25 May 2016

The Jeep Grand Wagoneer led the way, despite vinyl wood

Yes, it’s true: the woody wagon your mom drove; the one that embarrassed you so much as a kid; the one your parents used to haul you to baseball practice and to bring you to your first boy-girl party… is a future classic. In fact, it’s hardly even a “future” classic. This one is basically a classic already.

Here’s the lowdown on the Grand Wagoneer: as aging SUVs have become increasingly popular as collectibles, enthusiasts are seeking out models with a particular character; a particular attitude; a particular style. Sure, an old Nissan Pathfinder or a Dodge Ramcharger is cool. But those were no-frills tools for a job. The Grand Wagoneer had class. The Grand Wagoneer had luxury. The Grand Wagoneer had… vinyl wood paneling.

The Grand Wagoneer is essentially a luxury version of the Jeep Wagoneer, which started production in the early 1960s. (Fun fact: the Wagoneer was sold in Iran for a few years as the Jeep Ahoo. Truly.) By the mid-1980s, Jeep realized – incredibly prophetically, as it turned out – that many people wanted a little luxury to go along with their SUV. And so the Grand Wagoneer, with wood paneling, leather seats, and 15-inch alloy wheels, was born.

Although the Grand Wagoneer was made for about a decade, it’s the later ones you really want. By 1989, the SUV had luxuries like map lights, improved woodgrain trim, and generally upscale interior materials. Although it might be hard to believe this now, in a world where Jeep makes the Patriot and offers 15-year financing at zero percent, the Grand Wagoneer was one of the most luxurious SUVs of its day: a true competitor to the Range Rover, and far ahead of the Toyota Land Cruiser, which wouldn’t get its own luxury updates for a few more years.

Of course, by modern luxury standards, the Grand Wagoneer isn’t exactly going toe-to-toe with the Bentley Bentayga. There was no point where the Grand Wagoneer was ever manufactured with rear headrests. However, the SUV offered – this is completely true – corduroy seats. Under the hood was a carbureted 5.9-liter V8 that made all of 160 horsepower… through its entire production run, which ended in 1991. Yes, that’s right: Jeep was selling a carbureted V8 until 1991. The luxury SUV sure has come a long way in 25 years.

And yet, none of that seems to matter when you look at it. One glimpse of that classic boxy, functional design, and you can hardly help but imagine rows of them sitting in the line for the Nantucket ferry, sporting those old Connecticut blue license plates registered in Greenwich, carrying a couple of kids and enough fishing rods for the whole family. They’re the picture of suburban American wealth, back when that was still acceptable.

Amazingly, the Grand Wagoneer went away right when things were getting good. The 1991 model year was the end of the line, just three years before the Land Rover Discovery made its debut, just five years before Acura’s first SUV, seven years before the first Mercedes M-Class, and eight years before the Lexus RX. In essence, the Grand Wagoneer died before it ever got to see the segment it created.

Although one can scold Jeep for its horrible timing, the brand probably didn’t mourn the loss: the Grand Wagoneer disappeared to make room for the new Grand Cherokee, which sold in much higher numbers and helped to firmly establish Jeep as a major player in the rapidly exploding world of the family SUV. But if you want a high-class Jeep SUV that hails from the days before navigation systems and airbags, before ventilated seats and forward collision warning systems, it exists. And it appears to be wearing a tree on its body panels.

Interested in a Grand Wagoneer? You might be surprised to find just how wildly prices can fluctuate on the used market. There will be some on your local Craigslist, treated as used cars, with price tags in the mid-four figures, while some specialist retailers are asking $50,000 or more for restored, low-mileage, rust-free examples.

No matter what you spend, you’ll want a good pre-purchase inspection from someone with Grand Wagoneer experience. Sure, these are simple vehicles, but they hail from an era when “quality control” meant kicking the doors as they rolled off the assembly line to make sure they didn’t fall off – and “a little rust never hurt anybody” is the kind of thing they were saying at the factory in Toledo.

Pick the right Grand Wagoneer, though, and you can drive around thumbing your nose at people in X5s and Q7s. They wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for your wood paneling. Your carbureted V8. Your corduroy seats.

10 Reader Comments

  • 1
    73KG Texas June 1, 2016 at 18:16
    If there is someone out there who has dropped $20,000 or more on one of these, I would like to hear your story. These are neat for sure, and full disclosure, I hope to own one someday. But the ones I've seen for sale in the $20K and up price range, I'm just not "buying" that people are buying. From my searches, it seems these can be had in good condition in the $8-12K range. And let's be honest, they were known to have their issues. But when you start getting in to the cost of a brand new fully loaded truck, why would anyone bother? $30, 40, 50 THOUSAND? I see the listings, but I'd really like to know if they're selling for that kind of cash. Like I said, if the market is out there, educate me. I'm just not seeing it.
  • 2
    glenn New York June 1, 2016 at 18:21
    They were the vehicle of choice in my area of New York 60 mi. no of city, for Doctors and other professionals. The old AMC dealer sold many of them as he transitioned into a Jeep/Eagle dealer.
  • 3
    C.Casper NC June 1, 2016 at 18:48
    I owned 7 of these, all factory ordered, up until the end. Mechanically, the best that can be said is that you knew what would go bad and when, and carried the new parts with you. That said, I do wish I had one back, although my vintage Range Rover is light years ahead in every way. If anyone is interested, I probably have the factory service manual, parts manual, Trans Am steering box, (Great Improvement) and very professional dual remote oil filter set up that I used on the later ones.
  • 4
    John Norman Fl. June 1, 2016 at 20:30
    I sold these Wagoners. They burn gas like a an airliner.The Quadratrac was subject to numerous problems The overall quality sucks. They are a genuine piece of crap.
  • 5
    Milt Gordon west bloomfield,Mi 48323 June 1, 2016 at 21:25
    I sold my beautiful,custom painted 1977 Corvette and bought a 1978 Jeep Wagoneer. I had the car for 26 years and gave it away because of the extensive RUST problem. It ran like a top even then. I would buy another one right now if it were available!!!!!!
  • 6
    Jerry Peruski Caro, Michigan June 2, 2016 at 17:43
    I bought a brand new 1978 Jeep Grand Wagoneer. Great vehicle. Too bad this site won't let me post a photo of it.
  • 7
    Les zinger Marietta, ga June 2, 2016 at 06:10
    My family purchased the first Wagoneer in 1963 and have had them ever since. My present is a restored 1987 GW with many upgrades- full Edelbrock engine rebuild (306 Hp), backup camera, console between the seats, auto diming mirror with compass & temp, Military convey led lights, remote start, engine block heater,many more modes
  • 8
    John NJ June 2, 2016 at 06:28
    I bought a 1986 AMC Jeep Grand Wagoneer new, brought it home and parked in the garage overnight. In the morning, while backing out of the garage I noticed trans oil on the floor. Took the Jeep back to the dealer that day and the service advisor told me "oh, they all do that." I advised him that most may in fact leak but the one I was driving would not be one of them. It took the dealer two weeks to correct the problem. Drove the car for three years, never got better than 12 MPG, another wonderful Jeep trait.
  • 9
    Mike Rollins Texas Panhandle June 7, 2016 at 11:34
    I sold these Vehicles a half-century ago. In those days they were called Jeep Wagoneers. They were the first of as popular movement now called SUV. The vehicle pictured is an American Motors produced Grand Wagoneer, NOT a Cherokee.
  • 10
    Jake Outer Space June 9, 2017 at 20:34
    They had front headrests from '86 on.

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