter, Pierce Brosnan with a Walther PPK just won't do. By the look of things, the Grand Wagoneer's middle-age crisis may last long enough to have a midlife crisis of its own.