Those that have known me for a long time know of my passion for automobiles and in my life I’ve owned a number of them and have been exposed to even more because of my parent’s who share a similar Obsessive Compulsive Automobile Disorder. When I learned that this week marks the 50th anniversary of an iconic American automobile of which I was intimately familiar, I felt it was only fitting to add my tribute to the scores of others making the rounds. That vehicle is the venerable Jeep Grand Wagoneer and for 50 years now, its been a huge part of the automotive landscape.
Everyone that has a passion for cars usually has that one special make and model from their past that they long to have again, the quintessential “if I could go back in time” car that, for whatever reason, captured their heart. For my best friend, the first generation Ford Mustang was such a vehicle because he had one and never appreciated it as much then as he did later. For my mother, it was the 64 Chevy Impala Super Sport she had in high school. For me, the Jeep Grand Wagoneer was that vehicle and because of it, I owned a number of other Jeeps later on down the road.
From 1989 until 2002, my folks owned a “grand” total of four of them, each one unique in both personality and temperament. Two of them came our way by means of a family member and others found their way into their driveway as well. My cousin Pat, a doctor living in Maryville, Tennessee, purchased his first one new in 1983 and six years later, when he decided to get another new one, my Dad ended up buying his first one and bringing it home. I remember well the day it showed up in our driveway in the spring of 1989.
It was shiny black, decked out with the ubiquitous wood paneling and trim that pretty much defined the vehicle during the latter half of its run and trimmed with a light caramel colored leather and corduroy upholstered interior. Inside, simple round gauges nested within an instrument panel and dashboard awash in synthetic wood, an array of simple knobs and switches and a big leather-wrapped steering wheel. Door handles, window switches and even swivel vent windows all harkened back to another era of automotive design. Sumptuous, luxurious carpeting was everywhere, even on the back of the seats and there were no less than twelve individual pieces of glass to let in the great outdoors.
While our Wagoneer Limited (Grand would come later) was only six years old then, technically it was really a twenty year old design when ours was assembled in the factory. Ancient in terms of automobile lifespans, it was the result of a slow evolution that started as a basic outdoorsman’s vehicle, something of a station wagon with the Jeep characteristics of off-road prowess and the promise of adventure in the wilderness. Over that twenty years, it had gradually morphed into a luxury family cruiser, capable of swallowing a family of five, including luggage and camping gear, and with the ability to actually get you to the campsite in style.
Riding upright and tall on 15 inch white wall tires, the Wagoneer cut a striking profile as it cruised both city street and back road landscapes, swilling gas with reckless abandon and flying in the face of convention, all while looking down its hood at its more modern, fuel injected brethren. What did it have to be ashamed of? It could go pretty much anywhere, capable of rock climbing, fording creeks or sitting idly in front of the country club where it managed to fit right in. It was the perfect combination of anachronistic style, opulent luxury and complete capability, almost an American version of the Rolls Royce. The luxury Sport Utility Vehicle was born and the market is full of its progeny to this day.
Ours wasn’t even a primary vehicle but more of a third car. Next to my conservative, fuel sipping Nissan Maxima, the Wagoneer was a gargantuan behemoth of a vehicle and the first time I drove it, I experienced what I was to later recognize as “King of the Road” syndrome. Having driven nothing but cars and the occasional pickup truck, I can honestly say there was nothing quite like sitting up high in a big, brawny Jeep Wagoneer with a commanding view of the road and a physical presence second to none. The Maxima, loved as it was, suddenly found itself playing second fiddle to a giant Woody 4×4 from a company that had recently been swallowed whole by Chrysler.
Dad never minded me driving it when he or Mom wasn’t using it, probably because I, more than anyone, assumed responsibility for its appearance (Dad took care of the stuff that cost money like batteries, tires, front end alignments, tune ups and assorted repairs). The paint, always a weak point with Wagoneers, was already beginning to show signs of failure but a few dozen coats of wax really brought out the shine and kept it going. The rich leather upholstery was saddle soaped to the softness of butter and the dash gleamed from the liberal application of Armor All. I probably took better care of the Wagoneer and its successors than I do my own car today.
