The Jeep Grand Wagoneer was the world’s first luxury SUV. Lined with plush leather, thick carpeting, a cushy ride, a fancy stereo, and power-operated everything—doors, seats, windows, even the tailgate glass—it was capable of transforming, at the flick of a switch, from an insulated freeway cruiser to an all-wheel-drive snow- and mud-conquering monster. The stylish family car was not only a prescient innovator in the marketplace, carving out space for players such as Land Rover’s Range Rover, but it also had something for everyone.
“It has always been a bit of a preppy vehicle, at least as far as your part of the world, the Northeast, is concerned,” says Chip Miller, who, along with his founder father, Leon, runs Wagonmaster, a Kerrville (Texas) shop dedicated to buying and selling the world’s finest low-mileage vintage Grand Wagoneers. “When you get down here in our part of the world, it was a great ranch vehicle, to be able to drive around the ranch, and then still get on the highway and get into town, so we used them in agriculture.”
The Grand Wagoneer was the final evolution in one of the longest-running, unchanged vehicle designs in automotive history, tracing its roots—and just about every one of its body panels—back to Brooks Stevens’s trapezoidal Jeep Wagoneer of 1963. (Fun facts: Stevens also designed the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile and Harley-Davidson’s influential post-World War II motorcycles, and is credited with bringing to prominence the color robin’s-egg blue, which he used on his kitchen appliance designs in the 1950s.)
The classic angular appearance of the Jeep was part of its attraction back when it was originally on the market, and it continues to hold appeal for contemporary collectors. The signature fake-wood paneling along its flanks—harking back to a time when big wagons had real wood bodies—is also evocative of a sentimental, but honest all-American past. “Most of it is nostalgia. It delivers warm, fuzzy feelings,” Miller says of the vehicle. “Great times at the beach, at the lake, at the ski place at the mountains, at fishing trips with dad.”
Interestingly enough, it is in just these kinds of upscale, vacation-oriented locales that Miller sees the highest concentration of his sales. “Strongholds,” he calls them. “Long Island, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, upstate New York. The ski areas of Colorado, Aspen and Vail. Sun Valley, Idaho.”
The nostalgia is almost certainly limited to the looks—the SUVs were notoriously difficult to keep running, and family memories of them likely include more than a few trips to the shop. But with teams like Miller's reworking the engines, ones on the market today may very well be more reliable than one that came off the assembly line in the 1980s.
But this was always a car for the privileged; at the end of its run in the early 1990s, 58 percent of its buyers were college-educated, and they had a median income of $98,200, one of the highest of any vehicle then on the market.
Vintage trucks have recently become the fastest-growing segment of the collectible vehicle market, and classic Grand Wagoneers have seen a concomitant spike in prices. Wagonmaster opened 20 years ago, but, according to Miller, it didn’t sell its first vehicle for over $20,000 until 2000, and prices have continued to climb since then. “In 2010 our average sale price was just north of $30,000,” he says. “Our average last year was just over $50,000.” Other restorers at sites like Wagoneer World and Grand Wagoneer are pricing their vehicles similarly, or higher. Some listings approach the $70,000 mark.
These vehicles are at the very top of the market—low mileage, painstakingly restored, updated, and concentrated in the most desirable and rare “Final Series” years from 1989-1991, during which production numbers were lowest and options and features were highest. Our friends at Hagerty—classic-vehicle insurance experts and publishers of influential vehicle-valuation tools—show that average prices are up over 35 percent during the past five years, and are currently approaching the $20,000 mark. So affordable classics are still available. But you shouldn’t wait. Hagerty has seen a 164 percent increase in the number of classic Grand Wagoneers it insures over the past five years, indicating a significant growth in their collectibility.
And this is only likely to increase as Jeep rolls out a brand new Grand Wagoneer. The brand recently confirmed that an all-new, three-row version of its full-size Jeep will be released in 2018, which should raise awareness of—and prices for—the vintage truck. “I have no doubt in my mind that it will not damage the market value of the old original,” Miller says. “In fact, if anything, it may well shoot it through the roof. Our take, me and a lot of the other classic Jeep guys, is bring it on.”
One big outstanding question is whether the new truck will retain cues from the old one’s styling. “There very well could be a model that would have wood grain on it,” Miller says. “And if it did, I think it would do well. I have people that contact me and ask, ‘If I sent you my Escalade, would you consider putting wood grain on it?’ Of course, I don’t do that. But it evokes something that some people just love. They love it.”