The Incredible History of the Jeep Wrangler

January 31st, 2015 by

1990 Jeep Wrangler YJ

The Jeep Wrangler’s history reaches far back through many decades, originating in the 1940 Willys Quad, which is a far cry from the models you see at Jeep dealers in Miami today.

From the durable military Jeeps of yesteryear to the more recent classics like the CJs of the ’70s and ’80s, the Wrangler has come a long way. But its reputation for unrivaled capability remains unchanged.

Take a look back in time to trace the roots of this American favorite, and see how it has evolved throughout the last 75 years.

The Early Days

World War II was the catalyst for the development of the very first Jeep. The U.S. military put out an open request to over 100 automotive manufacturers, and Willys was one of the three that responded.

In collaboration with two other makers, Ford and Bantam, Willys developed the prototype for the original Jeep and delivered it to the U.S. Army in only 75 days.

From there, Jeeps went on to become a staple for soldiers who fought in the war. The 4x4s delivered unfailing performance and became an essential tool that the military relied on for almost every aspect of life on the front lines.

Jeeps like the Willys MB, were modified to be used as ambulances, fire trucks, patrol vehicles, and more. Their versatility and never-seen-before capability made them critical resources for GIs who were in the heat of battle.

That’s when the trend of modifying Jeeps began, and it only grew during peace time. After the war was over, Willys-Overland started marketing their vehicles for a whole new purpose: agriculture.

The aim was to replace farmers’ workhorses with a much more efficient utility option. The CJ-2A of the late ’40s could be had with an array of different attachments for plowing the fields or hauling heavy materials.

But Willys soon found that America’s love of Jeeps didn’t have to remain strictly tied to the farm. By 1950, the CJ-3A had arrived with a one-piece windshield and heavier duty engineering.

Though it was still advertised as the farmer’s comprehensive solution to managing work, it also began transforming into a regularly used vehicle as well.

The Jeep continued its evolution, gaining hard, soft, and full-top options by the late ’50s. Willys also continued to refine and produce military vehicles which were used during later wars.

The 1960s

By the ’60s, the Jeep lineup had vastly expanded with new wagon, truck, and van options to fulfill a variety of consumer needs.

CJs continued to be sold throughout the decade, and a luxury version called the Tuxedo Park was even designed. With lots of chrome trim, an optional V6 engine, and an official Jeep emblem, it was a remarkable symbol of just how much the CJ had grown since its original incarnation.

Tuxedo Parks were even used during Lyndon B. Johnson’s inaugural parade in 1965, setting a whole new tone for how Jeeps would be viewed going forward.

The 1970s

Having seen many upgrades throughout the years, the CJ-5 really began to make its transition into an outdoor enthusiast’s dream vehicle in the ’70s.

The CJ-5 took many new forms, including the Camper, Renegade, Super Jeep, and Golden Eagle. Equipped with a V8 engine, alloy wheels, and a limited slip differential, Renegade models started logging serious trail miles during this period.

The Camper version also started moving the Jeep toward more recreational use. It came with a camper mounted to the bed, and sales were encouraged by a new advertising campaign called the “Great Jeep Escape.”

Only a limited number of Jeep Campers were produced, making them a rare find now and lending to their memorable role in Jeep history.

Also helping to solidify Jeep’s place in the hearts of Americans was the Golden Eagle. It was a premium version of the Renegade with a flashy eagle decal on the hood. It came with larger tires, a rear-mounted spare, and a deluxe soft top.

One of the things that made that particular CJ so famous was its place on the Dukes of Hazzard. The Golden Eagle from the show, which was named Dixie, now resides in the Dukes of Hazzard museum.

The CJ-5 had the longest run of any Jeep vehicle to date, staying in production in various forms for 30 years. It is one of the most well-known, honored Jeeps ever to be made.

The 1980s

Introduced in 1980, the Laredo brought some stylish touches to the CJ-5 line. With its bumpers, grille, wheels, and emblem all dressed in Chrome, it was a total class act.

That’s probably why the Laredo name carried on; it has been used to denote upper trim levels on various Jeep vehicles throughout the years.

Later in the decade, it was finally time for the CJ line to retire, making way for the first official Wrangler, the YJ. It was offered in a variety of trims, and while it still maintained the look of a CJ, most of its parts were new.

The body also had some sharper angles and for the only time in Jeep history, square headlights. However, those were short-lived, and the Wrangler soon adopted the round headlights we know and love today.

At the same time, the company itself also went through a major transition. It was purchased by Chrysler and became one of the umbrella company’s divisions.

The 1990s

In 1997, the Wrangler TJ hit the scene with a bang. It was the most capable Jeep ever and was quickly recognized as such. It even won 4×4 of the Year.

The TJ had an all new suspension called the Quadra Coil which made the Wrangler just as satisfying to drive on the road as it did off. Drivers also loved the TJ’s powerful straight-6 engine.

The list of other upgrades included increased ground clearance, a fold-down windshield, removable doors, a newly refined interior, and airbags.

The Wrangler TJ remained in production for almost 10 years, making a name for itself as the only 4×4 truly deserving of off-roading enthusiasts’ attention.

The 2000s

During the TJ’s successful run, the Rubicon and Unlimited were also introduced, adding to the Wrangler’s versatility.

The Rubicon, which was specifically designed for the toughest off-road challenges, incorporated heavy duty upgrades like push-button-actuated front and rear differentials and Jeep’s Rock-Trac 4×4 system.

The Unlimited gained a longer body to add more room for passengers and cargo. It was also designed for enhanced on-road performance, making it a top choice for drivers who wanted a Wrangler for everyday use as well as trail time.

Today, the Wrangler JK holds down the fort, combining signature Jeep design with state-of-the-art engineering and technology. With multiple performance settings, the latest safety features, and a sophisticated interior, it is truly representative of Jeep’s endless innovation.

In 2011, Jeep celebrated its 70th anniversary, marking the brand’s monumental contributions to the automotive world. In honor the occasion, a special edition Wrangler was sold. It was given an exclusive bronze finish and 70th anniversary badging.

Now coming up on their 75th year, Jeep intends to make the next generation of Wranglers even better. The renowned 4×4 is slated to become more lightweight and efficient, and Jeep has stated that it will be their most capable vehicle yet.