Jeep Wrangler: A History of an Off-Roading Icon

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Jeeps transitioned from rugged wartime vehicles to civilian vehicles, and then finally to the hardy, multipurpose Wranglers we know today. Here, we explore the history of this instantly recognizable vehicle.

Models through the Years

Prior to the Wrangler hitting the road, Jeep vehicles had already started employing features that would eventually make their way to the Wrangler. As new models were released, they continued to build on previous historic styles and added newer, modern features. Nevertheless, the following features found in previous Jeeps made their way to the distinctive look of the Wrangler:

  • Boxy body style
  • Two-door design
  • Removable cloth top
  • Instantly recognizable front
  • Round headlamps
  • Tall, seven-slot grille

From the models that preceded the Wrangler to the various changes made in the last few decades, here are the models that make up the heritage of this beloved SUV.

Before the Wrangler – Precursors (1940s – 1980s)

The Wrangler is the clearest modern nod from the manufacturer to the styles of the Jeeps of old. Before debuting its Wrangler, Jeep had already established a decades-long history of making SUVs, going as far back as WWII.

The Willys MB, referred to even then most commonly as a “jeep,” had a reputation for being a sturdy, reliable vehicle that could weather the off-road conditions during the war. Commonly believed to be named after a comic character in Popeye cartoons (Eugene the Jeep) who could “go anywhere and do anything,” the Jeep began selling to the general public just after the war.

The CJ model (Civilian Jeep) introduced in 1944 immediately became extremely popular. They were excellent recreational vehicles affording its owners’ plenty of adventurous weekends. The series remained in production spanning seven iterations, until the late 80s. At that time, a 60 Minutes television segment showed that the CJ was susceptible to rollovers, greatly alarming audiences and damaging the brand. Though the test results were later revealed to be overstated, the perception was already marred. Jeep replaced the line with the Wrangler.

The First Wrangler (1987-1996)

The Wranglers developed as an attempt to appeal to a wider customer base looking for a utility Jeep that was more viable for daily use. This was Jeep’s attempt to bridge the gap between recreational vehicles, such as the CJ, and their more road-friendly Jeeps. The Wrangler’s introduction brought more consumers into the weekend warrior lifestyle, as it offered a far more accessible opportunity to explore off-roading.

In 1994, Jeep introduced an automatic option for the Wrangler, opening up the line to more new converts who were previously hesitant to jump into a Jeep. New owners continued to appreciate the added comforts continually brought to the line, though die-hards began to complain about such features as concerns grew over “posers.”

Wrangler TJ (1996-2006)

At the turn of the century, the Wrangler received many mechanical upgrades that offered more modern capabilities. This included a coil-spring suspension and stiffer frame, introduced in 1997, and an increase from a three-speed transmission to a four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, in 2002. This was a marked return to its roots, improving its off-road utility. Learning from their previous successes and mistakes, they continued to drive the model further toward a blend of utility and comfort.

The 1997 model also brought a return of the Jeep’s round headlights, as the Wrangler had previously gone with rectangular headlights up to this point. This small detail made the Wrangler appear friendlier and added to the warm, welcoming association the brand had begun to develop with customers.

Wrangler JK (2006-2018)

In 2007, the Wrangler line added bright colors and a wider variety of body styles to its offerings to increase the fun and adventure appeal of it. Traction and stability control were also increased, improving the overall safety of the new models.

At this time, Jeep also introduced the Wrangler Unlimited line, which featured four doors instead of two. This has proven to be a popular choice, leading to a group dynamic in off-roading adventures. In fact, nearly three-quarters of all Wranglers sold are four-door models.

Wrangler JL (2018-Today)

Most recently, Jeep introduced a newer model series that made a number of interior improvements without sacrificing the features that make a Wrangler desirable. In fact, as has always been the trend with the Wrangler, Jeep will continue to alternate between improving the on-road comfort and increasing the off-road capabilities. Yet, with each new series, Jeep manages to add one without neglecting the other.

The newer models feature an optional turbo-four engine that makes it more than capable as an off-roading vehicle. In turn, the eight-speed automatic is extremely well-tuned providing a smooth ride during one’s daily commute.

Joining a Club

Let’s face it, the true pleasure in owning a Wrangler is taking it out for some fun! Joining a club is a great way to get the most out of your Jeep ownership. Jeep clubs are a great place to learn the basics of four-wheel driving and off-roading. There, you can inevitably find someone who has experience and is willing to show you the ropes. Joining a club can provide a great opportunity to learn important safety tips for your off-road adventures. A club also provides more options for trails and places to ride, as others share their backcountry knowledge and introduce you to places you didn’t know existed.

It’s always safer to off-road in groups, and what better way to find someone else itching to go along than joining a local community of fellow Wrangler owners.

Jeep has always ridden the line between a sturdy, off-road vehicle and an accessible brand that appeals to the weekend warrior in all of us. The Jeep Wrangler has been an iconic symbol of off-roading and adventure since its debut in 1986 and remains today one of the most recognizable SUVs ever made.