Some vehicles enter your mind like a virus, wrapping themselves around your cerebral cortex, where they every-so-often put a gentle squeeze on your cognitive processes.
Maybe you're watching a movie, and you see one in the background of a street shot.
Perhaps you're out walking one evening and one rumbles by you, mere feet away.
Or it could be that you're casually browsing online classifieds and you keep typing those same keywords in over and over again, silently building a mental map of each for-sale example within a 100-mile radius of your home.
It's this last flex of the sickness that presents the most potential danger to anyone with a little disposable income or access to easy credit. In my own case, the disease had taken root so deeply that last year I passed the passive stage and took step of creating my own “Wanted To Buy” post that would, hopefully, connect me to the source of my affliction: a Jeep Grand Wagoneer.
A little background. I absolutely did not need another project vehicle when I clicked on the “submit” button a little over a year ago and sent my hopes out into the wastes of cyberspace. Ultimately, that didn't matter, because I had become laser-focused on the fantasy of owning one of these hulking throwbacks to 1960s Brooks Stevens design, boring my friends as I waffled about things like practicality (doubtful), reliability (see: practicality), and the constant specter of rust (unavoidable).
I don't even know how it happened. I'd never driven a Wagoneer, or even ridden in one as a passenger. And yet I'd already made a few tentative visits out to inspect the kind of poor condition stragglers that populate the northeastern swatch of North America, and seriously considered launching myself into the kind of corrosion-mitigation hell that each would have required.
It was a desperation brought on by the paucity of clean models within driving distance, combined with the steady trickle of serotonin from the SUV-shaped virus inhabiting my brain that caused me to get proactive and roll the dice with a “wanted” ad. An acquaintance had mentioned that it was how he had found his own hard-to-locate vehicle, and combined with my own low expectations the process made me feel like I was actually doing something about my Jeep problem despite, well, not doing something.
I was therefore surprised when, a little more than a week later, I received a reply from a gentleman named Eric who told me that he was in possession of a well-kept 1987 Grand Wagoneer, and that while it “wasn't for sale,” he would sell it to me. This led to a visit to a parking garage nestled beneath an old folk's home not 10 minutes from my own abode, filled with a number of antiques riding out the winter months, including one extremely clean survivor of a Jeep.
Eric gives me a very reasonable price, I confirm with him that it's a reasonable price, and then whatever's left of my immune system kicks in to spend the following week patiently talking over my Grand Wagoneer virus' protests to explain all of the reasons why I don't need this particular truck and why buying a much newer Subaru WRX instead is a much better idea.
A year goes by. Despite declining Eric's offer, the truck is never far from my mind. I buy and sell the WRX, and a long-term relationship ends roughly around the same time, which is always a particularly vulnerable period for me from a car-buying perspective. During the holidays, almost 12 months later to the day, I text Eric to ask if the vehicle is still available.
He replies yes, and that he is moving out of town and now actually needs to sell. Once he lowers the price, I drive it around the garage for roughly three minutes, and suddenly I’m a Grand Wagoneer owner.
Here’s a crash course on Jeep's classiest classic: it first went on sale in the early 1960s, and its general design has changed very little since then. Twin solid axles, leaf springs at all four corners, and an ancient 5.9-liter AMC-built V-8 engine are its hallmarks, as is a reasonably rugged 4x4 system. Over the years the Wagoneer would graduate to Grand Wagoneer status, which by the ’80s meant wood paneling inside and out, a fair approximation of leather upholstery, and the kind of effortlessly comfortable on-road comportment that seems mechanically impossible if you're at all familiar with the extremely basic nature of the vehicle's construction.
That's the 30,000-foot view of Wagoneer country. Now that I'm down in the trenches, however, and have been driving my Jeep for a couple of months, I'm starting to discover a number of hidden details about the SUV that can't necessarily be gleaned from a spec sheet.
The most shocking surprise of my time in the Grand Wagoneer so far has been its fuel consumption. I read all of the warnings, but until you're staring 9-miles-per-gallon in the face it doesn't quite sear its way into your psyche. My best road-trip mileage so far has been 11.9 mpg, according to the app I'm using to document how much I have to spend at the pump before Exxon starts sending me a Christmas card, but single digits are the average, and I'm trying not to cry as I write this sentence.
