• JP Magazine
  • Dirt Sports + Off-Road
  • 4-Wheel & Off-Road
  • Four Wheeler

Jeep Grand Wagoneer - The Grand Wagoneer Reborn

Posted in Project Vehicles on January 1, 2005 Comment (0)
Share this

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.

View Slideshow

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."

Leon Miller had retired from the cattle and meatpacking business by 1992, when Grand Wagoneers took over his life. He turned experience and success in the beef business into success in the "big-iron" retro-chic business.

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.

The Grand Wagoneer's appointments are dated in appearance, but comfortable. The visibility is great and the feeling is of being above the maddening crowd and safe from anything but raging semis.

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.

This was mid-'60s luxury by any standard. The Super Wagoneer stood alone in this regard among the small but growing SUV crowd of the era. Imagine cruising down the highway at 80 mph with Sinatra playing on the eight-track.

The Wagoneer debuted after a long development process by what then was Kaiser Jeep. It offered the comfort and convenience of a mid-trim-level American station wagon combined with the hauling and towing capabilities of a 1/2-ton truck and the dirt-road or inclement-weather capability of a 4x4. It was an instant hit and knockoffs soon ensued.

The original Wagoneer heralded several new innovations. The first was a potent overhead-cam six that cranked out 140 hp. Next on the unique list was the option of an independent front suspension. With that, it became the first non-military American 4x4 to offer this now familiar feature. Combined with an automatic transmission, power steering and brakes, plus air conditioning, the Wagoneer instantly became the most cultured four-wheeler on the planet. It was offered in two- or four-door configurations, and a panel and 4x2 versions were available in all body styles. The four-door 4x4 models ultimately won the day saleswise and by 1968, the other types were dropped.

In 1965, the Wagoneers upgraded to an optional V-8, a two-barrel 327ci Rambler engine and the OHC six was dropped in favor of Rambler's new 232ci OHV six. The BorgWarner automatic was deleted in favor of the new GM-built Turbo-Hydramatic TH-400 automatic. When the venerable Rambler V-8 was discontinued in 1967, a Buick 350 was used.

View Slideshow

Even more luxury was offered in the limited-production Super Wagoneer, built in small numbers from late 1965 to 1969. Along with snazzy upgrades to the exterior, it had a plush leather interior with contoured bucket seats, a special console-mounted shifter for the Turbo-Hydramatic, four-speaker AM/FM stereo system with an available eight-track, a high-output four-barrel version of the Rambler 327, "big" 8.45-15 tires and a host of other mechanical refinements designed to make it more carlike.

After the AMC purchase of Jeep from Kaiser in 1970, the Super Custom 1414X soon took over as the top-gun luxury rig. The '71 Super was the last year for the Buick V-8 and thereafter all Wagoneers used AMC powerplants, either the 258ci six, or 304-, 360- or 401ci V-8s. In 1974, AMC introduced another industry-leading option into the Wagoneer: Quadra-Trac. This full-time system introduced user-friendly four-wheel drive to the SUV world.

View Slideshow

By early 1979, the Wagoneer had acquired its signature woodgrain sides and was firmly in the upmarket category. Selling well, it remained largely unchanged through the transition of Jeep into the Chrysler organization. In 1984, the upstart Cherokee XJ compact line, introduced in 1974, began challenging the oldtimer, to the point of pilfering the Wagoneer name for the top-line XJ model and even using the trademark woodgrain side panels.

Chrysler rationalized Jeep production as well as drastically improving quality control. It's said that the final series Grand Wagoneers, built from 1989 into 1991, were the best of the bunch. The '89 model year was the last time the model line received any significant improvements.

Remaining production records are incomplete, but the best available numbers show some 450,000 big Wagoneers built from 1962 through 1991. This includes two- and four-door models, 4x2s and 4x4s, but not the panel delivery. Some 3,900 of those were Super Wagoneers. There were an additional 200,000 big Cherokees built from 1974 to 1983.

Sources

Wagonmaster
www.wagonmaster.com

Comments

Connect With Us

Newsletter Sign Up

Subscribe to the Magazine

Sponsored Links