My Grand Wagoneer’s Windows Made Me Suffer the Tyranny of Obsolete Tech

The offending flex track and lifter in their natural state of malfunction. Benjamin Hunting

Any owner who drives their vintage car is aware of the quality gap between old-school manufacturing techniques and modern vehicle assembly. I’ve owned cars designed in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and I have little doubt that even today’s most poorly engineered and built cars exceed the standard of decades past. And I’m not even talking about major issues—failures that will leave you stranded on the side of the road, cursing your luck as your pride and joy inches up onto a flatbed. No, I’m referring to the many manufacturing inconsistencies, high tolerances, “good enough” parts designs, and lax attitudes toward planned obsolescence baked into so much of car building prior to the 1990s.

Although it’s easy to overlook some of this during the honeymoon period of classic ownership, when every mile feels like magic, across a long enough timeline the rash of unreliable switches, wonky wiring, fussy fuses, and maddening mechanisms is inevitable. You become intimately familiar with the precise areas of your car that were neglected in its gestation, either due to underinvestment or sheer quality control.

This can all add up to a form of torment, especially once a simple repair needs to be done a third or fourth time during the driving season. It feels Sisyphean to throw the same OEM parts at a problem, only to have the universe spit them back at you a month or two later, in pieces, victimized by their own inability to perform up to a spec imagined decades prior.

1987-Jeep-Grand-Wagoneer-Flex-Track-Install beginning
The interior panel of the left rear door on the Grand Wagoneer, pre-surgery.Benjamin Hunting

This was exactly the situation I faced with my 1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, a vehicle built during a transition year between two companies—AMC and Chrysler—which were both notorious at that time for their casual approach to quality. After years of dealing with a window defect that detracted from my ability to fully enjoy my vehicle, I unexpectedly encountered a chance to wipe the slate clean by way of an upgraded replacement part.

The catch? It was horrendously expensive, at least in comparison to sticking with the factory setup. It’s here that I was forced to ask myself a question, one I suspect is familiar to the vast majority of classic car caretakers: Buy once cry once, or roll the dice and risk being nickel-and-dimed to death?

Flex Track? More Like “Break That”

Allow me to introduce you to my nemesis: the Jeep flex track window system. I can only conclude that this feature is the product of a feverish cost-cutting session by AMC execs seeking the cheapest possible path to a luxurious-seeming power window experience for the brand’s flagship full-size SUV.

1987-Jeep-Grand-Wagoneer-Flex-Track-Install rear passenger door internals
The inside of the left rear passenger door on the Grand Wagoneer, which conceals the offending flex track mechanism.Benjamin Hunting

It does not strike me as luxurious. Rather, the flex track is a panic-inducing piece of plastic with the torsional strength of overcooked pasta. A setup lives inside each of my Waggy’s four doors. As designed, this strip of PVC climbs up and down a J-shaped metal rung by way of segmented teeth that pass through a motor that sits in the bottom of the door. At the top, the flex track makes a single turkey-necked point of contact with the window itself, bearing the full weight of the glass on a bulging head whose hopes of surviving more than a few dozen up-downs are very much in question.

1987-Jeep-Grand-Wagoneer-Flex-Track-Install flex track
The flex track in its natural state: broken, in pieces, useless.Benjamin Hunting

The flex track, as far as I can tell, was born to break. The teeth snap off, the motor gears slip, and the top mount decapitates itself with astounding regularity, all of which results in the window sliding down into the door. The resulting gap becomes an alluring invitation to both thieves and the elements. While Chrysler did produce a stronger, metal version of the flex track, it was only offered for a single model year and never sold as a replacement part, which means you have better odds at the Vegas craps table than you do of finding one at your local wrecking yard.

Since purchasing my Grand Wagoneer in 2019, I have done no fewer than two or three flex track replacements every single year, a task that initially required opening up each door and removing the entire mechanism. Now, I am so skilled at the job that I can install a flex track inside the front doors completely blind, with the motor still snugly installed. The one bright spot in this storm of failure? Flex tracks are not expensive, costing at most $20, on average, depending on which supplier one chooses. I have had a stable stock of tracks in my garage, ready for installation.

1987-Jeep-Grand-Wagoneer-Flex-Track-Install door panel
The inside of the driver’s door on the Grand Wagoneer. Note the broken flex track lurking at the bottom left.Benjamin Hunting

That’s not the crux of the issue, however. The real toll exacted by Jeep’s flex track fiasco is the mental stress of never knowing if the next flick of the window switch will be the last for the part currently sitting inside the door. It’s more than a little frazzling to pull up to a drive-thru in a rainstorm, snag your snacks, and then hear the gears snap. Or even worse, slide into a parking spot and hit the “up” position only to discover that it the track was busted. Time to break out the tool kit, tear off the interior panel, and push the glass up manually? Maybe better to just head back home and not risk a break-in.

