Top 20 most influential Jeep vehicles

When our children’s children look back, many years from now, what will be the Jeeps they remember? What are the vehicles — good or bad — that most shaped the Jeep brand over its long and storied history?

That’s what this list is here to consider. It comprises the 20 iconic Jeeps I believe have had the most lasting impact on the brand. In some cases, that impact was a wonderful boost to Jeep, while others served to dilute its legendary DNA. Most of the entries below, organized from least to most influential, reference specific vehicle platforms. Others are a specific model year of an already identified platform. Consider each with an open mind, then share your thoughts in the comments below.

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20. 2001 Jeep Liberty (KJ). No, this isn’t a joke. By 2000, we all knew the venerable Cherokee was well past its prime, but dealers and industry experts expected 2002 to be the model’s swan song. Instead, Jeep launched the Liberty (KJ platform) for 2001 with a striking softer, gentler face for the Jeep brand. Look at today’s JK Wranglers, the first-generation Compass and other early-2000s Jeeps, and you’ll find elements of the Liberty’s influence. Most disappointing to enthusiasts was the KJ’s independent front suspension. Still, the Libby developed a small but devoted following, prompting a few companies to market modest lift kits for it. Other, more hard-core enthusiasts surgically altered their KJs with solid front-axle swaps, proving for all time the Liberty could hold its own off-road. Had Jeep not foolishly turned to the Dodge Nitro for Liberty’s second-generation replacement, who knows, the Liberty might still be in Jeep’s lineup, rather than the decidedly pavement-oriented KL Cherokee of today.

 

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19. 1956 -65 Forward Control (FC). By the 1950s, American drivers were well-acquainted with Willys’ civilian version of the wartime Jeep. And, as a brand, Jeep had remained largely stagnant in the years since the war. For 1956, Jeep attempted to transition its popularity into success in corporate and municipal livery with the Forward Control. Based on some CJ-5 underpinnings and designed to mimic a full-size cab-over utility truck, the Forward Control, or FC, used Jeep’s Hurricane four-cylinder engines. The FC could be configured many ways — as a flatbed, dump truck, tow truck or even a fire truck. These options also resulted in the civilian market seeing what could be deemed the first “mini-van”, not that any self-respecting soccer mom would want to drive one of these to the mall.

 

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18. 1948 -50 Willys Jeepster (VJ). Borrowing heavily from Willys Station Wagon and Truck models, the Jeepster was the Jeep brand’s first real effort to expand its offerings beyond to include more a civilized vehicle for a public used to passenger cars. Debuting April 3, 1948, the Jeepster was a rear-wheel drive sporty Jeep powered by a 62-horse straight four-cylinder engine connected to a three-speed transmission with optional overdrive. Like its mountain-climbing stablemate, the Jeepster came standard in convertible form, with a snap-on canvas top that did little more than act as a sunscreen. And, much like Jeep’s modern soft-roaders, the brand’s first two-wheel-drive vehicle failed to attract much of a following, despite its fun, attractive design. Jeep made some efforts at improvements, adding a more powerful engine and tweaking the design, but it managed to last only until the 1950 model year. A few 1950s remaining on dealer lots were sold as early 1951 models. Total production was only 19,132.

 

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17. 1966 -73 Jeepster Commando (C101/104). In 1966, Jeep was in search of a trucklet to compete with Toyota’s Land Cruiser, the International Scout and Ford’s Bronco, all of which were, themselves, reactions to the Jeep CJ’s popularity. Jeep revived the Jeepster name, but learned a few lessons from its last Jeepster. The new model included four-wheel drive and was available as a pickup truck, convertible, roadster or wagon. After AMC purchased Jeep parent Kaiser in 1970, the model became a focal point for AMC. In 1972, AMC dropped “Jeepster” and increased the wheelbase to 104 inches from the earlier 101. Whereas the early Commando 101 models had been among AMC’s most popular, the changes precipitated doom for the Commando, as sales plummeted. It was replaced in 1974 by the full-size Cherokee, built on Jeep’s venerable SJ platform. While the Jeepster Commando might be seen as a failure by some, it signaled a willingness by Jeep to listen to enthusiasts’ demands, and remains a popular choice among buyers of classic Jeeps.

