There was a time when all other 4x4s were spartan and utilitarian, workhorses designed in the spirit of the original four-by-four, the 1941 WIllys MB. But this week in 1962 saw the introduction of a different sort of SUV: the Jeep Wagoneer.
It is the first SUV to offer comfort and convenience features seven years before Land Rover introduces the same idea in the Range Rover. In the interim, SUVs have gone on to become positively luxurious, spawning the Navigator, Escalade, Cullinan, Bentayga, Urus, Levante, Range Rover, G-Wagen, Cayenne, DBX, X7 and Q8.
Yet it all started with the Wagoneer, a nameplate Stellantis is reviving as a luxury sub-brand within Jeep.
But the gestation of the Wagoneer didn’t just happen. It was the result of the Jeep’s evolving bloodline.
Willys faced a postwar dilemna
It was 1945, and World War II was coming to an end. With war’s end, Willys-Overland President Charles Sorensen, an ex-Ford executive, was contemplating his company’s direction. The company’s sole car, the Americar, was very much an also ran. That wasn’t the case with its other vehicle, the Jeep MB. Its wartime fame gave the company the greatest chance for success, despite its small potential market.
So, the company went to work on a civilian version of the MB, which would be dubbed CJ.
But the company needed more than the CJ. The company previously considered building a Jeep-based compact car named the 6-70, designed by Milwaukee-based industrial designer Brooks Stevens. But wiser heads prevailed, and the project was abandoned.
Building on a wartime hero’s status
Instead, the company produced another Stevens Jeep-based design, the Jeep Station Wagon, which wore flat exterior panels that could be stamped in appliance factories to keep costs down.
Arriving for 1946, it rode atop a heavily modified prewar Willys Americar chassis, with power from a prewar Willys 2.2-liter L-head 4-cylinder engine rated at 63 horsepower with a 3-speed manual transmission. Yet it wasn’t available with four-wheel drive until 1949, as a result of a special order arrived from the U.S. Army the year before. After that, changes were few, even after Willys-Overland was acquired by Kaiser Motors Corp. in 1953.
But by 1959, the Station Wagon was facing competition from newer truck-based competitors like the Chevrolet/GMC Suburban, International Harvester Travelall and the Dodge Power Wagon. So once again, the company, now known as Kaiser Jeep, turned to Brooks Stevens.
A new type of vehicle emerges
In turn, Stevens produced a prototype vehicle he dubbed the Malibu, which debuted in 1962 as the Wagoneer.
“The Wagoneer is not a converted passenger car with a tailgate thrown in,” its brochure stated, “nor a modified truck with windows — the all-new ‘Jeep’ Wagoneer was conceived and designed as a wagon.”
Built on a Jeep SJ chassis, it had a 110-inch wheelbase and 183.6-inch overall length, nearly 8 inches more than the Station Wagon and came with two or four doors. It was the first four-wheel-drive wagon to offer an independent front suspension (standard on 4x2s, optional on 4x4s), and an optional BorgWarner automatic transmission.
Power came from the only overhead-cam engine built by an American automaker, a 3.8-liter 6-cylinder, generating 140 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque through a standard 3-speed manual transmission.
Base models were hardly opulent, however, with plain upholstery, rubber floor mats, and a rolldown tailgate window. Deluxe models, later known as Customs, were nicer, boasting carpeting, upgraded upholstery and door trim and, on 4x4s, a compass. Buyers could add such amenities as a front-mounted winch, AM radio, glove box light, electric clock, dual-speed windshield wipers, power steering, power brakes, overdrive, heater and defroster, seat belts, right-side mirror, snow plow, an electrically operated tailgate window.
Prices started at $2,546 for a two-door 4×2.
The Wagoneer gets upgraded
But Jeep kept making their good idea better, adding air-conditioning in 1964, while an American Motors-made 250 hp “Vigilante” 5.3-liter V-8 followed in 1965. A new, top-of-the-line model, the Super Wagoneer, was added for 1966 and came with every possible amenity.
After all, an SUV with a vinyl roof, chrome roof-rack, tinted windows, whitewall tires with full wheel hubcaps, bucket seats, a center console, tilt steering wheel, air-conditioning, full carpeting, power brakes, power steering, power tailgate window, and an AM radio was positively luxurious.
A four-barrel version of the 5.3-liter V-8 was nestled under the hood producing 270 hp through the console-mounted TH400 Turbo Hydra-Matic automatic transmission. Priced at $5,943,or $48,422 today, it cost more than a Cadillac DeVille. Never very popular, the Super Wagoneer was dropped for 1969.
When Kaiser Jeep Corp. was purchased by AMC in 1970, AMC continued to upgrade the Wagoneer adding Quadra-Trac four-wheel drive in 1972, and front-disc brakes in 1974. Then in 1978, AMC introduced the Limited, a fully-loaded Wagoneer not unlike the Super Wagoneer.
An idea whose time had come
But times had changed, and this time, the luxurious Limited proved successful. It remained in the Wagoneer lineup even once the Wagoneer was downsized on AMC’s XJ platform for 1985. The old Wagoneer soldiered on. Now known as the Grand Wagoneer, it was built through 1991, wearing the same body panels it did in 1962.
Fittingly, the Wagoneer has returned for 2021 as a new Jeep luxury sub-brand. The first two models include the standard-wheelbase Wagoneer, and an extended-length Grand Wagoneer. But odds are, there’s more to come.
And it all started this week, 59 years ago.