This is the first in a new series of off-road “history lessons”. In this segment of the magazine, we’re going to look at cars that kicked off and defined the off-road industry. Choosing the first vehicle was tough, but in the end we decided to go with the seed that sprouted one of the largest segments in the modern motoring arena.
There are a few manufacturers out there that claim to be the founders of what we now know as the sports utility vehicle, or SUV.
The diplomatic answer is that every four-wheel drive estate or saloon car in history had some sort of impact on its direct competitors and its eventual successor, until we finally arrived at what we now refer to as an SUV. But we’re not going to be diplomatic about this. We’re tackling the subject Highlander style! In the end, there can be only one.
The obvious answer, or the one most people think of as the originator of the species, is the Range Rover. Land Rover specifically designed the Range Rover to be a luxury car with the abilities to travel on road as well as off the road. As we know, the engineers at Rover pulled it off, but not without inspiration from “the land of the free and the home of the brave”.
During the mid-sixties, a few Rover men flew over the pond to the US in search of new product ideas. The dealerships in the US told them about a new market that had developed for people who wanted a 4×4 – but not at the expense of highway or inner city drivability.
The engineers scoured the streets of America and found three examples of what they had in mind – the Ford Bronco, Jeep Wagoneer and International Harvester Scout.
The Scout can be ruled out as the original SUV because it was far too “agricultural”. The windscreen could fold down and the side windows could be removed. It was basically a military vehicle with a metal box and some seats on top. It lacked any form of luxury, which is an integral part of the SUV formula.
The Bronco is ruled out because of timing. The first Bronco hit the streets only in 1966.
This leaves us with the forerunner of the modern SUV, the only one left standing – the Jeep Wagoneer.
Who’d have guessed that a humble four-wheel drive Jeep station wagon was the inspiration behind the legendary Range Rover? Yes, Land Rover did a much better job of building an SUV and went on to further refine and define the concept, but Jeep was there first.
Jeep reached the goalposts four years before Ford. The brand introduced the Wagoneer in 1962 as a 1963 model, and the luxury SUV was born.
The Wagoneer wasn’t designed to be a hardcore off-roader, as you can see from the images on these pages. According to Jeep’s international website, it was designed to provide passenger car styling, comfort and convenience with the advantages of four-wheel drive.
Does that sound familiar? Think of all the mid-size soft roaders in the market these days. They fit the description of the Wagoneer perfectly.
The Wagoneer formed part of Jeep’s upmarket (SJ) models, which meant it had to be more civilised than anything Jeep had made before.
Still, it was pretty Spartan when it first arrived in the US. It was available in two- and four-door formats and also as a panel van with barn-like doors at the rear. The engine was a 3,8-litre six-cylinder beast that developed a colossal 104kW. We admit it doesn’t sound like much today, but consider that the best-selling car at that time, the fourth generation Ford F-Series, had only 85kW on tap.
The first generation Wagoneer remained largely unchanged for the next three years, apart from the inclusion of air conditioning and seatbelts as optional extras in 1964.
In 1965, still five years ahead of the Range Rover’s introduction, Jeep introduced the Super Wagoneer – a car it claims was the first true luxury 4×4.
It came with a super inflated price tag. Customers were expected to pay almost twice the price of a standard Wagoneer, but in return they got some super features as standard fitment. The list included air conditioning, a power tailgate, power brakes, power steering, a tilting steering wheel, tinted windows, three-tone body striping, vinyl roof, chrome roof rack and full wheel hubcaps with white-walled tyres.
By then the 104kW engine had become too paltry for the power-hungry Americans, so Jeep fitted a 5,4-litre, four barrel V8 with 200kW on tap. It was mated to an automatic transmission, and so the Wagoneer became the first 4×4 in history to come standard with a self-shifting gearbox.
By this time the standard Wagoneer had also received an engine upgrade. It had exactly the same cubic size as the engine in the Super Wagoneer, but produced only186kW.
In the early seventies, American Motors Corporation (AMC) acquired what had become the Kaiser Jeep Corporation. One of the first things AMC did was facelift the Wagoneer. Engine size grew to 5,9-litres, which improved to a massive 6,6-litres in later years. Ironically, the humble six-cylinder engine removed from the Wagoneer in sixties would return in 1979 when the fuel crisis hit the US.
During the seventies, Jeep also introduced the Quadra-Trac system – a name still in use today. This meant customers no longer had to switch manually between two- and four-wheel drive.
In 1978, the Wagoneer Limited was introduced. Jeep called it the “spiritual successor” to the Super Wagoneer and heaped it with a number of luxury features, hoping it would be considered the ultimate luxury 4×4. The Wagoneer Limited received favourable press coverage, but by then the Range Rover had started its assault on the luxury SUV market.
Once again the Wagoneer soldiered on. It received some engine, drivetrain and gearbox upgrades, but nothing too drastic.
By 1984 the Wagoneer needed another facelift and a new moniker, since Jeep had given its original name to another model. The Grand Wagoneer (still part of the SJ series) was retained, basically as a relic among its newer competitors, but still Jeep kept on marketing it as a luxury SUV. By the time it had become one of the last vehicles with a carburetor, Jeep let it go.
The last model in 1991 came with a “Final Edition” badge on the dashboard – a sort of medal for services rendered to the United States of America.
The car it had to surrender its name to in 1984, the Wagoneer and Wagoneer Limited, had nothing to do with the original car. It was actually a variation of the Cherokee, but it looked different thanks to four headlamps and vinyl wood side trim on the Limited model. It carried the name, but it wasn’t a Wagoneer in heart and soul.
There was one last glimmer of hope in 1993 when Jeep introduced the Grand Wagoneer ZJ. It was the most luxurious Wagoneer to date, with every option fitted as standard, and it had styling decals that were supposed to recall the deceased SJ Wagoneer. It was an expensive car as a result, and only limited numbers were produced. At the end of 1993, it too was gone.
The SJ line had been produced locally in the US for a grand total of 28 years. It still holds the record for the longest continuous automotive production run on the same platform.
So the Range Rover won in the end. The Jeep was there first, but the Range Rover is still with us while there’s a big gap in Jeep’s line-up where the Wagoneer used to be.
The American company had a go at a large SUV again in 2006, calling it the Commander, but that died an early and quiet death in 2010.
There is some good news, though. Jeep’s current parent company, Fiat, has stated that the Wagoneer will be revived in 2014 in seven-seat format. Other than that, we don’t know much about it, but we’re hoping for a retro-styled leviathan with proper off-road ability.