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1963 Jeep Wagonner (Chrysler)
1963 Jeep Wagonner (Chrysler)

Classic Cars

Classic car: Willys' wild ride Add to ...

It's been almost five decades since the Willys Jeep Wagoneer, the progenitor of the big-bodied sport utility vehicles that would soon to become the dominant brutes roaming our roads - in sheer size and appetite anyway - struggled out of the primordial backwater ooze of off-roading and onto North America's smoothly paved highways and into suburban driveways.

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But the species spawned by the Wagoneer's arrival in the fall of 1962, doesn't appear destined to hang around in significant numbers for much longer. Now seen by many as dinosaurs, the traditional-style SUVs' annual sales numbers peaked shortly after the arrival of the new millennium at about three million. "Only" about a million will be sold this year as their replacement, the "crossover," continues its evolutionary march up the vehicular food chain.

1963 Remembered

Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan records his second major album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and writes 11 of its 13 songs, kicking the work off with Blowin' in the Wind.

Televised sporting events change forever - and for the better - with the invention of the instant replay by CBS-TV director Tony Verna, who wanted to fill in the boring bits between football plays.

The Lear jet, originally conceived in Switzerland as a ground attack aircraft, but developed by aviation pioneer Bill Lear and his team as a business jet, is flown for the first time. Lear is now part of Bombardier.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union, hotly engaged in the Cold War, decide it might be good to have a "chat" to avoid things getting out of hand and set up a direct emergency hot-line between the White House and the Kremlin.

When the 1963 Wagoneer made its enthusiastically received debut it was something of a "crossover" itself, the no-longer-missing link between rather crude, off-road-capable, four-wheel-drive vehicles and the family-oriented station wagons that filled many suburban garages.

What became known as the SUV saw its original DNA threads develop in the 1930s when companies - such as General Motors with its Suburban - began installing station-wagon-like bodies on commercial chassis.

The second DNA strands were developed during the Second World War when military vehicles introduced the benefits of four-wheel-drive to a wider audience and their makers naturally leveraged the technology for peacetime products.

It would take more than a decade however to weave the two together into the Willys Jeep Wagoneer, which served as the template for the full-size SUVs that followed - Chevrolet Blazer/GMC Jimmy, Ford Bronco and Dodge Ramcharger. These eventually grew into a family of vehicles ranging from the minuscule - Suzuki's teeny-weeny SJ410 of the mid-80s - to the positively massive, exemplified by the still going strong Chevrolet Suburban.

Willys? Where did that name come from, and what does it have to do with Jeep? Well, just about everything.

Car salesman John North Willys purchased the Overland car company in 1907 and Willys-Overland built passenger cars up until the U.S. entry into the Second World War, by which time it was building the iconic vehicle that would eventually carry the Jeep brand name into the future.

The first "jeep" came about due to a government requirement for a small 4x4 reconnaissance vehicle, for which Willys and American Bantam submitted designs. The army liked the Bantam, but not its engine. But it did like Willys' Go-Devil flathead four, and its ability to mass-produce the vehicle. Production was also shared with Ford and about 640,000 were built by war's end. It was American GIs who get credit for the "Jeep" name, which likely came from either the initials GP for general purpose, or from the Popeye cartoon character Eugene the Jeep.

At the end of the war, Willys, which by now had trademarked the Jeep name, entered the civilian market with a version of the wartime vehicle called the CJ, an all-steel and truck-like station wagon and a neat little open-topped tourer called the Jeepster. Willys was taken over by the Kaiser Industries in the early 1950s, which changed its name to Kaiser-Jeep in 1963. The Jeep name was then acquired by American Motors Corp. and later Chrysler.

In the 1950s, Willys Jeeps were the four-by-four stars, but with more domestic rivals emerging and its products becoming dated, by the early 1960s it was decided something had to be done. And the result was a game changer.

A Truck Trend magazine road test headline summed it up nicely. "The Jeep Becomes a Gentleman" with a "turnpike" engine and a "country club" look.

The Wagoneer was a big, angular, yet stylish-looking "wagon" that could seat six in its airy cabin in either two- or four-door body styles. It was available with either rear- or four-wheel-drive and either a solid or independent front suspension, the latter making it much more car-like to drive than the cruder alternatives.

It was powered by a 140-hp, 230-cubic-inch (3.7-litre) overhead cam inline six and was the first four-by-four to offer an automatic transmission, which automatically improved its showroom appeal. A three-speed manual was standard. Average fuel economy was in the range of 16 to 20 litres/100 km.

Two-wheel-drive versions sold for $2,556 (U.S.) and the 4x4 model for $3,332. Two trim levels were available and options included the usual power assists, plus an electric tailgate window, a compass, seatbelts and a snow plow.

The Wagoneer would continue in production for some 29 years with surprisingly few major changes, ending its run in 1991 by which time it was known as the Grand Wagoneer.

You could buy one in Canada that year for $36,481, equipped with a 5.9-litre V-8 rated at 144 hp, just four more than the original came with and about the same fuel economy rating.

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