The Wagoneer spent a good bit of time on the road between our house, the lake and my parent’s cabin in the mountains of Hiawassee, Georgia. It was the natural choice for hauling the family to weekend getaways and when the occasional snow fell in the mountains, you knew the Wagoneer was the best choice to drive because it had the sure footedness of a mountain goat when the terrain got slippery.
It had its quirks as well though. The big 360 cubic inch engine relied on a carburetor and if you didn’t know how to crank one, you could be pretty sure of flooding it. Once cranked, it needed time to warm up or else you might find it puttering and sputtering up the road in protest. A Wagoneer had to be woken gently and coaxed onto the road, especially in cold weather. Another quirk on ours was that you could crank it and then pull the key out of the ignition, probably the result of worn tumblers but a pretty neat way in hot weather to keep it cool should you have to get out somewhere. You just left it running, pulled the key out of the ignition and locked the doors. In this age of remote-start vehicles, the Wagoneer was already ahead of the game, whether intentional or not.
Speaking of air conditioning, the 1983 Wagoneer Limited was the first vehicle to feature dual zone climate control because up until the Chrysler makeover it would receive in later years, the heater, integrated into the dash and the air conditioner, bolted under the dash, were two separate units. You could, had you wanted to, toast your feet while cooling your body. Cold air was a given, as I think the air conditioner unit was lifted from a walk-in cooler.
Another cool feature was the rear tailgate, similar to that of a pickup truck. To access the cavernous rear cargo hold, you inserted the key (or used a dashboard switch if you were in the driver’s seat) into the rear keyhole, turned it to the left and the enormous rear window would lower electronically into the tailgate. Once lowered, you reached inside the vehicle and located the door opener on the tailgate and pulled up, allowing the tailgate to be carefully lowered to a horizontal angle. It was very comfortable to sit on with its 18 oz carpeting and if I had to haul a lot of friends around, nobody seemed to mind sitting in the cargo area with all that carpeted room.
Each member of my family claimed the vehicle as if it belong to them, but in reality the Wagoneer belonged more than anyone else to the family pet, a large German Shepherd/Siberian Husky mix who loved to travel in it to the lake or the mountains and who always seemed to know when such a trip was forthcoming. All you had to do was get out the suitcases and he would wait by the vehicle, ready to go.
The Wagoneer was a faithful family friend that spent many a mile traveling the roads around Central and North Georgia over the years we owned it but one day my Dad, always a car wheeler-dealer, sold it to someone unexpectedly who then wrecked and totaled it a few weeks later. Mourning ensued and before long, another one, this time a 1985 Grand Wagoneer, found its way into our driveway.
The “new” one, a deep shade of blue with the tan interior, was pretty but it just never was the Jeep that the first one had been. It was plagued with problems and its first owner had lived in the mountains of North Carolina, where it had been tuned to compensate for the altitude. Always a beast to crank, the blue Grand Wagoneer spent a lot more time sitting in the driveway than it did on the road, though I never gave up on trying to get it to run better. Dad had it re-tuned, replaced parts and more but I think it was homesick for the mountains and just plain stubborn. It didn’t stick around very long.
Fortunately, Cousin Pat decided to buy a truck and we ended up with his 1989 model which had been even better cared for than his first one and with less mileage on the odometer. The blue one was sold and the new-to-us dark pewter gray Grand Wagoneer soon took its place at their house. It was a fine example with a beautiful burgundy interior, still in leather and corduroy, but it benefitted from a major overhaul of some of the more problematic issues left over from the AMC era by its new parent company, Chrysler. The instrument panel was modernized, the air conditioning controls were integrated with the heater and it even had big headrests now. A digital overhead compass with temperature display gave the vehicle some semblance of having technology in it somewhere and the massive hood now featured a standup hood ornament so you could see where the hood actually ended. It was beautiful and substantial and once again, I adopted it and went to work preserving the shoddy paint job and keeping the leather soft and the exterior clean.
This one also served us all well and we enjoyed it for several years, myself especially. When I moved to my first apartment, the Grand Wagoneer swallowed all my stuff in a few trips and then somehow it ended up living at my apartment for a time. Mom and Dad had two cars and a pickup truck by then so it was a while before they started in about bringing it back, which I reluctantly did.
