Words: Mike Ryan
Photos: Lorbek Luxury Cars Sydney and Stellantis North America
Range Rover is often regarded as the automotive industry’s first premium 4x4 and the vehicle that started the trend for off-roaders that combined car-like appointments and comfort with genuine capability away from sealed roads. But Jeep’s Wagoneer beat the Range Rover to market by seven years and pioneered features that the Rangie wouldn’t offer until years later.
The history of the Wagoneer is a convoluted and sometimes confusing one, featuring many model grades, a name change, similar models on different platforms and multiple parent companies, too. But one constant throughout the original Wagoneer’s 28 years on the market is that the ‘SJ Series’ body shell it launched with was essentially unchanged during that entire period. Sure, drivetrain options came and event, along with appointments and some detail and design changes, but the basic body shape and underlying chassis was a constant through the Wagoneer’s production life.
That life started in late 1959, when Kaiser Industries, owners of the Jeep brand, recognised the growing number of competitors in the four-wheel drive market and the need to upgrade their existing range, most of which was still closely linked – mechanically and stylistically – to the Willys MB jeep from World War II.
Jeep had introduced civilian models in rapid succession after the war, starting with the CJ (Civilian Jeep) in 1945, then the Jeep Station Wagon in 1946, a pickup truck in 1947 and the ‘Jeepster’ roadster in 1948. The all-steel body of the Station Wagon was unusual for the time, as many station wagons were still using timber as a structural element. Another point to note with the Station Wagon is that it was only available with two-wheel drive initially – four-wheel drive wouldn’t become an option until 1949.
A Moving Market
By the time Kaiser Industries purchased Willys Motors (nee Willys-Overland) in 1953, the Jeep lineup hadn’t changed much from that initial flurry of new models, but it would soon need to. Willys and Kaiser (an all-new marque, founded in 1945), had entered the postwar car market with confidence, but midway through the 1950s, it became obvious that smaller, independent marques couldn’t compete against the much higher volumes and greater market coverage of America’s bigger carmakers, namely Ford, GM, Chrysler, Packard, Studebaker and the new AMC conglomerate that had been formed from the merger of Nash and Hudson in 1954.
As such, both Kaiser and Willys passenger cars were discontinued during 1955 (Kaiser’s companion marque Frazer had been dropped in 1951) and the focus moved to Jeep, which had been relatively profitable from the outset, mainly due to the fact they had the civilian four-wheel drive market almost entirely to themselves up to that point. This was changing, though, as the likes of Ford, Chevrolet, GMC, Dodge and International all started offering factory four-wheel drive variants of their pickup trucks. International and Chev also introduced four-wheel drive as an option on their Carryall and Suburban passenger wagons; International in 1956 and Chevrolet a year later.
While it could be argued the Carryall and Suburban were the first true SUVs, they were both truck-based passenger haulers that handled and drove like trucks. They also looked like trucks, so Kaiser saw the opportunity to offer something different: something closer to a conventional station wagon (the booming body style of the 1950s) in terms of ride, comfort and ease of use, with a modern look and the four-wheel drive capability that Jeep was known for.
Work on this, according to some sources, started in 1959, with running prototypes on the road by 1960. To reduce costs, the new Jeep station wagon’s chassis, some body panels and most of the running gear would be applied to modernise Jeep's pickup truck, which like the Station Wagon, was an aging design after a decade in the market.
In 1961, International released their Scout 4x4; a “recreational” model aimed directly at Jeep’s CJ range and proof that the four-wheel drive market was becoming more than just the domain of farmers and tradespeople. Ford followed with their Bronco in 1966, while Chevrolet released the Blazer for 1969. Admittedly, none of these were direct rivals to the new wagon and pickup that Jeep were developing, but they showed the need to modernise the range, as well as the importance of offering features that others in the emerging four-wheel drive market weren’t.
The outcome of years spent researching and testing was the ‘Wagoneer’, that was released in November, 1962, as a 1963 model. In the same year, Kaiser Industries rebranded itself as Kaiser Jeep Corporation, reflecting the growing prominence of Jeep in the company’s operations.