Lest you think I am exaggerating about how often flex tracks give up the ghost, I began to travel with a stack of rubber wedges in the glove box that I could use to slip between the glass and the frame if I caught a crap-out before the window completely disappeared into the door. Every trip became a gamble as to whether all four windows would be working by the time I made it back home again, which slowly but surely began to give me pause when I reached for my Jeep’s keys while heading out the door.

1987-Jeep-Grand-Wagoneer-Flex-Track-Install taping glass up
This is how you keep windows up in a Jeep equipped with a flex track system.Benjamin Hunting

Big-Buck Solution

The tipping point for me occurred this past spring when, while pulling into my garage after the first drive of the year, my Grand Wagoneer’s driver’s window performed its traditional dance of futility. The motor whirred impotently in the door as the glass stayed resolutely at half-mast. Cursing, I shut down the engine and dug out the spare flex tracks that were buried in the loft, under the detritus of our recent country move.

Later that same evening, I stumbled across a post in one of my Jeep Facebook groups. It seemed too good to be true. BJ’s Off-Road—the most reliable supplier of full-size Jeep-related parts in the country, and one I had leaned on during my own vehicle’s LS swap— had announced production of a complete power window conversion kit for every Wagoneer built from 1963-1991. This kit, which replaced both existing power windows and older manual setups, banished the flex track forever in favor of a simple and reliable mechanical arm design.

1987-Jeep-Grand-Wagoneer-Flex-Track-Install new arm lifter motor
The new arm lift and motor beside the clunky, broken stock flex track.Benjamin Hunting

The timing was perfect, and the pitch was compelling. There was only one problem: the price. With a $1250 USD sticker, plus shipping, import duties, and taxes, the entire kit and the associated supporting hardware converted to just under $2000 metric bucks (the unofficial currency of Canada, where I reside). That meant I’d be spending $500 per window to avoid the mental turmoil and constant annoyance of having to swap in a succession of $20 flex tracks.

Whatever It Takes

Did I go for it anyway? Given my history of financial decisions regarding Grand Wagoneer ownership, you likely won’t be surprised to find out that I did. And I don’t regret my decision whatsoever.

1987-Jeep-Grand-Wagoneer-Flex-Track-Install mechanism
The front door’s mechanism was considerably larger and mounted horizontally instead of vertically.Benjamin Hunting

The kit came with little in the way of installation instructions, but the folks at BJ’s were available to answer my questions and guide me through the process whenever I hit a stumbling block. The only real problem I ran into was that three of the four motors were actually wired in reverse (making down “up,” and vice-versa), which is something that is apparently common when dealing with aftermarket power windows. The kit actually came with an explainer on how to reverse motor polarity using the supplied pigtail connectors for the wiring harness, which was relatively simple to do.

I quite happy with the end result. I took the opportunity to also install a relay kit that was sitting on the shelf, providing each of the new motors with more power than what my Jeep’s 35-year-old switches could provide, and they now perform their lifting task with alacrity.

They actually work a little too well; the increased travel of the mechanical arm design plunges the front glass so deep into the door that it makes contact with the locking mechanism—something I’ll need to solve with a window stop sourced from a manual-window model. As with most older machines, installing new and robust parts also revealed the limitations of the existing framework around them. My rear window guides, specifically, appear to be warped to the point where the window sticks if I roll it all the way into the door. Not a surprise for the Grand Wagoneer, which has never been known for exceptional build quality.

The reality of the classic car world is that sometimes, to put an issue truly to bed, you have to spend, oh, 25 times what you’d normally expect. Everyone has to draw the line for themselves as to whether they feel comfortable splashing out on a solution that approaches the reliability of a modern vehicle, and that’s a personal decision. Sometimes you just have to make peace with the fact that there are aspects of old-car ownership, at this point in a machine’s life, that will never perform up to spec.

Ask any E36-generation BMW 3 Series owner (or Z3 owner) how much they’ve plunked down replacing the flimsy plastic pieces of their cooling system. Or ask any ‘60s muscle car proprietor what they doled out swapping in an electronic ignition system, or a Range Rover aficionado what they’ve spent on, well, pretty much everything. The answer from passionate enthusiasts is almost always the same: if there’s a better way to get the job done, it’s worth the extra investment for the job to be done right.

