The Jeep brand built its reputation by producing vehicles with legendary all-terrain abilities. Most iconic of all Jeep vehicles, today’s Wrangler is the descendant of the original U.S. military vehicle that spawned the Jeep name and began the legacy of extreme off-road capability. From World War II to the Rubicon Trail, let’s look at the storied history of the Jeep brand and the evolution of Jeep vehicles through the years.
In 1940 the U.S. military was looking for a “light reconnaissance vehicle” to replace motorcycles and modified Model-T Ford vehicles. The list of specifications included 4-wheel drive, a 2-speed transfer case, a short wheelbase and light weight. Willys-Overland, American Bantam Car Manufacturing Company and Ford Motor Company all responded by producing prototype vehicles. The Willys prototype was the Quad, Bantam produced the Blitz Buggy and Ford produced the Model GP, also known as the Pygmy.
Dawn of the Jeep
All three companies were contracted to produce 70 vehicles each, followed by an additional 1,500 that were updated to meet revised specifications. Ultimately Willys was chosen as the primary manufacturer, and the Willys Quad became the MA followed by the MB, incorporating elements from both the Ford and Bantam vehicles. It’s unclear exactly how the vehicle became known as the Jeep, but it may have been either the abbreviated pronunciation of “GP,” the military label for “General Purpose,” or from the character “Eugene the Jeep” in the Popeye cartoon. Either way, the Jeep name stuck.
Willys struggled to meet the Army minimum weight specification of 2,160 pounds, and many items were removed from the Willys MA, which was a minimalist vehicle with the gearshift on the steering column, low side body cutouts, two round instrument clusters and a hand brake on the left side. Additional equipment was added to second-generation MB, resulting in a weight increase of approximately 400 pounds. Willys-Overland built more than 368,000 vehicles for the U.S. Army, and under license Ford built an additional 277,000 vehicles.
Jeep CJ-2A: 1945–1949
After the war ended, Willys trademarked the name and began selling Jeeps to civilians. The first model sold in 1945 was the Willys CJ-2A, which was marketed as both a vehicle and also a mobile generator that could power farm implements and industrial tools when equipped with a power take-off unit. The CJ-2A had more equipment than the previous military models, including a tailgate, side-mounted spare tire, larger headlights and an external fuel cap. The CJ-2A is powered by a 134-cubic-inch 4-cylinder engine with a T-90A transmission, Spicer 18 transfer case and Dana full-floating front and rear axles. The CJ-3A sold from 1949-53 is very similar to the CJ-2A, with the addition of a one-piece windshield with a bottom vent, dual bottom-mounted wipers and a few mechanical updates.
Willys Station Wagon: 1946–1965
The 1946 Willys Station Wagon was the first all-steel station wagon, even though it was painted to look like a woody. It has a unique fold-down tailgate, and while most station wagons of the time could carry a 4×8 sheet of plywood horizontally, the Willys Wagon could carry it vertically as well. Four-wheel drive was added in 1949.
Willys-Overland Truck: 1947–1965
The 1947 Jeep Truck was the first attempt by Willys-Overland to market the Jeep brand beyond the flat-fendered, short-wheelbase CJ. The Jeep Truck has a 118-inch wheelbase and was offered as a pickup, stake bed, cab and chassis, or as a bare chassis. Two-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive were offered, and powerplant choices included the Go Devil engine, the 72-horsepower Super Hurricane and the Tornado. The Jeep Truck had minor sheet metal changes until the mid-1960s.
Jeep Jeepster: 1948–1951
Willys-Overland designer Brooks Stevens created the Jeep Jeepster as an open-top phaeton-style vehicle with side curtains for weather protection, rather than roll-up windows. Intended to be a low-priced sports car, the Jeepster was very expensive when it went on sale and performance was lackluster for a sports car. The Jeepster was first offered with the Go Devil engine and later the 6-cylinder Hurricane engine, but was never offered with 4-wheel drive.
Jeep CJ-3B: 1953–1968
The Jeep CJ received extensive updates for 1953 as the CJ-3B, with a taller hood and grille to fit a larger Hurricane engine that produced 25 percent more horsepower than the previous engine. Production of the CJ-3B lasted for 15 years — more than 155,000 were sold. In 1953 Henry J. Kaiser purchased Willys-Overland for $60 million, and the Kaiser Company began research and development to expand the Jeep product range.