A True Pioneer
The initial Wagoneer was a clean sheet design, created by Brooks Stevens, who had also styled Jeep’s first postwar models, but is perhaps better known for the cars he designed for Studebaker. The new wagon bore little resemblance to what Stevens had designed over a decade earlier, with only hints of established Jeep styling in elements like the upright grille design, flattened wheelarch openings and angular body shape.
Slim pillars made the Wagoneer look more like a car and less like a truck, as well as allowing for an abundant glass area. Two- and four-door wagon bodies were offered initially, both with bench seating for six, abundant cargo space and a horizontal tailgate. Sheetmetal forward of the windscreen would be shared with the new pickup truck that came to market as the 'Gladiator' - a model name that endured until 1988 and was revived by Jeep in 2019.
Rolling on a 110-inch wheelbase, the debut Wagoneer was regarded as a ‘compact’ or ‘intermediate’ in American parlance, but would be considered a large vehicle in Australian terms. While only marginally bigger than an EH Holden or XM Falcon in length and width, the Wagoneer was notably taller, mainly to provide greater ground clearance. However, it wasn’t so tall that it couldn’t fit into a suburban garage and it wasn’t a vehicle you needed to “step up” into, either.
While the styling was new and interesting, what was going on underneath was even moreso. Jeep launched the Wagoneer with a new, overhead cam 3.8-litre six-cylinder engine, the ‘Tornado,’ that was a first for this segment of the market and was also more economical than the ‘Super Hurricane’ six that Jeep had previously offered. A three-speed manual transmission was standard, with overdrive optional. The Wagoneer could also be optioned with an automatic transmission; a first for a four-wheel drive from an American manufacturer.
Another innovation in four-wheel drive terms was the Wagoneer's optional independent front suspension. Against the solid axle of conventional 4x4s, torsion bars on the Wagoneer delivered more of a car-like ride. Like the auto transmission, this contributed to the image of the new Jeep being a model suitable for families. The Wagoneer could still be a “working” vehicle, though, with winches and a front-mounted snowplough amongst the available options, as well as more conventional items like power brakes, power steering, a power tailgate window, reversing lights, seatbelts, a dash-mounted clock and AM radio.
Base and Deluxe (later re-named Custom) Wagoneer variants were offered initially; the former with simple vinyl upholstery and rubber flooring, the latter with patterned seat trims and full carpeting. Although four-wheel drive was Jeep’s calling card, they also offered the Wagoneer in two-wheel drive.
If buyers ordered the former, a dash-mounted compass was standard. Four-wheel drive proved the overwhelming favourite with buyers, leading to the two-wheel drive Wagoneer being discontinued after 1967, while the reduced practicality of the two-door body saw it dropped after 1968.
While the specs and options would be tweaked over the years, the initial response to the Wagoneer was very positive. Production struggled to meet demand and the Wagoneer was the major factor in 1963 being Jeep’s best sales year ever, with 1964 sales greater again.
The innovations kept coming in 1964, with air conditioning offered as an option, followed by a V8 engine in 1965 – both were firsts for a volume production four-wheel drive vehicle. The engine, a 327ci unit producing 186kW (250hp), was sourced from AMC (American Motors Corporation). A GM Turbo Hydramatic auto transmission was optional for this engine, but Wagoneers with the Tornado six used the same Borg Warner auto offered at launch.
Luxury – as Standard
A taste of what was to define later Wagoneers like the vehicle featured came in 1966 with the release of the ‘’Super Wagoneer’. This was essentially a fully-loaded version of the Wagoneer and the first true luxury 4x4. In addition to a more powerful version of the 327 V8 and an auto transmission as standard, the Super Wagoneer came with power steering, a tilt steering column, power brakes, power tailgate window, air conditioning, radio and more. Outside, the Super Wagoneer was identified by a vinyl roof, special wheel covers and contrasting side and tailgate panels in Antique Gold with bright metal trim. Inside, plusher carpeting and front bucket seats with a centre console were standard.
