The New CJs: 1970-1986
While the CJ line had benefitted from many improvements since its 1955 makeover, it was still very much the same unit by the time American Motors took over in 1970. Job One for AMC was to incorporate its line of six- and eight-cylinder engines into the line-a most necessary step by then, especially in the case of the venerable F-head Four. That necessitated some fairly major chassis upgrades including stretching the wheelbase. That allowed for a most welcome increase in interior room, and along the way, they took the time to upgrade the suspensions for better ride and drive.
"More room" was the perennial cry of loyal but frustrated Jeep owners. To answer that, the '76 CJ-7 was developed. It was the "three bears" Jeep. It was stretched just enough to vastly increase interior room but not so much as to hamper trail performance for those who wheeled them. On top of that, they were offered with hardtops, full doors and-gasp-roll-up windows. Gadzooks, you could even get air conditioning!
Even the CJ-7 wasn't enough, and with the CJ-6 being retired from domestic sales, an even-longer CJ was contemplated. For 1981, the CJ-8 Scrambler debuted. Its role in the market was a bit vague. Was it a small pickup or a long Jeep SUV? Inept marketing, combined with AMC's financial troubles, made it a modest seller at best but long after its demise, the CJ-8 had a renaissance and became one of the hottest models for Jeep builders and collectors.
One of the most interesting parts of the AMC era was the staggering number of special editions. Take the same basic Jeep and adorn it with an ever-changing series of decals and options packages, and you see marketing at work. Sounds cheesy, but it worked! They were generally popular back then, and original versions of these special editions are now hotter than fission.
The CJ era and the AMC era ended at about the same time. Bad publicity over rollovers left the CJ tarnished in the public eye. The CJ name, and the round headlights, faded away after 1986. In 1987, the comeback kid, Chrysler, made the still-ailing AMC an offer they couldn't refuse and took over the company. Jeep was the raisin in the bland AMC pudding. AMC cars went the Studebaker route, but Jeep flourished.
Jeep Saviors: 1984-1998
You could reasonably state that the World War II MB saved Willys-Overland. You could also say the Cherokee XJ saved AMC Jeep. The move towards smaller, more fuel-efficient SUVs was inevitable as gas prices increased in the late '70s. Development started on a new vehicle then but was stymied by AMC's impending bankruptcy. Renault came to the rescue in 1979 with a badly need loan. When 1980 rolled around, AMC was closer to the edge and Renault stepped up again, this time taking a 47.5 percent share of AMC for its trouble. The alliance wasn't always a happy one, but the XJ benefitted from some of Renault's small car engineering. New engines also debuted, the 2.5L Four and the GM-sourced 2.8L V6. The 2.8L is not remembered fondly in the Jeep world, but it was a last-minute stopgap until the engineers finished developing the now legendary 4.0L EFI engine, itself a refined 258ci AMC six.
Faced with an army of foreign and domestic competition in the SUV market, with the help of the Chrysler infusion, Jeep introduced the Grand Cherokee ZJ in 1992 as a '93 model. Once again, a stylish and practical new vehicle cranked up the sales numbers, and there have been three more generations since that year. Ironically, the Grand Cherokee was planned to replace the Cherokee, but the popularity of both models, plus nice separation in their respective market segments, kept them side by side in the Jeep lineup. To double the irony, the XJ outlasted the first-gen ZJ. Both the XJ and the ZJ revitalized Jeep by providing popular, high sales-volume products at the times they were needed most.
Keeping the Roots Alive: 1987-Now
Before it was even known as such, the sport-utility market was moving away from the rough-and-tumble short wheelbase rigs that had so long defined four-wheeling. People demanded dual-purpose machines that could be used daily as a family vehicle. Then came malevolent safety mavens who labeled the CJ a rollover risk. Nobody knows how close the CJ came to being the last short-wheelbase Jeep, but in 1987, the YJ Wrangler was introduced.
It was widely panned by the wheeling world at the time for not being a "real" Jeep (not to mention that "real" Jeeps had round headlights). The truth many didn't want to admit is that, in many ways it was a better rig than the CJ. And it was safer, the suspension mods addressing the handling quirks that had so annoyed the exposé-obsessed consumer press. Beyond all that, it was still a great platform for modifications and the YJ, the last of the leaf-spring Jeeps, has gone on to be fondly remembered.
The short-wheelbase Jeep time-travelled both forwards and back for the '97 model year with the Wrangler TJ. It was the most radical redesign of the Jeep utility line ever, featuring a coil-spring suspension and massive upgrades in every area. In 2003, Jeep one-upped themselves when they delivered a wheeling enthusiasts Jeep: The Rubicon-probably the most capable outta-the-box 4x4 ever offered by anyone. A year later, the long-wheelbase Unlimited TJs were announced, soon followed by a Rubicon version.
For 2007, the Wrangler line got another massive upgrade in the form of the JK. Along with the short-wheelbase version came an Unlimited long-wheelbase version with four doors. Rumors abounded about a pickup truck based off the JK platform, which appeared in military livery but not for the general public. And, yeah, the JK comes in a Rubicon version.
You're living Jeep history right now. Some lament the loss of "the good old days," and many of them are aging Jeep historians. But the only thing that doesn't change is change itself. Jeep adapts to the current markets with a variety of products, and some of us die hard, grit-in-our-teeth gear grinders just don't understand. We can all hold onto this: The current Jeep Wrangler is a direct descendant of that plucky little 4x4 that changed the face of the globe 70 years ago. It's one of the last holdouts back to the days when a compact, short-wheelbase trail rig defined four-wheel drive. As long as that link remains, all remains right with the world.