Granted, power windows might not seem like they’re on the same level as engine cooling or timing, but the net effect is no different. My flex track woes had put me in a prison of uncertainty, one that was preventing me from being able to trust my Jeep as a daily driver. Any problem that transforms a vehicle from a beloved road trip companion to garage decoration should be right at the top of the list of what needs to be fixed. This power window kit cost me, yes, but it offered me the chance once again enjoy my ride the way I want to. Isn’t that the point?

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Comments

    Yes, that’s the point. But really, we have to be honest: cars made in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s weren’t really designed to be still driving on the 2020s. OEMs weren’t in the business of providing a car to us that would last forever – they wanted to sell us a new one every few years. Aside from the fact that some tech we’re used to these days didn’t even exist back then, NOTHING on older cars was expected to last 50 or more years.
    I’m glad that outfits like BJs are making a living coming out with upgrades that we owners that aren’t hung up on “completely original” can use to bring our old flivvers at least marginally into the modern age, so that we can enjoy them as long as possible.
    By-the-way, Benjamin, where DID you get those cool orange knobs for those bench drawers? I want some of those in MY shop! 😜

    I inherited those knobs from the garage’s previous owner! Easy to find in the dark 😉 You’re quite right about how long old cars were intended to last – in some cases, just a couple of years – before we were expected to head right back to the showroom and buy something “better” to replace them. This cycle was of course accelerated by all the non-galvanized steel subject to salt and moisture up here in the northeast.

    The aftermarket window assembly looks vaguely early 60s GM inspired to me.

    They didn’t expect them to last, but aspects of well built endured for a long time as well. The original GM front wheel drive systems were robust engineering for example. Stainless steel trim has not been superseded by modern plastic foils in my view.

    Cost-cutting rarely improved things. Consider the lighter, later square body frames, the flaw (they fold in half) in the “new” hood design for the same trucks.

    Outside of the scope of most hobby interest, I do think companies like Ford have really stepped up their overall quality in the last 20 years. I think that is just a response to market conditions. Though the plastic shifter handle in my 2005 Mustang was still chintzy (loved the car overall though).

    I feel like interior components are often the last ones to get a quality boost. It’s like OEMs expect owners to be more “tolerant” of plastic and vinyl falling apart or crumbling due to heat and UV, or wearing down from constant contact.

    $300 a door in standard dollars is high, but not exactly highway robbery. You may have gotten spoiled by the relative cheapness of the original solution – which is probably why they used it in the first place.

    Somewhat different but similar scenario… My 90 Allante uses a tape drive system which is similar in some aspects to the Jeep setup but the difference is nothing actually hangs on the tape. When I got the car the driver window would not go up or down all the way, and it was clear that it was putting a lot of strain on the motor. I discovered that the fancy Bose speaker housing had dislodged itself from the door and someone attempted to power through it chewing up the cog holes in the tape. Here’s the thing… A lot of GM vehicles used the tape drive, but the standard tape is 0.6 mm and the Allante tape is something like 1.4 mm and COMPLETELY unobtainable. I mean completely. I pulled that tape out, buffed out all of the boogered up spots, lubed everything up, and put it back in and thankfully it has been working well for years. If I ever have to go another route… they made twice as many Wagoneer’s in 1987 than they made Allantes during the total run, so things might get creative

    Pretty much anything on the body, the unobtanium F7 transmission (which looks an awful lot like more common GM transaxles but isn’t) and some engine internals

    The fact is I really seldom have seen a GM 60’s window fail. But the Gen 4 Camaro it was common. Why costs. GM would fund a car yo get the suspension and engine right but ran out of money when they looked inside.

    It was not just GM but all companies cut corners and many in even more places. Why are their so few older jeeps. Rust.

    But without cut corners no one would buy. A real catch 22 eh?

    It’s rare to find a car with no compromise, that’s true. We all end up deciding for ourselves which compromises we can live with, and which ones will drive us crazy over the long haul.

    E46 BMWs have a similar problem (so perhaps BMW quality from the 2000s is on par with Chrysler / AMC quality from the ’80s). Except they use a cable drive for the window mechanism. My E46 had 7 window regulator replacements before I sent it to its next home. I used to keep some 2x4s in the trunk so I could disassemble the door and jam them inside to prop the window up when the window fell into the bottom of the door without warning.

    And then there’s the plastic cooling system, the subframe cracks that inevitably follow suspension bushing failures, water leaks from the sunroof that turn the car into a gigantic fish bowl, etc. E46s require a constant supply of replacement parts. But I’ve also owned/own numerous 30 year old Hondas from the 80s and 90s with 300,000+ miles on them and they were/are as reliable as the sun.