Jeep CJ-5: 1955–1983
Kaiser introduced the Jeep CJ-5 in 1955, which is slightly larger than the CJ-3B with a longer wheelbase and overall length. Based on the Korean War M-38A-1 military vehicle, the CJ-5 has softer body lines and more rounded fenders. As interest in off-road vehicles grew, the CJ-5 improved in almost every way including engines, transmissions, axles and seating comfort. In 1965 a new V6 engine produced 155 horsepower and 225 lb-ft of torque — nearly twice the power of the standard 4-cylinder engine. American Motors Corporation purchased Kaiser Jeep in 1970, and beginning in 1973 all CJ-5s were powered by either a 304- or 360-cubic-inch V8 engine. More than 600,000 CJ-5s were produced over nearly 30 years.
Jeep CJ-6: 1956–1975
For owners who wanted additional room, the Jeep CJ-6 arrived for 1956. Virtually identical in mechanicals with the CJ-5, the CJ-6 rides on a 20-inch-longer wheelbase. The CJ-6 received the same engine upgrades in 1965 and 1973 as the CJ-5. The CJ-7 replaced the CJ-6 in 1976.
Jeep Wagoneer: 1963–1991
In 1962 Jeep introduced the 1963 Wagoneer, the first luxury 4-wheel-drive SUV — also designed by Brooks Stevens. The Wagoneer combines passenger car styling and comfort with 4-wheel-drive capability; it was the first 4-wheel-drive vehicle to offer an automatic transmission and independent front suspension. In 1965 the Super Wagoneer offered many luxury options as standard equipment, a single-speed transfer case and a price nearly double the base Wagoneer. In 1973 the Wagoneer became available with Quadra-Trac 4WD — the first automatic full-time 4WD system. The name was changed to Grand Wagoneer in 1984, when a Wagoneer version of the new Jeep Cherokee hit showrooms.
Jeep Gladiator/J-Series Pickup: 1963–1987
The Gladiator line of full-size pickups was introduced for 1963 and shares the same platform, front-end styling and powertrain as the Wagoneer. The Gladiator J-200 has a 120-inch wheelbase and the J-300 has a 126-inch wheelbase. The names were changed to Gladiator J-2000 and J-3000 in 1965, but the Gladiator name was dropped in 1971 with the truck line continuing as the J-Series through 1987.
Jeep Jeepster Commando: 1967–1973
Built on the CJ-6 platform, the Jeep Jeepster Commando is a sportier model designed to appeal as a leisure-time 4-wheel-drive vehicle, offered in four variations: roadster, pickup, convertible and station wagon. The convertible has a classic look from the original Jeepster, with either a manual or power convertible top. The roadster has either a half-length or full-length removable soft-top. The suspension was designed to give the best ride and handling of any Jeep vehicle.
Jeep Cherokee: 1975–1983
A sportier 2-door version of the Wagoneer, the Jeep Cherokee features bucket seats, a sport steering wheel and sporty trim to appeal to younger, more adventurous buyers. The Cherokee Chief has the Wide-Track option with wider wheels, larger wheel cutouts, fender flares, three-inch wider axles, Dana 44 front and rear axles, upgraded interior and exterior stripes. A 4-door Cherokee joined the lineup in 1977.
Jeep CJ-7: 1976–1986
The first major update of the CJ design in 20 years came with the introduction of the CJ-7 for 1976. The CJ-7 has a wheelbase 10 inches longer than the CJ-5, allowing room for an automatic transmission. (Production of the CJ-5 continued until 1983.) The CJ-7 was the first Jeep to offer an optional molded plastic top and steel doors.
Jeep Scrambler: 1981–1985
A pickup alternative to the CJ-7, the Scrambler is built on a longer 103-inch wheelbase with a longer rear overhang to increase cargo capacity. Known internationally as the CJ-8, the Scrambler is mechanically similar to the CJ-7 — although a V8 engine was never available. The open-top pickup was offered with either a soft-top or a hardtop. Only 30,000 Scramblers were built, making it popular among collectors.
