Wagon Tales

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This is a 1988 Jeep Grand Wagoneer. And can I just say how great it is to be talking about a Jeep again? Long time readers might remember the very first car on Forgotten Metal was, in fact, a Jeep (way back when this whole thing was called Forgotten Metal From The Island That Rust Forgot, before I Sean Parker-ed all the extraneous words). But the Grand Wagoneer is a very different kind of Jeep, and comparing it to the Jeepster from our pilot episode demonstrates exactly how diverse the company can be when it sets it mind to it. But first we need to talk about Old Money.

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Old Money, to hear the Wall Street Journal tell it, has three main criteria. First, you can’t tell anyone you have wealth. Second, you shouldn’t show your wealth. And third, you certainly can’t spend it on anything, just in case the first two rules weren’t clear enough on that point. Now, many argue that this level of discretion among old money-ed folks is as much about humility as it is about self-confidence, as there apparently exists a level of guilt among people whose inheritance allows them the freedom to not work for a living. So what does that mean for their cars? Well, it’s not a story that is in any way recent. Yuppie BMW drivers have been exhibiting their wealth in front of staid, Old Money Mercedes types since Silicon Valley was just a dusty hole in the ground. And for the Grand Wagoneer’s story, we have to go back even further.

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The Grand Wagoneer’s direct ancestor is called the Model 463, which emerged as an attempt by Jeep to cash in on their nameplate’s popularity following the Second World War. In an effort to appeal to consumers who on the off chance may not be storming into battle over the muddy fields of Europe, the Model 463 represented a more comfortable, family-friendly entry into the Jeep lineup. Plus, it came with a revolutionary feature known as a “roof,” which at the time was a new concept for the company. Anyway, by 1962, the Model 463 was due for a replacement, and the Wagoneer was what they came up with. In an effort to preserve and refine that family-friendly ethos from the Model 463, Jeep invested $20 million dollars and three years into the development of the Wagoneer. The project also gave the company a mechanically similar pickup truck, which got the much better “Gladiator” name.

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The Wagoneer received an all new, inline six cylinder engine dubbed the “Tornado.” Power at that time was about 140, which doesn’t sound like a lot because it wasn’t. Change was on the way though: in 1965 the Wagoneer became the first Jeep product to be available with a V8 engine, in the form of American Motors’ 327 cubic inch “Vigilante” unit developing 250 horsepower. This Jeep was the first at a great number of different things, in fact. It was the first 4X4 to feature independent front suspension, for example, and the first with an available automatic transmission (a three speed manual was also an option). 1966 was the big year for the Wagoneer, however, because that saw the introduction of what Jeep called the “Super Wagoneer,” which was touted as the first American luxury 4X4. The Super Wagoneer set the tone for the rest of the model’s life as a top-of-the-range Jeep. And it worked: Jeep may have had three different owners over the course of the Wagoneer’s almost thirty year production run, but the vehicle itself remained largely unchanged. In the 1980s, the company introduced the smaller XJ Cherokee, which took  over the “family Jeep” mantle, and allowed the Grand Wagoneer to focus on being a luxury offering until its demise in 1992.

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Let’s return to those three Old Money Criteria. The Jeep brand isn’t a prestige marque for many people, despite the efforts of the Grand Wagoneer, and more recently, the Grand Cherokee. That means buying one is something that only an quietly rich person would do. The Grand Wagoneer is very much a car of contradictions like that. Even the original Model 463 made a name for itself for being a steel-built station wagon in an age of wood. The final model, conversely, is perhaps best remembered for using fake-wood when most cars were edging towards an all-steel look. Perhaps it’s best to think of the Grand Wagoneer as an Escalade without the flash, or even an American Range Rover. It’s confused, yes, but it’s also somehow proud. The Grand Wagoneer is, then, both a representation of and the vehicle of choice for the Old Money elite.

Additional Thoughts:

  • One of the world’s weirder automotive Cronenburgs has to do with a Grand Wagoneer. It’s called the Jerrari. Stories of its origin vary, but the general consensus is that when Bill Harrah (of Harrah’s casinos) needed something unique to transport him around Las Vegas, he shoehorned a Ferrari V12 from a wrecked 365 GTC/4 into his ’77 Grand Wagoneer. Another Harrah creation, a Grand Wagoneer with its original engine but a grafted-on Ferrari front end, is also out there somewhere scaring small children.
  • The Grand Wagoneer in these pictures is missing both of its rear fake-wood inserts- it’s not supposed to look like that. It’s also registered as a “2003 Lincoln Suburban.”
  • Leaked slides from a Chrysler presentation show that Jeep is planning a new Grand Wagoneer for 2019. Expect prices well in excess of $100,000.
  • One last piece of minutae. I mentioned earlier that the Grand Wagoneer went out of production in 1992. But that wasn’t the last time we saw the “Grand Wagoneer” nameplate. In 1993, Jeep introduced a one-year-only Grand Wagoneer trim level on its new Grand Cherokee. It had every option, and of course, fake wood trim on the sides.
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