The Jeep Wrangler is recognized everywhere - from a military background rose an American starlet. Contrasting to the off-roading machine that most Jeeps stand for today, the modern vehicle had a military birth and history among the US Army. Adored by the military, the Jeep brand then crossed over into civilian use and later became the high-tech, trail-tackling beast we all know and love. The history of the Jeep Wrangler is a large part of the American automotive story.
From Military to Civilian Staple: Jeep's Iconic Come-Up
The Jeep Wrangler History Overview
Jeep's beginnings as the Willys MB of WWII made history and was loved by America. Its civilian transition starting with farmer work vehicles was slow but sure. The notable CJ line of 1945 with its notably long production would pave the way for the Wrangler (from the first generation Wrangler YJ) we know today - the first of which we'd see in 1987. The first Wrangler model was a bit of an eyesore with squared headlights, but it was only the first of many - after Chrysler bought AMC in 1987, the Wrangler began evolving even more. An engine upgrade and the Renegade was announced in 1991, and in 1994 an automatic transmission could be optioned into four cylinder models, whereas six cylinder models had this baseline.
In 1997, Jeep brought back the round headlights and added coil spring suspension and more. This Jeep was the best yet - a smoother ride and better off road capabilities made this Wrangler a stunner - bounds ahead of the Wrangler YJ. The Rubicon was announced in 2003, as well as adding a gear to the optional manual transmission. In 2004, the TJ-L Wrangler Unlimited made its mark, reminiscing the CJ-8 Scrambler. Halfway through the year, the Rubicon trim could be optioned in as well. After the Wrangler Unlimited, the third generation of 2007 was larger, wider, and offered in four door for the first time ever. This large model marked the era of large SUV models in the mid 2000s. The Chrysler Pentastar engine was added in 2012 - a huge upgrade for the Jeep, at 285 horsepower and 260 lb-feet of torque. This also brought a five-speed automatic as well as the standard six-speed automatic.
The fourth generation Wrangler came in 2017; the last big update to the Wrangler line. With improvements every year since, Jeep has made its mark as an off-roading vehicle.
Jeep's Military Vehicle History
The Jeep Wrangler came from not-so-humble beginnings - in the 1940s, the US Army asked 135 automakers for a bid, asking for a "light reconnaissance vehicle" fitting Army specifications. This included a weight limit of 2,160 pounds and had markings indicating the vehicle belonged to the US Military. Bantam, Willys, and Ford answered the request and together made plans for the first Jeep.
Called the Willys "Quad" prototype, the first ideas came from Willys-Overland, named for its 4x4 system. It was presented to the US Army on Veteran's Day in 1940, being one of the two prototypes ever made. There was a significant struggle to lower the weight of the vehicle, though - with a striking low side body cutout, two instrument clusters, a hand brake, and a gear shift on the steering column, this vehicle was everything the military needed - just too heavy.
They removed bolts and made the doors lighter, resulting in a vehicle still 400 pounds above the US Army specifications. However, Willys-Overland received a contract for the production of 16,000 models - called the Willys MB - which would cost $738.74. The earlier, heavier model - the MA - was sent to the US Allies in England and Russia as part of the Lend-Lease program, and as a result is an extremely rare find. Only about 30 MA models exist in the world.
Jeep's Civilian Transition & Notable Models
With great success and overwhelming adornment from the US Military, the brand moved on to its first civilian model - the CJ-21. Marketed to hard-working farmers, it was called "The All-Around Farm Work-Horse." Its capabilities were state-of-the-art at the time - when many farmers didn't have tractors or equipment, the Jeep provided work capabilities that hadn't been seen before. Then came the Willys Wagon: in July 1946, this all-steel, all-American station wagon arrived, and can be credited for the "tailgating" term we all know and love. The model also offered commercial delivery options for versatility and purpose.
The Jeep Gladiator we love today is reminiscent of the next Jeep model - the Willys-Overland Truck of 1947. Again marketed to farmers, the goal was diversity and variety to grow the brand. Further into appealing of the masses, the Jeepster (VJ) was a convertible using side curtains rather than windows, designed by Willys-Overland designer Brooks Steven. It entered the market as an intentional sports car with a v6 "Hurricane" engine and was never optioned with four wheel drive. Today, it's a collectible and was even paid tribute in a song by T. Rex. Also in the 40s came the CJ-3A, a refined model of the CJ-21.
