Time Tested: Wagoneer was long-running staple for Jeep

When Willys sought a replacement to its sturdy but ageing line of station wagons in the late 1950s, it turned to industrial designer Brooks Stevens. Based in Milwaukee, Stevens had the gift of being able to add beauty and intrigue to the most mundane products.  He streamlined the iron in the 1930s and made a household appliance an instant glamour queen. Upon seeing prototypes of electric clothes dryers, Stevens said, “You can’t sell that. Nobody will know what it is.” He added a window and an interior light bulb to the unit and sales took off like a rocket.

Stevens enjoyed a long association with Willys-Overland, having proposed a civilian Jeep during World War II. He was hired as a consultant and created the Victory car for the company. It was shelved when peace came. His talents did not go to waste. He designed the first post-war generation of trucks, wagons and panel deliveries for Willys, as well as the Jeepster phaeton. His truck renderings resulted in the fetching Jeep FC series that debuted in 1957. He was already hard at work on the FC’s replacement, a stylish design that would become the J-Series trucks.

Now, Toledo called on his talents again. Management was keen to mass-market a four-wheel-drive vehicle. In the dying days of Willys passenger cars, schemes were drawn up to fit 1955 Willys Aeros with four-wheel drive. The plans came to nothing and the dies were shipped to Willys’ Brazilian subsidiary where they would soldier on for years to come.

Willys invested $20 million in the creation of the Wagoneer, an unprecedented amount of cash for the tiny independent. By 1959, Stevens’ drawings had been turned into a sleek, full-sized prototype that carried the name Malibu. Another line of thinking prompted him to propose a wagon based on the CJ-5 in 1960. Stephens wisely maintained a strong visual tie between the new vehicle and existing Jeep products.

When the Wagoneer made its debut on November 14, 1962 it created a worldwide sensation. It featured an all-new overhead-cam six-cylinder engine, optional automatic transmission (an industry first when mated to four-wheel drive) and offered independent front suspension. The suggested retail price was $3,526. The Wagoneer’s appeal was primarily to the gentrified and genteel weekend farmer, referred to within the company as ‘the horsey set.’

Advertising was brazen and bold. “Meet a history maker” was the headling. It bragged that the new Wagoneer was the “first station wagon ever built to offer the comfort, silence, speed and smoothness of a passenger car — plus the safety and traction of four-wheel drive.”

The classic design required only minor changes in years to come. Wagoneer got a new grille in 1967. American Motors purchased Jeep late in 1969. The new owners wisely kept changes to a minimum. The availability of the rugged 258-cubic inch Typhoon six was good, so were richly upgraded interiors. Bucket seats became optional in 1972. By 1974, AMC had carefully groomed Wagoneer into a full-fledged prestige vehicle with a price tag of $5,466. The range was broadened with the introduction of the lesser-priced Cherokee.
In 1979, Renault invested in AMC with a 5-percent purchase of the automaker. Its passenger car division might not be doing so well but Jeep sales were red hot. Wagoneers received a new ribbed grille and rectangular halogen headlamps that year. A ritzy new Limited edition sold for $12,485 and despite the steep price tag, the factory couldn’t turn them out fast enough!

AMC’s styling gurus created an attractive downsized platform in 1984 but the original design was a valued classic and continued on as the Grand Wagoneer, now with a sticker price of $19,306.

In 1986, Grand Wagoneers boasted leather seats, a Jensen sound system, Trac-Lok limited slip differential, power everything (including six-way seats), air conditioning, cruise control, tilt wheel, just to name a few upscale goodies on the exhaustive list of standard equipment, every one guaranteed to delight any owner. The vehicle lived up to the grand name and few batted an eye at the price tag which was now well over $20 grand. It was known in marketing that the average income of purchasers was above $100,000 a year.  Jeep sales hit an all time high for the second year in a row.

Chrysler Corp. purchased American Motors in 1987 and was extremely careful not to make radical changes to the hot selling Jeep line. In 1989, one automotive writer observed that Grand Wagoneer was the “favorite of gentlemen, farmers, car armorers, political security forces and body guards.” Grand Wagoneer now commanded $26,395 and 17,057 of the truly posh vehicles were produced. Grand Wagoneer rolled off the line for the last time in 1991. Chrysler laid the great name to rest. Stevens’ timeless design had endured for 28 selling seasons, created an entire new market segment and redefined driving in America.

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