Why the Jeep Wagoneer Is So Badass


At one time, 4WD vehicles were crude utilitarian machines with little regard for passenger comfort. Vehicles like the Dodge Power Wagon Town Wagon, Chevy Suburban, and International Harvester Travelall were rough-riding rigs that only offered the basics on the inside—not the kind of vehicles that would entice American families used to driving station wagons.

But the arrival of the Jeep Wagoneer in 1963 changed all that. Jeep didn’t invent the SUV, but the company perfected it, creating a blueprint that others would follow for decades to come.

The Jeep Wagoneer offered nearly the same driving comfort as a car but with 4WD capability, too. It was easy to get into, easy to load with stuff, and easy to drive. It was also more car-like than any other vehicle of its type at the time. Simply put, the Wagoneer was a pioneer, and it lasted with the same basic design 28 years running.

With the return of the Wagoneer quickly approaching in 2021, this is story of how Jeep created an icon that stuck—nearly 60 years later.

Forward-Thinking Design

The 1963 Jeep Wagoneer


America was riding a wave of prosperity in the 1950s and early 1960s. Middle-class American families were getting adventurous—eager to test out the country’s new Interstate highway system and explore destinations both on-road and off. The kind of 4WD family vehicle suitable for trips like that needed to be highway-capable, offer car-like smoothness and comfort—wrapped in a package that looked like no other utility wagon.

The exterior of the Jeep Wagoneer was penned by famed industrial designer Brooks Stevens. Stevens’ work was incredibly varied and included everything from motorcycles and passenger trains to pop culture icons, like the Miller beer “High Life” logo and Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

Stevens had already done important post-WWII work at Willys Overland in the 1940s (the company that would later become Kaiser Jeep) by designing the Jeepster as well as the Willys Station Wagon, the direct descendent of the Wagoneer.

It clearly communicated itself as the ultimate tool for enabling the adventurous lifestyle…and I think it pulled on the heartstrings of multiple generations.

But the Wagoneer was the first Jeep-branded vehicle that didn’t share any design elements with the classic flat fender Jeeps. The Wagoneer was its own uniquely modern form with full-front fenders integrated into the body, an expansive glass greenhouse, and a distinctive upright grill.

“From day one, it was very appealing and very sophisticated for the time,” says Jeep brand historian Brandt Rosenbusch. “It was an amazing leap forward, compared to the Willys Wagon.”

The Wagoneer was unique at the time because it was available as a two and four door as well as a panel wagon too, with steel replacing the side windows. And though the Wagoneer was based on the bones of the Jeep Gladiator pickup truck, the styling looked purposeful and cohesive—unlike the tacked-on roof sections of some 4X4s back then.

And the Wagoneer’s distinctive front-end appearance was like nothing else.

jeep wagoneer

Illustration of the “Rhino” grill on the 1963 Jeep Wagoneer.


Jonathan Ward is CEO, designer, and founder of small-batch vehicle builder Icon 4X4. His company recently built a highly restored, modified, and reimagined 1965 Wagoneer. “I always liked the Wagoneer design, specifically the implied motion of the original forward-jutting ‘rhino’ nose and grill.”

And Jeep Heritage CEO Daniel Van Doveren, whose company turns out Wagoneers that cost north of six figures, couldn’t agree more. “I think they really got it right from the start,” says Van Doveren, “The lines were so good and it was a fairly advanced look for the 1960s”

Jeep cast a wide net with the potential audience for the Wagoneer when it rolled off the assembly line in 1962. It was touted as a recreational vehicle as much as a daily driver—a do-it-all machine. Ads showed families enjoying wilderness fun and promoted the security of Jeep’s 4WD system on treacherous snow-filled roads. Here was a vehicle that didn’t just look different from other 4X4s, it performed differently, too.