Bedfore the 89 model became ours, Dad had a brief spate of new car fever in 1991 and with the news that Chrysler was ending production of the Grand Wagoneer after a 28 year run, he toyed with the idea of getting a brand new one that we would keep and preserve from now on. We had never gotten any choice in the colors we had received and since he could choose, it wasn’t long before Dad came home with the most gorgeous Grand Wagoneer ever built and the finest example of the make as well. Of all the combinations of colors available on Grand Wagoneers, the Hunter Green metallic with woodgrain appliqués and sand colored leather/corduroy upholstery was the pinnacle of automotive couture and as the last of the Jeep SJ Grand Wagoneers ever to be made, it promised to be a true collectors item in years to come. Sadly for me, Dad balked at the 30k price tag, about $50,000 in today’s money and after only two days with the vehicle, he returned it to the local dealer. I have, as he well knows, never forgiven him!
When the silver one was about eight years old, Dad sold it to a landscape architect who had also owned a number of Grand Wagoneers over the years and I thought it would be the last one but surprisingly one day, he was driving along and spotted a low mileage 1991 model for sale and bought it. The golden sand colored Grand Wagoneer was in flawless condition and the previous owner had paid a nice sum to have the vehicle professionally repainted to replace the defective paint that all Wagoneer owners know so well. The new paint and clear coat was perfect and actually better than the original paint had been when new.
At some point, Dad decided he had too many cars and he “loaned” the Grand Wagoneer to me to try and sell it for him. I think he figured if I drove it enough, I’d just buy it from him myself. Believe me, the thought crossed my mind enough but I had recently married and we already had two Jeep SUV’s, a Cherokee and a Grand Cherokee. I put a tiny “for sale” sticker in the window and kept on driving it, hoping nobody would notice and got by with this for six months. When we moved into our new house on New Year’s Eve, 2001, the Grand Wagoneer and our own two Jeeps moved everything except the furniture, with the Wagoneer hauling the most stuff of all.
Eventually, as hard as it was to part with it, I had to let it go. Dad had found a buyer and I reluctantly took the Jeep back to him in Athens where he was living by then. I never saw a finer example, save for the Hunter Green one, than that beautiful sandy gold Grand Wagoneer and it left me with a lot of good memories. All of them did, really. I never owned one outright but I cared for four of them with a lot of care and attention because I recognized them for what they were and they rewarded me with a lot of fun miles, admiring stares from people who thought they were beautiful vehicles and memories that will last a lifetime.
My wife flinches every time one with a “for sale” sign passes by, though those instances are rare and getting rarer every year considering the last one was produced 22 years ago. I’m even forbidden from traveling to Texas where there just happens to be a specialty shop that sells low mileage, perfectly restored examples today for upwards of $35k out of fear that I might come home with one. I’ve been told if I do, I had better be prepared to sleep in it, which is not at all unreasonable considering my cousin and his wife used to throw an air mattress in the back of theirs and go camping in it.
Fifty years ago, Jeep created the Wagoneer, the vehicle that would eventually come to define the luxury Sport Utility Vehicle. When most automotive designs are scrapped after five or six years in production, the Grand Wagoneer soldiered on for a remarkable 28 years, against all odds and surviving ownership by several parent companies, all of whom were wise enough to realize the jewel they had and to perpetuate its continuance. Long after the last piece of woodgrain appliqué was applied and the last massive tailgate was bolted to the rear, others have stepped up and preserved them, elevating them to an iconic cult classic and it is not unusual to see them tooling around the Napa Valley or Martha’s Vineyard, sharing parking lots with Bentley’s or even parked by the lake, tailgate down while a picnic ensues.
The Grand Wagoneer conjures images of a fading past, of family vacations to the beach, the mountains or anywhere a Jeep vehicle could travel. Images of a father fishing in a mountain stream and mother preparing the picnic lunch while the kids and dog run around a Jeep Wagoneer were images of the promise of adventure that only a Wagoneer could deliver and they were as American as baseball and apple pie. For those that experienced the lure of the great outdoors or just the golf course, the Wagoneer was guaranteed to deliver and for many who came along during the nearly thirty years it was produced, those memories will never fade.
Happy 50th Birthday to the Jeep Grand Wagoneer and thanks for all the memories!