Before there was a Range Rover. Long before Lexus was even an idea. Back when the only competition for the industrial-grade Chevrolet Suburban was the farm-grade International Travelall. Jeep invented the type of luxurious, all-wheel-drive, oversized station wagon. Nobody called it an SUV. It was the Wagoneer.
There was nothing big about it. Well, not yet.
Glenn Evans, an investment advisor for Mass Mutual in Los Alamitos, California has owned this 1977 Wagoneer since 1995. “Guess how much I paid for it,” he quipped in a phone call. “I don’t know,” I replied, calculating the value of then-18-year-old Jeeps during the mid-1990s in my mind. “No,” he said. “Half that. $1200.”
Even then it was dirt cheap. “An older guy down the street from me owned it. And he had a sign on it that said ‘Make Offer.'” Evans explains. “‘Tell you what,’ I said. ‘I’ll pay $1200 and give you visitation rights. You can come and drive it whenever you want. That sealed the deal.” Good deal.
If Evans’ office hadn’t been behind a Starbucks in Los Alamitos, it would never have been discovered.
Willys Jeep had been building “Utility Wagons” since the Model 463 in 1946 and it has been claimed to be the first SUV. There was benefit, but no one thought of “sport” then. Versions of the 463 remained in production until 1964, a few months after it was replaced by this subject, the Wagoneer.
The 1963 Wagoneer (“SJ” in Jeep-ese) was significantly larger than Willy’s Jeep Utility Wagon and much more useful thanks to the availability of a four-door body. Two-door and two-door panel versions were also offered, but it was the four-door that brought families needing four-wheel drive to Jeep showrooms.
Built as a body-on-frame vehicle, the first Wagoneer used either independent swing-axle front suspension on most models (two or four-wheel drive) with a solid axle on heavier versions. The four-wheel drive system was built around manual Spicer two-speed gearboxes.
There was only one engine offered in the first Wagoneer, a 230-cubic-inch (3.8-liter), overhead cam, straight-six rated at 140 horsepower. Not much of a thump for hauling around six people and their stuff, but there wasn’t anything else quite like it on the market. So it was a hit.
The Wagoneer gained optional V-8 power for the 1965 model year when the 327 cubic inch (5.3-liter) AMC V8 was dumped in the engine bay. It had a gross output of 250 horsepower.
A full dozen years after that, the Evans Wagoneer was built. The standard engine was now a 360 cubic inch (5.9 L) version of the AMC V-8 with the 401 cubic inch (6.6 L) version of the same engine optional. Evans’ Wagoneer has the 401 with 215 horsepower.
The Evans Wagoneer also uses Borg-Warner “Quadra-Trac” full-time all-wheel drive. Quadra-Trac was introduced for the 1973 model year in ’77 and was standard on Wagoneers with V-8 engines and automatic transmissions.
“This thing is a tank,” says Evans, who uses it on his fly-fishing adventures. “It loves dirt roads. I don’t drive it every day but about every other week. I’ve had it for so long and it’s been such a head turner.” His daily is a 2009 Audi A8.
The Wagoneer became the Grand Wagoneer in 1984 when it was joined in the Jeep line by the smaller XJ vehicles which included a model named the Wagoneer. And SJ would not leave production until after 29 model years. When it was finally sacrificed by Jeep’s owner Chrysler in 1991, it was the last new vehicle still using a carburetor.
Although Evans’ Wagoneer shows 146,000 miles on its odometer, values for old SUVs, and especially old Wagoneers, have skyrocketed. “A guy drove by my house recently and stopped when he saw it,” Evans says. “He asked me, ‘What’s your stupid high price for it?’ I thought for a moment and came back, ‘$30,000.’ He thought for a moment. ‘I know it’s too much. Maybe $12,000 too much. Or $15,000. But I want it. But I turned him down .
By any analysis, $30,000 is a good return on a vehicle that cost only $1,200 to buy and has given 25 years of service. “Yes,” explains financial planner Evans. “It’s a great bang for the buck. But because I planned well enough, I didn’t have to take it.”