All this came at a price though. At US$5,943, the Super Wagoneer was 50 per cent dearer than the Wagoneer Custom and more expensive than most Cadillacs and Lincolns in 1966.
While Jeep was successful in the late 1960s, with the Wagoneer a big part of that success, it was still a small player in the overall American car market. That changed in 1970 when AMC purchased Kaiser Jeep Corporation and began adding Jeep vehicles to their larger dealer network, exposing the brand to a greater number of potential buyers.
For the Wagoneer, the changes under AMC ownership weren’t too grand initially, but AMC engines and transmissions did replace the mix ‘n’ match of drivetrain components from various suppliers that had been used previously.
In-house developments at Jeep included the Quadra-Trac full-time four-wheel drive system that was added to the Wagoneer option list in 1973 and became standard in 1975. In the same vein, a 360ci V8 that was optional on 1971 Wagoneers became standard in 1974. However, the oil embargo of 1979 (America’s second that decade) saw a six-cylinder engine, manual transmission and part-time four-wheel drive system re-introduced to address concerns over fuel economy.
More Innovation, More Luxury
When Jeep released the Cherokee in 1974, it didn’t have a great impact on Wagoneer sales, as it was smaller, less well equipped and a two-door. That began to change later in the decade, though, as the Cherokee upped its trim level and added a four-door option. To reinforce the Wagoneer's premium position, a 'Limited' version was released in 1978.
Like the Super Wagoneer of the previous decade, the Wagoneer Limited added leather upholstery (a four-wheel drive first) and cruise control, along with almost everything else as standard, including power seats, power windows, power door locks and more. Although faux woodgrain trim panels were first seen on a limited-release Wagoneer variant in 1971, their appearance on the ’78 Wagoneer Limited set the tone for the remainder of the model’s production life and has become the defining Wagoneer feature to many.
Despite its high price (US$10,500 in 1978 – the equivalent of more than US$50,000 today), the Wagoneer Limited was a success and there was soon a waiting list. To cater for those whose budgets couldn’t quite stretch to the Limited, the ‘Wagoneer Brougham’ was introduced for 1981 and slotted in between the base model and Limited in terms of spec and price.
A Grand Arrival
In 1984, Jeep released the new, smaller XJ Series Cherokee and decided to leverage the appeal of the Wagoneer model name by adding it to that range. That led to the existing SJ Series Wagoneer being renamed ‘Grand Wagoneer’. Further muddying the waters was the release of a Wagoneer Custom on the SJ platform, but this was soon dropped.
Name change aside, the Grand Wagoneer for 1984 was virtually unchanged from the Wagoneer Limited that had been offered the year before, with new-look tail lights the only obvious visual difference. The Limited’s change to Grand Wagoneer status saw the Brougham variant dropped (the base SJ Series Wagoneer had been discontinued a year earlier), meaning the renamed model was only available in a single specification.
That specification started with a 258ci six-cylinder engine (that had been introduced in 1980), three-speed automatic and the Selec-Trac selectable four-wheel drive system that had debuted in 1982, replacing the Quadra-Trac full-time system. All the Wagoneer Limited’s luxury features, like leather, power everything (including power mirrors), foglamps, air con and a stereo cassette deck, carried over. As the Grand Wagoneer was so well equipped, options were few, but included a 360 V8, which most buyers chose over the six
Decline and Revival
While still a good model for Jeep’s range and image, Wagoneer sales were starting to drop off in the ’80s, so changes were minimal in the years following the Grand Wagoneer rebrand. Suspension and Selec-Trac upgrades came in 1985, a new-look grille and restyled dash was added for 1986, with revision of the woodgrain trim coming in 1987. The 360 V8 was re-introduced as the standard engine in 1987, too, but the body shape and overall concept of car-like luxury and comfort with four-wheel drive capability that had been introduced 25 years earlier was unchanged.