Jeep Cherokee (XJ): 1984-2001
As interest in SUVs continued to grow in America, Jeep debuted the all-new compact Cherokee for the 1984 model year. The 1984 Cherokee has a unibody chassis rather than a traditional body-on-frame design. It is 21 inches shorter, 6 inches narrower, 4 inches lower and 1,000 pounds lighter than the full-size Grand Wagoneer. The XJ features a Quadra-Link coil front suspension, and was offered with two different all-wheel-drive systems: the part-time Command-Trac and full-time Selec-Trac. Cherokee was originally offered with either a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder or a 2.8-liter V6 engine until the highly-regarded 4.0-liter inline 6-cylinder arrived for 1987. A new Jeep Wagoneer based on the Cherokee was offered 1984–1990, featuring quad headlights and vinyl woodgrain side trim for the Wagoneer Limited.
Jeep Comanche (MJ): 1986–1992
A pickup version of the Cherokee, the Jeep Comanche is also a unibody vehicle, which was unique for a pickup truck at that time. Comanche is mechanically similar to the Cherokee and was offered as either the short-bed Comanche Sport or the long-bed Comanche Chief. Later models offered the full-time Selec-Trac 4-wheel drive or Command-Trac.
Jeep Wrangler (YJ): 1987–1996
The Jeep Wrangler replaced the long-running Jeep CJ for 1987, and although it retained a similar profile to its predecessor, the new Wrangler shares few mechanical components with the CJ-7 and has more in common with the new Cherokee. The new design features a wider track, an angled grille and rectangular headlights. On the inside the Wrangler looks more modern and offers more creature comforts to appeal to a broader audience. More than 600,000 Wranglers were sold. In August 1987 American Motors Corporation was sold to Chrysler Corporation and Jeep became a division of Chrysler.
Jeep Grand Cherokee: 1993–1998
An all-new midsize SUV for 1993, the Jeep Grand Cherokee set new standards for ride, handling and comfort in an SUV. The first SUV with a driver’s side airbag, the Grand Cherokee features Quadra-Coil suspension, an available 5.2-liter V8 engine and a choice of all-wheel-drive systems. The Jeep Grand Wagoneer — based on the Grand Cherokee — was offered for 1993 only, with all available Grand Cherokee options and vinyl woodgrain side trim. The Orvis special edition was offered 1995-1997 with green paint and gold striping outside and two-tone green and champagne leather inside. Grand Cherokee was updated with over 40 major changes for 1996 and the Grand Cherokee 5.9L Limited was added for 1998.
Jeep Wrangler (TJ): 1997–2006
Redesigned for 1997 with a retro-look that was closer to the CJ-7 than the previous-generation Wrangler, the new design returned to round headlights and retained a fold-down windshield, removable doors and a choice of a soft-top or a removable hardtop. On-road handling improved via the Quadra-Coil suspension, which replaced standard leaf springs. Off-road capability also improved with more ground clearance and more aggressive approach and departure angles.
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
The Wrangler Rubicon was added for 2003 — the best equipped production Jeep for off-road capability up to that time. It has push-button locking front and rear axles, 4:1 low-range Rock-Trac transfer case, 32-inch tires and other options not previously offered on a production Jeep. The Wrangler Unlimited was added for 2004 with a longer wheelbase, 13 inches of additional cargo room and 2 inches of additional rear-seat room.
Jeep Grand Cherokee: 1999–2004
The first complete redesign for the Grand Cherokee, the 1999 model features better ride and handling, the addition of a 4.7-liter V8 engine and a new Quadra-Drive 4×4 system. While the exterior design remains very similar to the original, there are very few components carried over from the previous model. Inside the ergonomics were improved and the level of luxury is increased to meet the demand for more refinement in luxury SUVs.
Jeep Liberty: 2002–2007
The Jeep Liberty replaced the Cherokee for the 2002 model year with a new vehicle that incorporated iconic Jeep design elements such as the round headlights and 7-slot grille. Liberty features independent front suspension, a 3.7-liter V6 engine, Command-Trac 4-wheel drive and full-time Select-trac standard for Liberty Limited. For the 2005 model year a 2.8-liter turbo diesel engine and 6-speed manual transmission were offered.
Jeep Grand Cherokee: 2005–2010
The Grand Cherokee was redesigned for 2005 with a focus on combining power and luxury with a quieter, more refined ride by adding a new short/long-arm front suspension. Three engines were offered, including a 330-horsepower 5.7-liter HEMI and the available full-time Quadra-Drive II 4×4 system featured front and rear limited slip differentials and a center differential lock.
