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The Glove Box: Jeep Wagoneer

Photo from biglinc71 on Flickr

       The scene: 1985; Greenwich, Connecticut. Chino-clad Jerry and Randy Jr. are playing basketball in the bright cement driveway. Mom toots the horn as she arrives home, and her offspring make way for the new behemoth slathered with fake wood paneling. The V8 burbles to rest as she exits the driver’s seat, taking care not to brush the door against Dad’s low-slung Mercedes, which the new wagon, truck, whatever you want to call it, dwarfs. This is the new affluent American suburb.

      Hello again! I figured that some of you would start to wonder soon why The Glove Box had not yet featured any of the fine products from the good ol’ U. S. of A. The simple answer is that, compared to products from the rest of the world, they aren’t very interesting. However, this series is as much about the culture around cars as the oily bits, so this week, I present to you a vehicle whose cultural impact lives on to this day: the Jeep Wagoneer. I must be very passionate about it: the amount I have written startles me. I hope you find it as interesting as I do.

Photo from coconv on Flickr

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) recently announced that it would stop producing the Dodge Dart and the Chrysler 200 to focus on SUVs and trucks. Seems counterproductive in a car landscape striving for fuel efficiency and low emissions? It is. But the EPA-mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy rating of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 is actually a weighted average that gives more leniency to larger, higher-riding vehicles.

        In my opinion, this moots the whole effort, but I’m not in charge (yet) and that’s not what I am talking about in this ostensibly benign Radar piece. No, FCA is focusing on the Big and Tall section of the American auto department store because that is where profits are to be made, and its Jeep brand has never faltered in its supreme profitability. Let’s take a brief historical tour.

         Willys-Overland and Ford both made general-purpose vehicles (GPs, or “jeeps”) for the Army in World War II, but only Willys-Overland capitalized on American confidence after the war to make a civilian version. We know the evolution of that vehicle as the Jeep Wrangler today. Willys-Overland changed its name to Kaiser Jeep Corporation in 1963 to promote the Jeep brand. American Motors (AMC) bought Kaiser Jeep in 1970 and Chrysler bought AMC in 1987, both primarily for that valuable asset, Jeep. After the 2008 economic crash, Chrysler went into Chapter 11 mode (GM and Ford were somewhat better off) and languished for a while before Fiat’s Sergio Marchionne saw fit to revive the failing product line. He bought foundering Chrysler not for the dreary Sebring or the audacious but disappointing Dodge Challenger, but for Jeep, whose sales continued to grow year-over-year straight through the recession. Jeep is a profit machine no matter what.

        The Wagoneer represents something of an anomaly in the automotive world: it was well ahead of its time when it was introduced, and yet it sold in large numbers. In effect, it began a trend. While the Range Rover was a luxury off-roader from its debut seven years later, the Wagoneer never was intended for real off-roading, in spite of its Jeep four-wheel-drive credentials. (It did, though, have some motorsport success. And you thought SUVs couldn’t go fast.) Rather, its primary role was the cushy station wagon, the on-road work vehicle for the established bourgeois who occasionally ventured into the outdoors.

        The Wagoneer executed road trips and shopping runs in comfort. Now that the crossover has eclipsed the car in total U.S. sales—in spite of obvious fuel economy shortcomings, no off-road or foul-weather benefits (just get a real 4×4 or winter tires to solve those problems), safety risks due to higher centers of gravity, weight penalties leading to increased costs of normal maintenance, decreased space efficiency, a false sense of driver confidence, inflation of new-car costs, and dilution of proper brand attributes and driving experiences—it is evident that the Wagoneer got the ball rolling. Not that I don’t like high-riding vehicles or anything.