 

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16. 1962 -88 Gladiator / J10 – J20 (SJ). Is there anything as sexy as a nicely modified  Jeep pickup? Sex appeal aside, this SJ-based pickup saw production under four different corporate parents — Willys, Kaiser-Jeep, American Motors and Chrysler. An early 1963 introduction, the Gladiator was available in rear- and four-wheel drive models, with solid-axle or independent front suspension. A duallie option also was available, as were various bed and work platform configurations. The civilian model was built alongside its military M715 and M725 counterparts. As with any long-lived model, engines and transmission options changed from year to year, as did exterior trim, such as the grille. In 1971, Jeep dropped the Gladiator name, simply calling it the Jeep Pickup. A nameplate returned for 1974, though, with J10 and J20 designating payload capacity until its demise in 1988. Perhaps the best of the bunch was the 1974 to ’79 J10 shortbed model, which could be had with a 401 cubic-inch V-8 and Dana 44 axles front and rear. The pickups’ suspension was easy to modify and had the capability to haul everything a self-respecting Jeeper needed — and more.

 

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15. 1945 CJ-2A. America’s first civilian Jeep, the CJ-2A (none of the test-bed CJ-1 models ever made their way from their Auburn, Ala., proving grounds into consumers’ hands), had some notable drawbacks — a questionable T-84 transmission, Dana 23 or Dana 41 rear axles and weak front frame horns. So why, then, is it on this list? Well, aside from being the first civilian Jeep, the 2,200-pound CJ epitomized what Jeep is all about. They were fun and maneuverable — and darn near indestructible. Given its spartan outfitting, the seats are comfy, and the 60-horse four-banger does a surprisingly adequate job at motivating the little Jeep. Some 1,824 CJ-2As were produced in what was a shortened model year, only about 30 of which remain in existence today. (Sadly, many of those barely qualify as Jeeps anymore, as they’re little more than a pile of decaying parts.) Those first CJ buyers had limited options, which included but two color choices, Harvest Tan and Pasture Green. A metal half-cab could be added to the rear canvas cover. Find a restored, functioning 2A today, and you can expect to shell out well into the five-figure range for the old iron.

 

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14. 1947 -65 Willys Truck. Willys capitalized on the little Jeep’s popularity with a one-ton, four-wheel drive pickup for 1947. Configurations included a traditional pickup truck, a platform truck, a chassis cab or a bare chassis. A downsized 3/4-ton, two-wheel drive model was added in 1949. In 1950, the truck was redesigned, adding what would become its iconic V-nosed grille. The Willys Truck was the first of several Jeep trucks to roll off dealers’ lots over the years, beginning a demand that continues to this day. In its 18 years of production, more than 200,000 Willys Trucks were produced, many of which remain road-worthy today.

 

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13. 1985 -92 Comanche (MJ). In the motoring world of the 1980s, small was big. Everything was downsizing, including America’s bread-and-butter pickup trucks. To compete with a glut of Japanese imports, AMC Chairman W. Paul Tippett Jr. saw Jeep as a bright spot in his cash-strapped company’s portfolio. Comanche was introduced in summer 1985 to more than 1,500 North American dealers. Comanche launched with a base price of just over $7,000 for a two-wheel drive model, the most inexpensive Jeep model that year. A variety of special editions and trim levels marked Comanche’s run, including the mainstream Pioneer and sporty Eliminator.

 

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12. 2004 -06 “LJ” Wrangler Unlimited. As much as the TJ Wrangler expanded the Wrangler’s role to that of a true dual-purpose daily driver, the fact is, it’s still an awfully small vehicle. A small family headed out for a weekend of fishing and camping would be hard-pressed to squeeze all the necessary gear into its confines. So, for 2004, Jeep added one of the most useful vehicles to ever grace its lineup, the Wrangler Unlimited. Immediately dubbed “TJL” or simply “LJ” by enthusiasts, the first Unlimited stretched the TJ’s wheelbase by 10 inches, and threw an extra five inches in the cargo area for good measure, adding enough room for a decent amount of gear and some semblance of rear-passenger legroom. The LJ also saw the arrival of the now-standard Sunrider soft top and gave the Wrangler a boost in the towing department, increasing its rating to 3,500 pounds. Power came from the TJ’s veteran four-liter straight six, as trim levels and equipment were comparable to the shorter-wheelbase Wrangler variants.