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The 1950s brought the M38 (Willys Model MC), the first military Jeep post-World War II. This model was waterproof and stronger. The model was used in the Korean War and featured in the TV show M*A*S*H*. The Museum of Modern Art named the Jeep Brand 4x4 a cultural icon in 1951 - a significant achievement. The Jeep M-38A1 (MD) came in 1952, with comfort, power, and aesthetic improvements. It's been called "the last 'true' military Jeep vehicle". Many other versions of the CJ model were produced in the 50s, leading up to the Jeep M-170 (MD-A), a troop carrier and ambulance. The CJ-3B was released in 1953, a powerful upgrade to the CJ models, with a larger hood to fir a taller engine. Barney Roos designed this "F-head" engine, which awarded more horsepower and torque. For 15 years with 155,000 models sold, the CJ-3B ended production in 1968.
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The announcement of another model came in October of 1955 - the Jeep CJ-5. Aesthetics are beginning to form into the Jeep we know today, with comfort and capability improvements including off-roading to match the public's wants. A new v6 engine with 155 horsepower and 225 lb-feet of torque was offered, and by 1973, all CJ models could be fitted with v8 engines. The CJ-5 was in production for 30 years, the longest of any other Jeep model, with marketing of Jeep vehicles expanding to more than 150 countries around the world. The CJ-6 followed in 1955, after the public's outcry for more passenger space and cargo. The FC-150 of 1957 was a different, unique direction - Forward-Control Jeeps are reminiscent of a Tonka Truck, with flat fronts, boxy cabs, and a truck bed. This workhorse was equipped with four wheel drive, a four or six cylinder engine, a large wheelbase, and marketed to farmers.
A bold Jeep, the DJ-3A, came in 1959, with the intention of growing the laid-back traveler market. With stripes and fringe, the DJ-3A was a mashup of a designer golf cart and a Jeep - perfect for adventuring in the sun and marketed more for pleasure than business.
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In the 1960s, Jeep produced its first van: the Fleetvan. Intended for mail delivery or ice-cream trucks, this model had sliding doors and a great field of vision. The Jeep Wagoneer (SJ) was announced in 1962; the model was the embodiment of the family-friendly, comfort vehicle of the decade. It was also the first 4x4 vehicle with an independent front suspension. The Wagoneer was designed by Brooks Steven, and later renamed the Grand Wagoneer in 1984. The SJ line was produced for almost 30 years, making it the longest production run for automotives on the same platform in US history.
Moving closer to the models of today, the Gladiator was announced in 1962 and started production in 1963. A more modern aesthetic was featured, and offered different boxes & beds. In 1971, the Gladiator line was renamed the J-Series until 1987, when again the Gladiator vehicle was redesigned and introduced for a possible future make. The luxury Tuxedo Park IV was a special edition on the CJ-5A and CJ-6A models from 1964-1967, and was even used in Lyndon B. Johnson's parade of 1965. Another J-Series pickup line came in 1965 as well, and the J-Series continued from 1969-1974.
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1966 brought the Super Wagoneer (SJ), known as the "Super Custom". A creature-comfort luxury vehicle, yet still capable. The M-715 of 1967 was another military Jeep; a version of the Gladiator adapted to military needs, and reached a top speed of 55 miles per hour. It was also used by fire departments, fish and game, and forestry. Finally, the Jeepster Commando of 1967 was marketed to the young explorer, introducing competition with Broncos and Land Cruisers, with several versions released.
The Dispatcher Jeep of 1970 was a modified form of the CJ, and the J-10 Pickup of 1974 included the Honcho model, public-popular and aesthetically pleasing. Taking it up a notch, the J-20 Pickup of 1974 was a heavy model for its time, an improved J-10. Starting in 1973, the CJ models came with v8 engines. Special editions and trims were produced as well.
The familiar Renegade model debuted in 1972 - the CJ-5 Renegade had many features including a roll bar and white-walled tires as well as striking color choices. The Jeep Cherokee of 1975 bested the Wagoneer's design. The award-winning model had two body styles and was available in four door in 1977. Yet another introduction of the CJ came in 1976 with the CJ-7. The 1970s was a big decade for Jeep with the production and refinement of many models we still love today.
More CJ models were released in the 80s, to no surprise - as well as the J-10, Wagoneer, and Cherokee. What really set apart the 80s was the release of the Jeep Wrangler in 1987 - perhaps the most beloved model today. Replacing the long-lived CJ series, the modern spin became a staple. At the time, the Wrangler sported rectangular headlights (a strange throwback juxtaposed to the round headlights we know now), as well as several trim options.
