V&R Stories: The One About The Jeep Wagoneer

The recent unveiling of the Jeep Grand Wagoneer Concept prompted a recollection of a time when I actually drove one. Not the concept, but one of the ones that vehicle was inspired by. 

It was 1982. My father had not been present in our household for ten years at that point. My mother already suffered her second stroke and is no longer able to work or be active. Half of her body was numb and her speech aphasic. My brother was working to keep our household alive and is a freshman at UCLA. 

Did I ever mention how much my father turned out be an asshole in the end? If not, you read it here first…

Since he left our home in 1972, my father moved constantly. Probably because he can. I cannot recount where we lived, but at one time he was in Orange County, then in Contra Costa County, then in North San Diego County. He even contemplated moving to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex at one time in the 1970s. 

On some level, he was a car guy. He did not have a collection of classics or worked on a hot rod of some sort. He leased his cars on an annual basis. Some of which truly scratched my head. He had a beautiful blue 1974 Ford LTD Country Squire at one time, followed by a 1975 AMC Matador Oleg Cassini coupe, and his-and-her 1977 Buick Electra Limited sedans with his second wife. 

In either 1980 or 1981, my father went to Brian Chuchua’s famous Jeep dealership in Fullerton, California. He left with a new 1981 Jeep Wagoneer Limited. This would be his second AMC product he would own. 

The big SUV was in white with a tan-ish leather and corduroy interior. It had the requisite fake woodgrain trim on the sides and on the tailgate. I cannot recall what was under the Wagoneer’s hood. Possibly a V8. Maybe? 

Understand something here. The timeframe of this vehicle was something extraordinary for its time. The first Jeep Wagoneer was produced in 1962, alongside a new pickup truck on the same frame. Kaiser Industries owned Jeep at the time and had some money to develop a larger vehicle architecture to compete with GM, Ford, and Chrysler. 

The Wagoneer was also a unique vehicle that would compete with two other models in the 1960s – the Chevrolet/GMC Suburban and the International Travelall. Ford and Chrysler concentrated on cars, trucks, and vans during this period. 

While GM’s Suburban would follow the design lead of their pickup truck brethren, the basic design of the Wagoneer never changed. This was true for the Jeep pickup. Let’s face it, Kaiser was not in a good financial shape to develop an all new vehicle to keep up with both GM and International Harvester. 

American Motors bought Jeep from Kaiser and folded them into the company in 1970. It took a while for AMC to understand why Jeep had a small, but loyal customer base and how to develop and market their products beyond the core consumer. Jeeps were more common in mountainous areas, desert and rural communities. Customers bought them for practical purposes to handle the terrain they need to drive in. 

AMC’s approach to Jeep was based in expanding the lifestyle. They made Jeep cooler than before, with bolder vehicle graphics and advertising that put suburban people where these vehicles are driven. They were escape vehicles. That approach worked, as Jeep gained sales traction with suburbanites – and a few urban dwellers – throughout the 1970s. 

That funding helped AMC develop the CJ-7 as a longer, more stable follow-up to the iconic CJ-5. Once the CJ-7 hit showrooms, it caused a ripple effect on the entire lineup – including the Wagoneer. 

In the 1970s, AMC expanded the Wagoneer portfolio with the two-door Cherokee model. That model gave customers a larger, more enclosed option for off-road fun alongside the new CJ-7. In the meantime, AMC also added a level of luxury to the utilitarian family wagon with a new Limited trim model. That would introduce another new vehicle genre – the luxury SUV. 

That is where I come in. My father visited us after he took delivery of his 1981 Wagoneer Limited. It surprised us – maybe, it shouldn’t have. He was all about himself and his – ahem – success. His life in real estate gave him a license to do so. That Wagoneer was a second vehicle to his 1979 (or it a 1980?) Datsun 280ZX 2+2. I believe that was a silver-and-blue two-tone paint job. All I remember from that car was that he crashed it into a mountainside on California Highway 128 somewhere near Guerneville. 

After my high school graduation, I visited my father in Novato as a celebration. As part of my celebration, I bought a ticket to an Oakland A’s game at the Coliseum. Of course, I was planning to take public transit all the way down there. Instead, my father threw me the keys to the Wagoneer for the day. 

I drove the Wagoneer all the way down to Oakland. I remember it being a very smooth ride with plenty of power underneath the hood. The big SUV also felt luxurious. Not exactly on the level of a Cadillac, but the seating, the cut-pile carpeting, and the features made it quite so.

After the game was over, I found myself approaching rush hour traffic on Interstate 880 back through San Francisco and onto Marin. From my feeble recollection, I wanted to experience the Wagoneer on the Golden Gate Bridge on my way back into Marin County and Novato. 

I got to admit, that was one of best experiences in my early driving years. That Wagoneer was absolutely lovely. Now I understand why Fiat Chrysler Automobiles wanted to capture the essence of those older, more luxurious Wagoneers onto their new model. 

A couple of years later, I visited my father again. This time, on the Mendocino Coast where he worked in real estate and property management. He had since sold the Wagoneer to one of his co-workers. I went to visit them to hang out with her son. The Wagoneer stood by their wooded home in less than stellar shape. The interior started coming apart in places. The leather started to age. There was a dent – or a few – on the white-and-fake-woodgrain SUV. 

Later that day, I asked my father about the Wagoneer. I don’t recall the exact response, but it was along the lines of that those people do not take good care of what they have. 

There is a lesson to be learned here: Just remember to take care of your worldly goods, OK?

What that Wagoneer showed me was a future I never thought would happen. A future that did not take long to become reality. The SUV was on the rise. Almost every manufacturer had one to sell. The number of SUVs would multiply quickly through the 1980s, because active lifestyles were also on the rise.

Under Renault’s ownership, Jeep also facilitated the growth of the SUV with the smaller XJ lineup – the Cherokee and Wagoneer. The larger SUV became the Grand Wagoneer. And, boy, was it grand!

The Grand Wagoneer already established itself as the leading luxury SUV. Soon, all of the premium brands would show up to compete against it – starting with the importation of the Range Rover. 

When you are presented with the future, sometimes it’s good to look back. 

All photos courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

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