 

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11. 1954-83 CJ-5. The last CJ to come without an automatic transmission option or emissions controls (’72-’75), the CJ-5 could be said to be the last ‘uncivilized’ Jeep vehicle. Latter CJ-5s shipped with a 232 cubic-inch base power plant, with an optional 258 CI  inline six — producing a whopping 150 horses — and 304 CI V-8. Eleven-inch drum brakes, improved steering and beefed-up frames highlighted the mid-’70s best-of-breed. Worth noting is the  December 1980 “60 Minutes” segment involving a CJ-5, which many blame for the model’s production end. In the piece, officials with The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety demonstrated the CJ-5’s dangerously high risk of rollover “in routine road circumstances at relatively low speeds.” In fact, the demonstration was staged, with the institute’s testers having to hang weights along the Jeep’s corners — out of the cameras’ view — in order to create their rollovers. Even then, the organization only managed to create eight flops our of 435 attempts to do so. Nonetheless, the damage to CJ’s public perception was done.

 

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10. 1992 – 98 Grand Cherokee (ZJ). Originally intended as a replacement for the smaller XJ Cherokee, Jeep brand bosses realized the potential gold mine they had in the Grand Cherokee, and launched it alongside the XJ and iconic Wrangler. Of special interest to enthusiasts is the sport-luxury 5.9 Limited model, produced for 1998 only. Its engine bay contained a Chrysler Magnum 5.9-liter V-8 delivering 245 horsepower and 345 lb.-ft. of torque. The behemoth screamed to 60 mph from zero in 7.3 seconds, making it the fastest SUV tested by Motor Trend that year. Among the 5.9’s unique features were a lower-profile roof rack, high-output alternator, leather interior, unique wood-grain accents and five-spoke wheels, revised performance grille and functional hood louvers. Color choices were pared to Deep Slate, Bright Platinum and Stone White.

 

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9. 1981 -85 CJ-8 Scrambler. The Scrambler, besides being one of the most unique Jeep vehicles ever produced, is just a fun runabout. Essentially, it’s a long-wheelbase pseudo-pickup based on the CJ-7 featuring a modest pickup bed and a CJ-style removable hard top. It’s also one of the more rare Jeeps, with fewer than 28,000 produced in its five-year production run, adding to its mystique among Jeep enthusiasts.

 

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8. 1963 -91 Grand Wagoneer (SJ). In yet another first for the Jeep brand, the Grand Wagoneer showed the world what a luxury off-road SUV was for nearly 30 years. The Grand Wagoneer’s SJ platform, which spawned many individual models through the years, was introduced as an heir to the Willys Station Wagon (produced until 1965 in the U.S., and 1985 abroad), and was the third-longest-running vehicle platform in U.S. history. The Grand Wagoneer offered buyers a four-wheel drive truck with such niceties as power steering, an automatic transmission and independent front suspension. Its cavernous interior, comfort and inline six-cylinder engine still have devoted followings today. The spirit of the Grand Wagoneer lived on for a time in the late ’90s-era Grand Cherokee. Rumors have it Jeep will revive the moniker with an upscale seven-passenger sport-ute in the next year or two.

 

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7. 1984 -2001 Cherokee (XJ). Jeep is an eccentric brand, mixing old-school, low-tech designs with a passion for innovation. One such innovation was the unibody XJ Cherokee. This rugged little wagon represented a downsizing of the iconic war wagons Jeep had produced for years, and offered a sport-utility vehicle that was as comfortable at the mall as the trail. The original Cherokee boasted decent power, room and comfort, along with Jeep’s off-road prowess. By the turn of the century, Cherokee buyers had an unquestionably dependable platform and drivetrain that included Dana 30 front axles paired with Chrysler’s 8.25 rear. Even stock, the Cherokee took to the trails as if bred for them. Copies of the venerable Cherokee can be found for a few thousand dollars (significantly less, if you don’t mind buying one someone else has modified) and make exceptional trail rigs.

 

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6. 1940 American Bantam Pilot “Blitz Buggy”. Here it is, the upstart vehicle that started it all. When tiny American Bantam bid on the Army’s request for a rugged field vehicle to replace the horse, they pulled off a tremendous feat, putting together the first prototype in just 49 days. While they won the battle, Bantam lost the war. The Army recognized its inability to deliver the vehicle in the quantities they’d need, and spread the production contract across manufacturers like Willys-Overland and Ford Motor Company.