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The Grand Cherokee of 1993 and the Grand Wagoneer of 1993 marked bigger and better days for Jeep, as well as the new and improved 1997 Jeep Wrangler - kicking it up a notch with better off road abilities and won the 4x4 of the Year award (being the fifth Jeep brand vehicle to do so). Most of the parts put into the '97 Wrangler were newly designed, making it the largest shift in how models were made since the MB was changed from the Quad. New suspension improved the drive, and changes were made to improve off-roading such as ground clearance and axle improvements. Ditching the rectangular headlights for round headlights, this Jeep would grow into the Wrangler we drive today.
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The Liberty model came in 2002, as well as another in 2008. The Compass and Patriot arrived in 2007. Jeep's lineup was improving and solidifying. A new Grand Cherokee debuted in 2005, and the Commander followed in 2006. The Rubicon was made in 2003, named after the Rubicon Trail located in the Sierra Nevadas. Offering the most capable off-roading experience yet, this Rubicon was a new breed of machine. Jeep continued making improvements to the Wrangler in the 2000s, marking the decade with impressive milestones.
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Sales were the highest in history - over 1.41 million models sold around the world in the year 2016. The all-familiar Cherokee, Compass, and Renegade were improved and are all still in production today. The Wrangler continued to tackle new horizons with improved off-roading and is beloved by those who love the outdoors. Comfort and technology improvements were made, such as the Uconnect system being implemented as well as safety features.
Although the decade has just begun, Jeep's lineup is striking. Currently in production is the Gladiator, Wrangler (the all new Jeep Wrangler 4xe), Grand Cherokee, Cherokee, Compass, and Renegade. Jeep also offers the Grand Wagoneer and Wagoneer models. Despite new competition from the reborn Ford Bronco, Jeep continues to satisfy the masses. The Grand Cherokee is the most awarded SUV ever, and the Wrangler continues to check all the boxes of an adventurous but practical vehicle. We can't wait to see what Jeep does next - a piece of American history, the brand has become a legend.
The Jeep Wrangler Today
Jeep has come a long way over many decades of American loved vehicles. Today, their vehicle is still a staple - let's take a look at the features Jeep has to offer.
The Wrangler of 2021 is better than ever before, featuring a Forward-Facing Off-Road Camera that can be optioned in. This camera is extremely helpful for off-roading and views that are normally obstructed. Their Uconnect infotainment system is new and improved - now with application access with phone connectivity for both iPhone and Android. The Uconnect navigation system is sleek and useful. You can even connect your Amazon Alexa to your Jeep - and send directions, check your fuel level, and start your vehicle through Alexa voice activation.
The Wrangler also features a Wi-Fi Hotspot inside the vehicle - covering a whopping eight devices within 50 feet. The Uconnect App is better than ever, too. You can search the maps from the app and send the information to the Uconnect screen for quicker directions, remote start your vehicle, and get vehicle check-ups such as oil levels and tire pressure.
The 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe is the first Jeep brand plug-in vehicle. This is a huge win for the brand. The Wrangler boasts a whopping 375 horsepower, 470 lb-feet of instant torque, and a driving range of 370 miles with one charge. The Wrangler Rubicon 392 offers a 6.4L HEMI v8 engine (470 horsepower and 470 lb-feet of torque). The new Sky One-Touch roof offers a better view of the world than ever. You can also opt for a hard-top or a canvas top. Called "The Most Capable Wrangler Generation Ever", this Wrangler lineup is impressive, each featuring a Trail Rated badge. The 75 safety options on the Wrangler include blind spot monitoring on your side mirrors, cruise control, and more. The trim levels for the 2021 Wrangler are the Sport, Willys Sport, Sport S, Islander, Sport Altitude, Willys, Sahara, Freedom, 80th Anniversary Edition, Sahara Altitude, Rubicon, High Altitude, and the Rubicon 392.
The engine options are a 2.0L Turbo Engine with ESS, 3.0L Ecodiesel Engine, 3.6 Pentastar v6 with Etorque, and a 3.6L Pentastar v6 with ESS. The three 4x4 systems (Command-Trac, Selec-Trac, and Rock-Trac) provide options for your off-roading adventures. These are just some of the crazy options offered by the Wrangler - definitely the most capable off-roading Wrangler ever.
Takeaway: Jeep Represents an American Icon
There's no doubt here. Whether or not you're a Jeep fan or not, the Wrangler takes the cake on compelling history with a huge come-up. From its military beginnings, adored by the US Army from the start, to the Wrangler of today tackling trails like a champ, Jeep doesn't miss. The Ford Bronco revival will surely push the Jeep brand into further innovation.
Jeep Wrangler history is captivating and iconic. Throughout the decades of change, bold choices, design changes, and improvements, this current generation Wrangler feels modern but loyal to the brand's history. You can check out Jeep's Wrangler gallery, or TXG Automotive's Wrangler selection. Until next time, we'll see you on the trails.