FEW VEHICLES imbue the yearning to turn the key and hit the road like a vintage Jeep Wagoneer. Appearing on US markets in 1963, it was the successor to the much-loved Willys Wagon and America’s first luxury SUV (they didn’t call them sport utility vehicles yet). During its nearly three-decade tenure the Wagoneer was fitted with engines ranging from the Tornado inline six-cylinder to a 401 cubic-inch V8.
It also featured the Turbo-Hydramatic 400, TorqueFlite 727 three-speed automatic transmissions, air-conditioning and many accoutrements of the modern luxury four-wheel drive. Flash-forward 50 years and the Wagoneer still brings Jeep aficionados to an emotional high.
When Jeep’s head of design, Mark Allen, was dreaming up ideas for 2018’s Easter Jeep Safari concepts, he envisioned a vehicle that symbolised the spirit and freedom of open roads and trails but also possessed some attributes of modern automotive technology. He and his team found this 1965 Wagoneer on Craigslist and the rest has, well, dovetailed into its 53-year legacy. During this year’s event we talked Allen out of the Roadtrip Wagoneer for some extended seat time and an easy day of cruising Moab’s backroads – and what a road trip it was.
The Jeep boys began the restoration by removing the sturdy steel body and stripping it down to the metal, treating it with a 360-degree coat of US Forest Service light green. Chrome trim was in exceptionally good shape and only given a good polish, while the glass was replaced with new panels featuring Coke bottle green tint. The seats were treated to ox-blood red leather and out back a cooler was crafted from period-correct luggage, while the valve cover from the original Tornado 230 six-cylinder was turned into a toolbox.
Under the bonnet is where things get interesting. A crate 5.7-litre HEMI, which was mated to a four-speed automatic from a Durango, replaced the old Tornado and three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic. It was also treated to a Jeep Performance Parts cold-air intake, while spent gasses are directed aft via a Dynomax dual exhaust system.
Down below is a Wrangler chassis that was stretched five inches, boxed and braced. Positive traction is ensured via a four-link suspension, Rubicon Dana 44 axles and electric-locking differentials, while BFGoodrich KM2 Mud Terrains wrapped around period-correct steel wheels round out the build.
We’ve been previewing and driving Jeep’s concept rigs for more than a decade, but those that garner our undivided attention always seem to be of the retro-modern breed. At the end of the day, turning it back in and seeing it loaded on a trailer bound for Detroit was a tough call. If the Roadtrip Wagoneer returns next year we might take a slight (and slow) detour west back to California… on all-dirt roads, of course.