“It clearly communicated itself as the ultimate tool for enabling the adventurous lifestyle—take the family, tow the boat, bring the picnic, and fishing rods or go skiing,” says Ward. “And I think it pulled on the heartstrings of multiple generations.

Gotta Love a Woody

1974 jeep wagoneer ad


The classic wood trim of the Wagoneer wasn’t actually real wood, but the metal bodywork with simulated woodgrain was authentic enough, and worked so well visually, that it became one of the defining elements of the vehicle. Those woodgrain panels were slim early-on but became much wider by the mid-1970s, and the Wagoneer pulled off the look with real style.

Chip Miller is the CEO of Wagonmaster, a Wagoneer-specific restoration house that’s been caring for these machines for over 25 years.

“I think the woodgrain is really the key element to the Wagoneer,” says Miller. “It’s that woodgrain and the molding surrounding it that sets the Wagoneer apart from everything else—and continues to.”

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The 1975 Jeep Wagoneer. The woodgrain panels increased in size from the previous year’s Wagoneer.


Part of the reason for the Wagoneer’s woodgrain success could be a sense of nostalgia for the classic “woody” wagons from decades earlier, like the Ford DeLuxe or a Packard Six. These vehicles were used as outdoor recreation vehicles for generations, and later, many older ones became surf wagons on the west coast. Woody wagons were a kind of proto-SUV.

“I think Americans really remembered vehicles like the Chrysler Town and Country wagons of the 1940s,” said Rosenbausch. “That image lasted in so many people’s minds. The woodgrain was the upmarket prestige model at the time.”

An SUV Unlike Any Other

The Wagoneer was an innovator in the world of 4X4s from the start because Jeep offered technology that just wasn’t available on any other vehicle.

In the early 1960s, some 4WD wagons still used an old-school divorced transfer case, which requires an extra driveshaft between the transmission and transfer case so the entire drivetrain gains length. The result were super tall suspensions. Ford’s F-250 pickup used a divorced transfer case all the way until 1977 and as such gained the nickname “high boy.”

But the Wagoneer’s married transfer case kept the drivetrain shorter and was part of a conscious effort by Jeep engineers to tuck all the components up neatly between the frame rails. The effect created a much lower ride height so passengers had an easy time sliding into the seat as well as loading gear from the tailgate. Another big benefit, the thing could fit in a typical American garage.

“Now your family didn’t have to climb up into a truck,” said Rosenbusch. “You were getting into a passenger vehicle that had all the ability of any 4WD vehicle—but with better ride comfort, too.”

The Wagoneer was also the very first 4WD vehicle with an independent front suspension (IFS) option. The $160 option, available in the first few years of production, was essentially two swing axles that could move over terrain independently. It took other automakers decades to even consider offering a similar system in their 4X4s. In fact, the IFS was so forward-looking, it didn’t catch on at the time and was dropped after a few years, a decision driven more by price than capability.

The Wagoneer was a pioneer in the world of 4X4s. It took other manufacturers years to catch up to some of Jeep’s impressive breakthroughs.

“The Wagoneer certainly wasn’t a heavyweight contender in the speed category,” said Miller. “But it was the smoothness of the ride, the fact that you could get into a jeep and it would soak up bumps like a 70s Cadillac—that people really enjoyed about it.”

Under the hood of every Wagoneer for the first two years was Jeep’s new “Tornado” 232 cid (3.8-liter) straight-six. And this was an advanced engine for the time. The overhead cam design, meaning the camshaft is inside the cylinder head instead of the engine block, provided numerous performance and efficiency improvements as well as much longer intervals between oil changes. It was a glimpse into the future of the internal combustion engine.

The Wagoneer was the first 4WD vehicle to be available with a three-speed automatic transmission. That innovation alone made the Jeep a desirable family vehicle to a much bigger crowd. Drivetrain convenience further improved in the 1970s with the industry’s very first full-time 4WD system.

