Last month, when Fiat Chrysler design head Ralph Gilles finally unveiled Jeep’s all-new Grand Wagoneer concept on a stage in Detroit, the 2021 model was shown alongside its square-shouldered progenitor. This classic Wagoneer, famously woodgrain-sided in its Grand-est iteration, was built on the same platform, with minimal cosmetic and engineering changes, for nearly 30 years, starting in 1963.
Gilles praised the simplicity of the original vehicle’s appearance, penned by industrial designer Brooks Stevens. He also applauded some of the restorers and resto-modders who have kept these foundational luxury SUVs running (and selling) strong in the intervening three decades. No easy task, given their abysmal build quality, even when brand new.
“I didn’t see that coming,” Wagonmaster owner Chip Miller said of the shout-out for his Texas shop, which sells meticulously restored and upgraded classic Grand Wagoneers for around $80,000 each. “But, of course, we were delighted.”
Miller was equally delighted by the new Grand Wagoneer. “I think a lot of us were concerned that it was going to look like a souped-up Grand Cherokee,” he said. “But they did a whole new design to make this thing fit into a different class altogether.”
G.K. Kerr’s upstate New York shop, Classic Gentleman, sells reconditioned Grand Wagoneers in the mid-five-figure range. Kerr presumed that the new Jeep would not be a retro-inspired iteration of the original. “You can be a success in most things if you put in enough effort, but we all fail in our effort to go home again,” he said. “We knew that it wouldn’t have chrome bumpers and woodgrain on the sides. That would have been really silly on a new vehicle—like when they did that on the PT Cruiser.”
Miller agreed, but he sees not only a purposefulness but a callback to Jeep heritage in this decision. “Back when the Wagoneer was being developed, in the early ’60s, the design team had a task,” he said. “They had to update the Willys Station Wagon, which had been introduced by Jeep back in the mid-’40s and was still in production nearly 20 years later. And what they produced did not look like the Willys Station Wagon. It was sleeker. So, if I think about that, I can see where Jeep is going with this new model. While it’s going to wear the name Grand Wagoneer, it’s not going to look like that. It doesn’t surprise me that they didn’t want to come back with a vehicle that imitated what they’d left off with 30 years ago, any more than at my age, at 65, I would suddenly start dressing like my 38-year-old son.”
Kerr contrasts the release of the new Grand Wagoneer with the rebirth of another storied SUV nameplate. “Chevrolet took the Blazer name and put it on something that isn’t worthy. They diminished the model name and hurt it,” he said. “The reverse of that happened with the Grand Wagoneer. They took the name and are applying it at the top of their market and near the top of the domestic SUV market overall.”
Norbert Buscha of Grandwagoneer.com, a shop that sells fully resto-modded, $200,000 versions of the classics with more than 150 modern upgrades, doesn’t see it. “The design direction the company has taken has zero relationship to the original Grand Wagoneer,” he said. “I don’t think it’s aligned at all. It has nothing in common with the original. It doesn’t share any of the styling cues. It just has a few cheap attempts to call back those original design elements and piggyback on the name, brand awareness, and connotations of the original Grand Wagoneer.”
The most beloved design elements of the original are generally agreed upon by these members of the Grand Wagoneer faithful: angular styling, wood trim, slim pillars, a broad greenhouse, and 360-degree visibility. Although our experts recognize that these elements would be difficult to introduce in a contemporary vehicle—given current consumer and regulatory requirements for safety, rollover protection, sound insulation, and amenities—they all did point to a few other recent nameplate re-launches as having successfully carried on, while updating, the styling traditions of their forebears. “You can go back a few years when Dodge rolled out the Challenger,” Miller said. “What a great example of a throwback vehicle being made really well on a modern platform. The new Bronco has been really well received as well.”
Another thing they all agree on: No matter how they feel about the new SUV, the revival of the nameplate will ultimately be positive for the values of the vintage vehicles they so lovingly shepherd back into the world. “Jeep has truly tried to keep the history and the story of the Grand Wagoneer alive,” Buscha said, “and they’ve done a great job of honoring the legacy of the vehicle in their messaging around the new one. I really think it will make the classics more desirable.”
And for those buyers of the new Grand Wagoneer who want to do their part to venerate the original, Miller has a solution. “If you want woodgrain on yours, I have some. We can help you.”
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