 

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5. 1986 – 95 Wrangler (YJ). The first short-wheelbase Jeep to bear the name Wrangler was announced in February 1986 at the 1986 Chicago Auto Show. Featuring suspension and drivetrain elements shared with the new XJ Cherokee, the YJ Wrangler’s most notable features were its square headlights and bent-back grille, both a dramatic departure from the CJ model it replaced. Beginning in 1991, Wranglers shipped with the venerable 4.0-liter fuel-injected straight six, and new features the following year included a full-sized “family”-style sport cage and optional anti-lock brakes. For modern buyers, the most desirable years are the 1994-95 models, which shipped with larger, stronger knuckles. Among hard-core wheelers, YJ frame ends have been known for cracking, so reinforcement or even replacement is worth consideration.

 

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4. 1997 -06 Wrangler (TJ). In many ways, the TJ Wrangler is a modern CJ. It took an already rugged Jeep image, and made it accessible to a whole new audience of drivers. With its coil-spring suspension, the Wrangler is serviceable enough for daily commuting duties, but is more than capable on the trail. The TJ Wrangler also completed Wrangler’s evolution toward a more modern soft(ish)-touch dash. TJs were powered by an anemic four-cylinder, economic power plant, though buyers could opt for the near-indestructible four-liter straight six and a beefier Dana 44 rear axle. Trim levels included base, X (later Sport) and Sahara trim packages. And, in 2001, Jeep struck marketing gold with the introduction of the enthusiast-aimed Rubicon model. Checking the Rubicon box brought larger 31-inch tires, factory rocker protection and front and rear locking differentials. To this day, the aftermarket is flooded with TJ parts, making them a fantastic choice from which to build a solid trail rig.

 

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3. 2007 -17 Wrangler Unlimited (JKU). In 2007, Jeep finally delivered on the promise of the 1997 Dakar Concept, giving buyers the option of a four-door Wrangler. Many enthusiasts, including me, initially decried the strange-looking beast — especially the two-wheel drive models which, thankfully, didn’t survive more than a year or two. But, we were wrong. The JKU is as true a Jeep as any off-road, yet its longer wheelbase and legitimate cargo area make it an ideal daily driver for families that might once have had to sacrifice Jeeping fun for the more practical livery of a lowly minivan. The Jeep brand has ridden Wrangler Unlimited sales to new highs for the brand, making it a far more mainstream purchasing option than some ever thought a Jeep could be.

 

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2. 1941 -45 Willys MB/Ford GP. More than half a million copies of America’s war-winning wheeler came rolling off the assembly lines during the 1940s. Our soldiers trusted their lives to it, and none other then Dwight D. Eisenhower himself cited it as one of the indispensable resources without which World War II might not have been won. The wartime Jeeps created a market for itself in civilian life no other brand has been able to rival in three-quarters of a century. While the Humvee tried to copy this feat following Desert Storm, that vehicle’s weight, cost and economy (not to mention General Motors’ total marketing failure) doomed its effort. The earliest military Jeeps made a smooth transition from military service to farm and ranch life, not to mention launching the entire recreational four-wheeling industry.

 

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1. 1976 -86 CJ-7. Jeeps already had a passionate, devoted fan base before the introduction of the CJ-7, but the model’s longer wheelbase began the process of making the short-wheelbase Jeeps practical for more than basic utility work. The CJ-7 became the instant face of Jeep, and in many ways has remained so for generations now. Jeep produced nearly 380,000 CJ-7s in its decade of production, including popular special editions such as the Levis Edition, Golden Eagle and sporty Renegade. By its final model year, the CJ-7 had reached its zenith, with unparalleled durability, a Dana 44 instead of earlier years’ Dana 20 and optional Trac-Lok rear differential. If the 1986 CJ-7 had any downside, it was the elimination of earlier Jeeps’ V-8 option. But, its 258-cubic-inch straight six was a reliable workhorse. It’s no wonder so many CJ-7s are still riding the roads and trails still today!

Conclusion

So, there you have it, 20 vehicles that most influenced Jeep history. What do you think? Am I missing one, giving something too much or too little credit? Leave a comment below and tell me which model(s) you’d have added or subtracted from this list.

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2 comments

  1. Cary although you mentioned the tj I wonder if the Rubicon deserves a spot of its own on this list?
    Tough to quibble with your compilation. Keep up the great posts.

    PS – getting old definitely sucks but its better than the alternative!

    Liked by 1 person

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