The earliest Wagoneers used a part-time 4WD system that used a lever to engage four-wheel drive. But in 1973, the Wagoneer came with the first full-time 4WD system. Just like the crossovers of today, Jeep’s Quadra-Trac system seamlessly distributed torque to the axle that needed it. There were no levers to shift and no knobs to turn—unless you needed low range. And that meant Wagoneer buyers could drive through changing weather conditions, down a rock-strewn trail and across a muddy two-track without stopping to engage 4WD.

“Take a Bronco of the same generation as a Wagoneer—it’s a fun vehicle but you don’t want to drive 75-80 mph with an early Bronco,” says Van Doveren. “A Wagoneer could handle that speed comfortably, especially with a V8.”

In the Lap of Luxury

1969 super wagoneer

The basic bones of the Wagoneer set the stage for a truly luxurious vehicle. Right from the beginning, drivers of the Wagoneer were rewarded with a more refined and car-like experience behind the wheel than anything else with 4WD. And Jeep offered lots of upscale equipment that was rare at the time.

In 1964 air conditioning became an option. And in 1965, well ahead of many other automakers, Jeep added a safety package that included seatbelts in both rows as well as a revised brake system, safety windshield glass, padded sun visors, two-speed wipers, and more. The Wagoneer was available in a variety of interior fabrics and offered nine different exterior colors that first year.

“It really changed the way people looked at utility vehicles,” said Rosenbusch. “Now you had a vehicle with all the creature comforts inside that you would expect from high-end passenger car. It really raised the bar for what people expected in these vehicles.”

But when Jeep introduced the Super Wagoneer in 1966 it took luxe to a whole other level and set the stage for today’s luxury SUVs.

“That was the Cadillac of 4X4s,” said Van Doveren. “It was the beginning of the push towards a more luxurious vehicle and said to everyone, ‘we’re the luxury brand for the family SUV.’”

The Super Wagoneer wore a fancy new wide-mouth grill and wood trim as well as full wheel covers that looked very much like the mag wheels found on high-performance muscle cars at the time. There was even a padded vinyl roof—a popular luxury flourish of the day.

1966 super wagoneer interior

The interior of a 1966 Super Wagoneer.


On the inside, Super Wagoneers had front bucket seats, a center console, and lots a brushed metal around the cabin. A 327 cid V8 was standard equipment with 270 hp—20 more than other Wagoneers with the same engine. That’s because the Super gulped fuel through a big 4-barrel carburetor. A 1966 Super Wagoneer’s $5,943 base price was wildly expensive for the time, too, another similarity to today’s high-performance luxury SUVs.

By the 1970s, the Wagoneer’s price was creeping further north. So, in 1974, Jeep launched the sportier and less expensive 2-door Cherokee models based upon the same body and chassis and the Wagoneer. That allowed Jeep to really pile on the equipment and push the Wagoneer further up-market. Eventually, every Wagoneer came with a plush leather interior.

“When you got into one of those vehicles it smelled like a saddle shop,” says Miller. “I was raised in Texas so I know what a saddle and boot shop smells like. It’s one of the greatest aromas of all time. That’s what it reminded me of every time I opened the door.”

A Four-Wheeled Status Symbol

1979 jeep wagoneer "limited"

1979 Wagoneer “Limited.” This vehicle came with nearly every luxury amenity imaginable.


In 1978, a “Limited” version of the Wagoneer added even more luxury to the truck and priced it way higher than the standard model. The Wagoner was ancient by the time the 1980s rolled around. But that didn’t erode the truck’s popularity. Instead, the plush Grand Wagoneer launched in 1984 and become a luxury icon during the Decade of Greed.

“Jeeps were always very utilitarian, all you have to do is go back a generation and they didn’t even have carpet on the floor,” says Miller. “So, here’s a vehicle that’s just totally decked out, it has the shag carpet, it has the leather seats, power windows and door locks and power seats.”