That humbling thirst comes in exchange for the modest reward of roughly 130 horsepower from the Jeep's slow-to-rev iron block eight. The first time I floored the gas in an attempt to pass on the highway, absolutely nothing happened, outside of a louder wheezing sound emanating from under the hood. I have since learned that the truck's two-barrel carb setup isn't exactly tuned for bursts of acceleration, and instead works in concert with a slew of anti-smog controls to strangle the engine's output. Passing in the Grand Wagoneer is more chess game than anything resembling athleticism, but the flip side of this deficit is that I drive in a more relaxed manner when behind the wheel since, let's face it, I'm not going to get anywhere quickly regardless of how hard I stab the accelerator.
Further enhancing my calm is the fact that the Jeep's steering setup only vaguely represents the intersection of my wheel inputs and the wanderings of its beefy front axle. It's less like being at the tiller of a ship and more akin to using a single oar to guide a multi-ton barge through a vat of Jell-O, during a minor earthquake. Initially the experience was off-putting, but somehow I was able to learn how to automatically adjust for the Grand Wagoneer's willingness to course-correct on its own by subconsciously feeding in minor wheel adjustments on a near-continual basis. I can compare the experience to finally getting your sea legs—once it happens, you begin to wonder what the fuss was about in the first place.
Putting aside the drivetrain and chassis, another eye-opener for anyone coming from a modern vehicle is just how incredible the sightlines are from the Jeep's driver's seat. You are surrounded by railroad observation car levels of glass in this rig, with the thinnest of pillars front and rear conspiring to allow as much light into the cabin as possible. It's an absolute delight when transitioning from the heavily-armored pillboxes that meet modern safety regs, and while I know I am fated to die in almost any wreck (although not before my lap-belt-only rear seat passengers), it's lovely while I'm here.
Other quirks abound throughout the Grand Wagoneer's interior. The tailgate has no exterior handle—you have to roll down the window (either with the key in the lock at the back, which works on my Jeep, or from the switch up front, which doesn't), and then reach in to unlatch it. The back seat unstraps itself from the floor and tumbles forward, but only so far as it can lean against the front two buckets, freeing up a bit more cargo space that's constantly under gravity's sword of Damocles.
The air conditioning is fully functional, with the row of four vents at the bottom of the dashboard giving me the coolest knees in town. The glove compartment is mounted at the center of the dash and contains just enough room for a few audio cassettes and the registration. There's no center console, so you're either balancing a beverage in your lap or trusting its safety to the 3 mm of circular lip on the glovebox door.
Speaking of tapes—the deck in my Jeep works quite well, especially after I replaced the original paper cone Jensen speakers in each front door (and at the back of the cargo compartment, where they fire directly into empty space). I've gone on something of a scavenger hunt for missing analog links to my musical past, and suddenly that clattering pile of plastic at each and every thrift shop doesn't seem quite so silly anymore.
Infatuation comes standard
I didn't expect to enjoy driving my Jeep Grand Wagoneer as much as I do. Rather than coming across as a crude curiosity that is a handful in traffic and a headache on a road trip, the SUV somehow transcends the sum of its ancient parts to create an easy to live with personality that I could never have guessed was part of the GW package.
I make up excuses to roll down the rear glass (despite the owner's manual warning me, correctly, that this exposes me to deadly carbon monoxide fumes) and cruise around in the woody. It's comfortable even when chattering over Montreal's horrendous potholes, and remarkably solid-sounding, despite needing an adjustment to keep the tailgate snugly in place.
It puts more smiles on more faces than any vehicle I've piloted in recent memory. It has the patina of an aged warrior, with the single stage brown paint faded at the edges just enough to let you know it's lived a little, but managed to avoid any permanent damage in the most pit.
But now that it's being driven almost every day, I'm starting to feel the effects of its absurdly inefficient drivetrain on a more regular basis, which has lead me down an Internet rabbit hole of research into the various methods out there (aftermarket fuel injection, improved electronic ignition, different camshafts) to improve its crippling taste for crude.
Perhaps a more radical solution: an LS engine swap. Initially, I was reluctant to consider cutting the still-beating heart out of a legitimate, nearly rust-free survivor. For roughly $5k, however, this would likely triple my horsepower and double my fuel mileage, all while dramatically improving the reliability of the truck. That's not all that much more than the keep-the-AMC-mill solutions would run me, with considerable advantages to go with it.
It's still early going in our relationship. Will I still be loving the Grand Wagoneer's unique character on a regular basis six months from now, or will I be hankering for mod-cons? Is it worth transforming a classic into a tow rig for my other classic, or should I be focused on safety and overall reliability rather than falling in love with an aging workhorse?
One thing's for certain: I'm definitely going to spend as much time as possible behind the wheel this summer in a bid to find out.