Jeep Commander: 2006–2010
Based on the same platform as the 2005 Grand Cherokee, the Jeep Commander is a seven-passenger SUV with a three-inch step up in the roof to create room for third-row stadium-style seating. The boxy design features an upright windshield and squared-off sides that look more like the 2008 Liberty; engine and drivetrain choices were shared with the Grand Cherokee.
Jeep Patriot: 2007–present
One of Jeep’s two compact crossovers, the Jeep Patriot has more of an upright traditional SUV design, while the original Compass design (see next slide) looks more like a hatchback. The Patriot has a classic Jeep look with round headlights and an upright 7-slot grille. It is front-wheel drive with a choice of two all-wheel-drive systems. Freedom Drive I is a full-time system designed for on-road use, and Freedom Drive II is off-road capable. Patriot is powered by a 172-horsepower 2.4-liter engine combined with a CVT.
Jeep Compass: 2007–present
The other of Jeep’s two compact crossovers, the Jeep Compass is front-wheel drive with the choice of two all-wheel drive systems. Freedom Drive I is a full-time system designed for on-road use, and Freedom Drive II is off-road capable. The Compass was redesigned for 2011 and a new design looks a lot like the new Grand Cherokee — a big improvement over the original design, but the drivetrain is still the same with a 172-horsepower 2.4-liter engine combined with a CVT.
Jeep Wrangler: 2007–present
With an all-new frame, exterior design, interior, engine and safety equipment, the 2007 Wrangler was larger and more refined but continued as the modern descendant of the original Willy’s Jeep. Signature Jeep elements include round headlights, 7-slot grille, solid axles, removable doors, exposed hinges, a fold-down windshield and removable tops. For 2007 the Wrangler Unlimited was introduced as a 4-door with easier access to a roomier 3-passenger rear seat and the most cargo capacity ever in a Wrangler. For 2011 the Wrangler received an all-new interior.
Jeep Liberty: 2008–2012
Jeep Liberty was redesigned for 2008 with a sharper-edged, more rugged design to replace the more rounded first-generation look. To improve both on-road handling and off-road capability, new independent front and 5-link rear suspension were added with an available new Selec-Trac II full-time 4×4 system. Inside passenger room, cargo capacity and seats were improved and a Sky Slider Roof was offered.
Jeep Grand Cherokee: 2011–present
The Grand Cherokee was all-new for 2011 after more than 4 million sales since the first Grand Cherokee debuted in 1992. The Grand Cherokee has a refined design, a more luxurious interior, better on-road handling and increased off-road capability with a choice of three 4×4 systems, a new Jeep Selec-Terrain system and a new Jeep Quadra-Lift air suspension. For 2014 the Grand Cherokee was updated with a shorter grille and slimmer headlights. At the rear, larger taillights include signature LED lighting, a larger spoiler improves aerodynamics and a new tailgate aids rear visibility.
Jeep Cherokee: 2014–present
The Jeep Cherokee returned for 2014 as an all-new compact SUV to replace the Liberty in the Jeep lineup. The new Cherokee features a modern, aerodynamic design and is powered by a new 3.2-liter Pentastar V6 engine or a 2.3-liter Tigershark MultiAir 2 engine, both combined with a standard 9-speed automatic transmission. Legendary Jeep off-road capability is delivered with the Cherokee Trailhawk, which includes lifted off-road suspension with skidplates, tow hooks, Selec-Terrain traction control, Jeep Active Drive Lock with rear locker, Selec-Speed Crawl Control with 56:1 crawl ratio and aggressive approach, departure and break-over angles.
Jeep Renegade: 2015–present
Jeep joins the growing sub-compact crossover segment for 2015 with the Renegade, a new model that is small and fuel-efficient but also offers available Jeep off-road capability. The Renegade Sport and Latitude are both powered by a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine with 6-speed manual transmission or available 2.4-liter Tigershark engine with 9-speed automatic, which are standard for Renegade Limited and Trailhawk. The Renegade Trailhawk offers Jeep off-road capability with Active Drive Low 4×4 system with 20:1 crawl ratio; Selec-Terrain system with five modes, including Rock mode; off-road suspension with 0.8-inch lift; hill descent control; 17-inch off-road aluminum wheels and aggressive tires; and red two hooks, skidplates, off-road fascias, black accent roof and roof rails.