The arrival of the Jeep Wagoneer in the fall of 1962 was tremendously important for Jeep. While Willys Motors dominated the market for four-wheel-drive vehicles, there was little need to update its 1940s-vintage Jeep Station Wagon. But when industry rivals began entering the field in the late 1950s, a modern replacement became imperative.
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Indeed, the development of the Wagoneer was an essential, defining event for an entire class of vehicles that would spring up over the next 40 years, bringing together four-wheel drive, ample passenger and cargo room, and ever-greater levels of luxury.
Willys Motors, since 1953 a division of Kaiser Industries, had the market for light-duty four-wheel-drive vehicles nearly all to itself for years. It began producing the CJ-2A — the civilian version of the already-famous wartime “jeep” — in mid 1945, then introduced four-wheel-drive trucks in 1947.
Although the four-wheel-drive market wasn’t large in the immediate post-World War II years, Willys dominated it. But for 1961, there appeared a new contender. International Harvester introduced its Scout line of modern four-wheel-drive vehicles. The Scout’s target was the Jeep CJ, but with more room and comfort. Suddenly, Jeep was facing serious competition.
Willys management sprang into action. In early 1961, funding was approved for a new-product program that would include an entirely new range of Jeep vehicles and a new engine. Chief engineer A.C. Sampietro would handle the nuts and bolts, while the styling job was assigned to Brooks Stevens, the talented independent designer Willys had on retainer, and the tiny in-house Jeep styling staff under Jim Angers.
When Stevens was asked to come up with an all-new lineup of Jeep station wagons, pickups, and panel trucks, the project probably seemed a little bit like dижjид vu. A similar request during the mid-1940s was how Stevens began his affiliation with Willys. Back then, he labored on a series of postwar designs that resulted in the Jeep Station Wagon in 1946. In 1949, a four-wheel-drive version made its debut; it was the very first sport-utility vehicle.
But that was then and this was now. Willys no longer owned the four-wheel-drive market as it had a decade before. In the late 1950s, International, Dodge, Chevrolet, General Motors, Ford, and Studebaker all began offering factory-built 4б┴4 versions of their conventional light-duty trucks. Then came the Scout, and if it succeeded, would others follow? Stevens was going to have to come up with something really spectacular to compete with them all.
What Stevens developed, after a series of clay studies and endless sketches, was an attractive station wagon with fashionable, almost elegant lines. Introduced in November 1962, Willys called it the Jeep Wagoneer. It was larger than the old Jeep wagons and capable of carrying six passengers comfortably.
Glass areas were unusually large, endowing the interior with an airy, open feel quite unlike any previous utility wagon. The slab-sided body had a masculine handsomeness. Front-end styling was especially distinctive: a keystone grille flanked by large round vents almost as large as the headlamps. The hood was low, the flanks spare of unnecessary ornamentation.
It was a simple, honest look without gimmicks. This was not the sort of styling usually associated with trucks, yet it was much more rugged looking than an ordinary car. The overall style perfectly reflected Wagoneer’s personality.
Family wagon features abounded, with roll-down windows at each door, a tailgate with retractable window, and a stylish instrument panel. Engineers integrated the various four-wheel-drive components into the chassis design so that although the body sat low to the road, ground clearance remained excellent.
The step-in height was almost like that of an ordinary car. The company boasted that “The Wagoneer … is the first station wagon to offer complete passenger car styling in combination with the advantages of four-wheel-drive traction.”
Wagoneer’s 110-inch wheelbase was almost half a foot longer than the previous Jeep wagon, and its 183.6-inch overall length was more than seven inches greater. These were the largest, roomiest wagons Jeep had ever built.
Car Life noted “overall dimensions are almost identical to those of the Chevy II …. But Wagoneer looks a lot bigger than it really is — for reasons we cannot fully explain.” Yet, despite its size, Wagoneer seemed lithe and nimble compared to an Inter?national Travelall or Chevrolet Suburban. That perceived difference was crucial to the Wagoneer’s acceptance
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. In the public mind, the International and Chevrolet wagons were trucks; the Wagoneer seemed more like a family car substitute.
Even more important to its success was this: Wagoneer was a rolling laboratory of new ideas. It simply bristled with innovations. Wagoneers offered not one but two body styles; a conventional two-door utility wagon and a new four-door wagon that greatly expanded its appeal to families.
Wagoneer was also the first four-wheel-drive vehicle to offer an automatic transmission — by any estimate, the single most-desired feature among car buyers. The optional column-shifted Borg-Warner automatic earned Wagoneer a place on the shopping lists of thousands of new-car prospects.
Wagoneer also was the first four-wheel-drive wagon to offer an optional independent front suspension, utilizing long torsion bars in place of the standard front leaf springs for a smoother, carlike ride. This setup also reduced the turning radius by 16 inches.
Four-wheel drive was operated by a floor-mounted lever. The transfer case included four-wheel high and low ranges, plus regular two-wheel drive, though apparently Wagoneers with automatic transmission didn’t come with a low range. Indicator lights told drivers at a glance in which drive range the vehicle was engaged.
There was innovation under the hood as well, where the new “Tornado OHC” six-cylinder overhead-camshaft engine nestled comfortably in the large engine bay. Although it first appeared late in the 1962 model year as an option on Jeep utility wagons, pickups, and panel trucks, the engine was developed especially for the new Jeep line.
Then the only ohc engine from a U.S. producer, its power output was exceptional: 230 cid generated 140 bhp at 4,000 rpm and 210 pound-feet of torque at 1,750 rpm, 35 horsepower and 20 pound-feet more than Willys’s old Super Hurricane 226-cid L-head six.
Willys claimed it offered “the lowest specific fuel consumption of all production gasoline engines.” The Tor?nado was the only engine offered in Wagoneers; Willys had no V-8. Standard transmission was a three-speed manual with a column-mounted shifter. Over?drive could be ordered on two-wheel-drive models only.
Designated series J-100, at announcement Wagoneer offered two trim grades. Base-level Wagoneers came with plain upholstery and rubber floor mats, while flossier Deluxe models offered full carpeting plus fancier upholstery and door trim. Later in the year, the Custom series replaced the Deluxe, apparently without any change in equipment.
The two-door Wagoneer was the price leader, especially in two-wheel-drive form, with a base price of $2,546. A four-door, four-wheel-drive Wagoneer was priced at $3,332. Like most American vehicles back then, the base price was merely a starting point.
Wagoneer offered a broad list of optional equipment. Beside the autobox, buyers could order power steering, power brakes, push?button AM radio, electric clock, back-up lights, seat belts, electrically operated tailgate window, chrome wheel covers, and more. A dash-mounted compass was standard on four-wheel-drive models, optional for two-wheelers. There were work options too, including snowplows, winches — even a rotary broom.
Automotive magazines loved the new Willys. Four-Wheeler called Wagoneer “a striking and remarkable styling change” and spoke of “important advancements for four-wheelers.” Car Life said the OHC six was “commendably smooth and quiet.” Its testers recorded a 0-60-mph time of 15.9 seconds with automatic and 17 mpg on a 60-mph highway trip. City mileage was 14.5 mpg, which Car Life said “certainly demonstrates the remarkable efficiency of the OHC engine.”
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