Chrysler’s purchase of AMC in 1987 saw even fewer changes made to the Grand Wagoneer and it was finally phased out in 1991, but there was enough equity in the name for several attempts at a revival. The first of these came just over a year later when the all-new ZJ Series Grand Cherokee added a Grand Wagoneer variant with a 318 V8, auto, faux woodgrain trim and leather interior. Buyer response was poor, though, and it was dropped after one year.
Back in 2011, the head of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Sergio Marchionne, announced an all-new Grand Wagoneer would be coming in 2013, but it wasn’t until 2020 that it arrived, first in concept form, then as a production model for 2022 that’s stayed true to the premium 4x4 mantra of the original Grand Wagoneer from almost 40 years earlier.
Today, the original SJ Series Wagoneers have a cult following and Grand Wagoneers from the 1984-1991 period are considered collector’s items, with a cadre of enthusiasts in the US devoted to their restoration and preservation. In Australia, Wagoneers were available briefly in the 1960s, but the quantity released here was tiny. Grand Wagoneers followed in the late 1980s, but in even smaller numbers. The high price ($50K+), requirement for local RHD conversion (which was far more complicated than it would have been in the 1960s, given all the Grand Wagoneer’s features) and the predominance of Range Rovers by this time meant the premium Jeep never really got a foothold here. This makes the Grand Wagoneer featured even more noteworthy
From Coast to Coast
The 1989 Grand Wagoneer presented here is currently available through Lorbek Luxury Cars Sydney and appears to be an outstanding example of the model.
Sourced out of the US west coast in October, 2020, and sent to Australia's east coast, this Grand Wagoneer has had only two local owners, both of whom have refurbished different elements of the vehicle.
The first local owner commissioned Brad Tilley Garage in Brookvale to replace the shock absorbers, returning the Grand Wagoneer to its factory height in the process, as it had been lifted. Other items, like the steering damper, rear crossmember and selected bushes, engine and trans mounts were also replaced, along with consumables, like plugs, leads, seals, gaskets and hoses. The second owner, who purchased it a year ago, had some electrical work attended to, added a new alarm and period-look radio with Bluetooth capability. Complementing this, new speakers and an aftermarket aerial were installed, too.
Being a California car (presumably from new), the body on this Grand Wagoneer is in good condition, with no apparent rust. The ‘Sand Metallic’ paint (one of seven colours available in 1989) has no noticable blemishes or fading, the chrome and bright metal is in good condition and the wheels look outstanding, enhanced by near-new whiteline tyres. More importantly, the woodgrain applique on the sides and the tailgate looks fresh, suggesting it may have been replaced in the US.
Inside, it’s a similar story. There is wear to things like the switchgear, steering wheel and driver’s seat, but nothing unexpected for a 34-year-old vehicle and the cabin is in very tidy condition overall. Same goes for the engine bay.
An odometer reading of 119,810 miles (191,705km) is likely to be genuine, given this vehicle’s condition, but how much off-road work – if any – this Grand Wagoneer did before coming here is unknown.
The first local owner of this Grand Wagoneer was likely drawn to its condition, as well as its rarity. Same goes for the second owner. Now, it’s time for a third owner to experience a vehicle that’s not only very hard to come by in Australia, but also one that offers the very best in C1989 Jeep comfort, features and performance.
Recent years have shown there's a market out there for classic Land Rovers, LandCruisers, Patrols, and the like, but if you’re looking for an older 4x4 that’s a lot rarer - and a lot more luxurious – give this one a look.
This 1989 Jeep Grand Wagoneer is currently for sale through Lorbek Luxury Cars Sydney.
Imported into Australia from California in 2020, the Jeep has had two local owners, the first of whom attended to a number of mechanical items, while the second addressed the electrics and sound system. As such, the vehicle should be trouble-free for the next owner.
One for the Jeep aficionado, as well as a superior alternative to a similar-era Range Rover, this Grand Wagoneer offers just about every luxury feature available in 1989, combined with the practicality of selectable four-wheel drive and a strong 360 V8 engine. There’s also provision for a towbar, should the next owner wish to pull a boat, caravan or horse float.
To be sold unregistered, the asking price of $89,990 (excl. gov charges) includes import documents and receipts for previous work.