The Grand Wagoneer shared its considerable cache and provenance with only one other luxury 4WD vehicle—the far pricier Land Rover Range Rover. But Jeep was moving close to 15,000 Grand Wagoneers a year by the late 1980s—selling four times the number of SUVs as Range Rover.

1984 jeep grand wagoneer

1984 Jeep Grand Wagoneer


1991 jeep grand wagoneer

Wikimedia Commons

“At one point in the late 80s, it was making like $5,000 profit per vehicle for the company,” said Rosenbusch. “So, people were willing to step up and buy a premium vehicle that had clearly become a status symbol.”

Affluent buyers were clearly willing to pay nearly $30,000 for a Grand Wagoneer by the time the Final Editions were built in 1991. “Important people in local communities began to drive them,” says Miller. “It was a vehicle you were proud show off.”

The Grand Wagoneer was a staple in upscale towns across the country. And they were valet parked right alongside prestigious car brands like the Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi. Professional golfer Greg Norman had a Wagoneer in his collection, and so did Ralph Lauren.

That’s remarkable for what was essentially an old truck. Tighter federal safety standards and fuel economy regulations of the 1990s would have required a complete re-engineering for the ancient Grand Wagoneer to comply. The all-new 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee essentially became the Wagoneer’s replacement—a smaller, lighter, and more fuel-efficient SUV to fit the 1990s.

A Car Worth Collecting

jeep grand wagoneer

Jeep Grand Wagoneer, photographed in 2010.

Wikimedia Commons

With all its bright spots, the Wagoneer wasn’t without a few warts.

Miller recalls a time visiting a dealership in the 1980s when his father was in the market for a new Wagoneer. Apparently, the electronics were so undersized the power door lock system refused to unlock the passenger door of a new Wagoneer—while it was still on the dealership lot. His dad bought it anyway.

Today, the truck’s dubious reliability can be frustrating for many owners. But that hasn’t seemed to dampen the enthusiasm.

“I think that the moment production stopped in 1991, we instantly knew this was a vehicle worth keeping and maintaining,” says Rosenbausch. “I’ve been doing the (Jeep) archives since 1990 and I’ve been answering questions and providing service manuals on these vehicles constantly since then. It never stopped having a strong following.”

Miller says the turning point for Wagonmaster was 2010, when the company averaged a $30,000 sale price for every one of their restorations—a price equal to the MSRP of a 1991 Grand Wagoneer. Today the prices for some Wagonmaster Wagoneers can approach six figures.

Indeed, classic car insurance specialist Hagerty says values are on the rise and pegs the values of the best #1 condition Grand Wagoneers at just over $60,000. The company says insurance quotes on these vehicles rose by 16 percent in 2019.

“If someone is going to spend money restoring a classic vehicle, the Wagoneer makes sense,” says Van Doveren. “It’s a four-door, so that automatically changes the picture for usability—now it’s something the whole family can enjoy.”

The Wagoneer Returns

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Former head of Fiat’s Jeep brand Mike Manley introducing a new lineup of Jeep vehicles during the North American international Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, in 2011.

James LeynseGetty Images

After a 30-year absence, the Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer are both rumored to return next year, according to Fiat Chrysler (FCA) CEO Mike Manley back in 2016 when he was in charge of Jeep. Full-size SUVs have been trending for years, and Jeep hasn’t had a vehicle to compete with the Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition at the lower end and the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator at the upper end.

“The name Wagoneer really resonates as a luxurious and capable upscale vehicle, says Rosenbausch. “That name has been part of American culture for so long I think people have very high hopes for it.”

These new Jeeps will finally give the brand a foothold. Though Jeep has yet to leak any official information, some details are starting to emerge. Spy photos and conjecture from those images suggest that the new trucks will ride on a body-on-frame truck chassis shared with the Ram 1500 and have three rows of seating.

Who knows everything Jeep will include in the design of this new Wagoneer, but hopefully there’s still room for a little woodgrain.

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