    I had an E34 with the M50 engine, and the plastic cooling system was a headache until I went through it and replaced everything that had been under-engineered. That being said, that car had 430,000 km on it when it was retired.

    Wow, I can’t fathom putting 260,000 miles on a BMW – unless you are made of money. I was the second owner of mine, which was exceptionally well cared for. The previous owner had the whole cooling system and every rubber bushing replaced at the dealer (at considerable expense) about a year before he sold it to me. Even so, it was the least reliable car I’ve ever owned (including 60 and 90+ year old cars). Eventually, I suffered a ruptured disc in my back and too many things went wrong with the car for me to fix so I passed it along with 128,000 miles.

    My daily driver for the past 15 years has been a 1992 Civic that I bought with 247k miles. I have made multiple cross country trips in it and it now has 355,000 miles. It’s never left me stranded, has had incredibly few needs, and I expect it will outlive me at this rate.

    Before the ’92, I owned an ’87 Civic with 280k miles. Despite the CVCC head with 100 vacuum hoses to the 3 barrel carb it was perfectly reliable. I drove it cross country several times without worry. Ditto for the 2000 Honda Insight with 375k.

    I also own a Sprinter van (plus 10 other cars) – between the Sprinter and my experience with the BMW, I’ve decided I’ll never buy another German car. Classic Japanese car ownership has spoiled me!

    My sister likes old Beemers (I mean 2000s old, not 60s and 70s old) and generally brings them to me to sort them out when they start inevitably leaking fluids. I’ve gotten pretty good at getting in and out of them for someone who is very American iron-centric. Yes you do have to disassemble a lot of stuff to get to the plastic doofidgets, but there is a process to disassembling them, and the entire nose clip, including radiator support is generally made to be disengaged.

    I’ve driven Japanese cars, but they tend to be very middle of the road whereas Beemers are more performance driving oriented, which is why people love them and put up with their finickyness. I even have one myself amongst my chevys, fords and caddys

    I was just discussing with my spouse last night about this type of thing. She didn’t understand why I “upgrade” or change things and why I don’t have the car all original. She has visions of driving an all-original vintage fastback of the late 60s/early 70s era.
    I told her that the reality is, when you’re neither comfortable nor confident in the car, it just ends up parked while you drive the modern daily instead. Becoming a garage ornament.

    So while I’ve spent exorbitant amounts (I’m also Canadian and paying in Metric Dollars) adding comforts to my 80s Mercedes in the way of A/C, reliability upgrades, and (one I waffled on for 2 years before yielding) a head unit that gives me android auto.

    The only thing that looks non-factory is the head unit, but overall I drive the car more now. The work was worth it to enjoy my land barge more and relegate the crossover to inclement weather and family hauling.

    We had a used Wagoneer that we left parked outside at a vacation site we visited sporadically that looked disreputable but always started right up and ran. My wife loved the look of the Grand Wagoneer and found a new one in Colorado had it shipped to Idaho and drove it back to California with my niece. In the morning I went out to look at it in our garage and there was oil dripping onto the floor. I knew we were in trouble. The windows would sink down and the Dealer gave up trying to fix it. Great looking car but had to trade it in for a new Ford Explorer.

    Benjamin,
    I have gotten so good doing that repair myself that I too can do it in the door. BUUUT, a few differences on my side. I have 14 of these and though I have gotten a few that already had the broken gear strips, only one has broken on my watch. Mine are scattered around the country at different homes. Ironically, I have Corvettes as well that have this same mechanism and not one has broken. What amazed me was that they didn’t strip they are metal gears on Plastic strips. They seem to break because they get old, brittle and bind on something and pop, they are done. Whenever I replace one, I make sure that the window guides are adjusted, the window freely slides up and down, and that the tracks for the actual plastic strips are clean and smooth, not twisted, don’t have any of the old lubricant which often seams to turn to glue. On the ones I drive all the time and ones I need to make sure that the windows will be up because I don’t want to freeze, I do pull out the mechanisms, clean them well and lube them with a Silicone paste lube. In just over 30 years, none of the ones I have replaced myself have broken a second time. They aren’t the best design, but it also sounds like you may be having a mechanical issue with sticking windows, tracks, guides, etc.
    One last thought, fortunately our Waggy windows are too big or heavy. I have had to replace the arm and gear power window mechanisms before because the bushings wore out and because the pins at moving connection points wore holes into the metal and it would clunk and think and the eventually just break. Unfortunately, we have to remember that these are old vehicles and anything, regardless of when it was built will eventually fail with repeated use. Planned obsolescence or just facts of life.

    The fix looks to be a quality part. Let’s be honest, today’s over expensive cars are engineered to fail just outside of warranty.

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