          Since the chrome-laden 1950s and ‘60s, cars have defined American suburbs. Before the Wagoneer, only true cars, not sport utility vehicles or trucks, ruled the landscape. When the Wagoneer came out in 1963, somewhat similar vehicles like the Chevrolet Suburban were really just crude farm trucks with different roofs. The stereotypical suburban garage for the family of 4.5 people consisted of the husband’s personal sleek hardtop and the wife’s ungainly station wagon for running errands and ferrying the kids. (Let’s laugh at history for a moment and admire what progress we have made in women’s rights and privileges.) The new Wagoneer brought its buyers a roomier, new and improved version of the station wagon that Dad mightn’t be quite as ashamed of driving. There was a sense of outdoors adventure and machismo to the car, even if it was basically a raised station wagon.

         The Suburban, the main competition, gradually became more sophisticated, but the Wagoneer’s more luxurious character set it apart for its entire lifespan. Only after the Wagoneer disappeared did the Suburban truly live up to its name and migrate from the ranch to the driveway wholesale. Still, while both were truck-based, the Suburban struggled much more to shake that image. A real luxury SUV of the Wagoneer’s ilk did not truly reappear until the Mercedes M-class and BMW X5, both car-based designs that established the modern model for the SUV, which, sadly, dominates monied suburbs increasingly in 2016. The Wagoneer’s trend, then, bloomed late but with force. Just in this decade, automakers have decided that they need slightly raised hatchbacks of every body size to satisfy the customer, who craves the same feelings—weight? height? a false sense of added safety?—that the Wagoneer first introduced to buyers.

From 1963 until 1991, through three different eras of corporate ownership, the Wagoneer remained almost entirely the same. While wheels, lights, and trim changed over time, the body shape and most panels never changed. Inside, the dashboard added complexity over time, and upholstery and plastics varied. The most notable interior change, really, was the overhead console that Chrysler borrowed from its famous minivans in the late 1980s to increase the family-car convenience of the Wagoneer. The lack of real difference between 1991 and 1963 Wagoneers demonstrates the staying power of the design, and explains much of its renown.

       The Wagoneer was simple under the skin as well. Its mechanical hallmarks, all of which contributed to its ease of use for suburban families, were introduced early in its lifespan. The features may have been new once, but the Wagoneer really was an old design when it left the market. A four-wheel-drive system that could be conveniently switched on or off while moving, rather than only while stopped, was novel for the 1960s but rather commonplace or even obsolete by 1991. Convenience defined the Super Wagoneer of 1966–69, too, whose automatic transmission, push-button radio, tilting steering wheel, and many other courtesy features ultimately made the Wagoneer into its full luxury self. Instead of being mechanically innovative, this SUV made bank on its convenience features and simple but tough construction.

The beauty of Wagoneers is that large numbers of them remain on the roads today, continuing to do what they have always done. The more affluent the suburb, the more likely you are to see street-parked, well-maintained Wagoneers; the extreme cases are Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, the Hamptons, and other East Coast beach retreats for the rich, where immaculate Wagoneers make up as much of the local car population as Civics and Corollas do in the East Bay.

         Wagoneer nostalgia is a very particular type, and not everyone feels it, especially in nouveau-riche California. Just like with the 2002, though, it is easy to find someone with a Wagoneer story, nor is it too much of a chore to find one in driving condition for a decent price. The tippy top of immaculately restored late Wagoneers go for $50,000 or so, but $25,000 should be plenty to find a very clean, well-kept example fit for tootling about town or the odd off-road excursion. Maintenance can be tricky, with quite a few parts to go wrong (just ask David Tracy), and fuel economy is pitiful, but the basic mechanicals are proven to last and values are climbing. As FCA readies a new Grand Wagoneer in the next couple of years, the nostalgia could reemerge, making inexpensive old Wagoneers harder to find. If you have space for an old-fashioned luxury SUV and a love for gas stations, now is the time. If you’re still craving more full-size Jeep info, head here for a summary of the Wagoneer and its legacy, or here for a detailed pictorial history.

        It’s been fun exploring the history and culture of this American icon that begat the modern SUV, but next week we will return to my comfort zone: outside the United States, and a car I’d actually want to drive. In other words, at least a little left-field. See you then.


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