The Jeep brand built its reputation by producing vehicles with legendary all-terrain abilities, and the most iconic of all Jeep vehicles is the Wrangler. Redesigned for the first time in 10 years, the Jeep Wrangler set an all-time sales record for 2018. The descendant of the original U.S. military vehicle that spawned the Jeep name and began the legacy of extreme off-road capability, the modern Wrangler continues that tradition while adding new levels of performance, technology and refinement. From World War II to the Rubicon Trail, let’s look at the storied history of the Jeep Wrangler and its evolution 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 the 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 with the CJ model designation derived from Civilian Jeep. The first model sold in 1945 was the Willys CJ-2A, which was marketed as both a vehicle and as 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.
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 with more than 155,000 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; beginning in 1973 all CJ-5s were powered by a 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 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 akin 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 Wrangler (YJ): 1987–1995
The first production Jeep to bear the Wrangler name debuted at the 1986 Chicago Auto Show as a replacement for the long-running Jeep CJ-7 and went on sale later that year as a 1987 model. 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. As Jeep CJ-7 sales had dropped, the new Jeep Wrangler was designed to be less of a rugged, off-road vehicle and more suited for everyday use to appeal to a broader audience, while still retaining a high-level of off-road capability.
Jeep Wrangler (YJ): 1987–1995
The new design features a wider track, an angled grille and for the first time, rectangular headlights which proved to be controversial with Jeep CJ enthusiasts. Sharing many mechanical components with the Jeep Cherokee, the YJ is powered by a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder or an optional 4.2-liter 6-cylinder producing 112 horsepower and 210 lb-ft of torque. For 1991 the 4.2-liter was replaced with a fuel-injected 4.0-liter inline 6-cylinder producing 180 horsepower. On the inside the Wrangler looks more modern and offers additional creature comforts to appeal to a broader audience. In August 1987 American Motors Corporation was sold to Chrysler Corporation and Jeep became a division of Chrysler. More than 600,000 Wranglers YJ models were sold. Jeep skipped the 1996 model year but continued to sell 1995 models in 1996 until the 1997 model arrived.
Jeep Wrangler Renegade
For 1991 the Jeep offered the Wrangler Renegade Decor Group that included unique 5-hole aluminum alloy wheels, 29-inch all-terrain tires, special fender flares, high-back seats, off-road gas shocks, fog lights and other features.
Jeep Wrangler (TJ): 1997–2006
Redesigned for 1997 with a retro-look closer to the CJ-7 than the previous-generation Wrangler, the new TJ 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 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.
Jeep Wrangler Unlimited
For 2004 Jeep added the Wrangler Unlimited, an extended version with a longer wheelbase, 13 inches of additional cargo room and 2 inches of additional rear-seat room.
Jeep Wrangler (JK): 2007–2017
With an all-new frame, exterior design, interior, engine and safety equipment, the 2007 Wrangler is larger and more refined but remains the modern descendant of the original Willy’s Jeep. Signature Jeep elements include round headlights, a 7-slot grille, solid axles, removable doors, exposed hinges, a fold-down windshield and removable tops. For 2007 the Wrangler Unlimited adopted a 4-door design 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 Wrangler (JK): 2007–2017
The updated 2007 Wrangler is powered by a 3.8-liter V6 engine producing 205 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque, combined with either a 6-speed manual transmission or a 4-speed automatic. For 2012 Wrangler received a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 producing 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, combined with either a 6-speed manual or a 5-speed automatic.
Jeep Wrangler (JL): 2018–present
The current-generation Wrangler premiered for the 2018 model year — the first redesign of this iconic off-roader in 10 years. Jeep stayed true to the original, retaining the 7-slot grille and round headlights, although the grille is taller and wider, and the big headlights have a stylish LED halo around the outer bezel. Overall the Wrangler is more aerodynamic, the beltline has been lowered, and the side windows are larger for improved visibility.
Jeep Wrangler (JL): 2018–present
The 2020 Wrangler is offered in four main trim levels: Sport, Sport S, Sahara and Rubicon, with Sahara offered exclusively as a 4-door Unlimited and the other three available in both 2-door and 4-door Unlimited versions. The 2020 Wrangler also features eight limited editions: High Altitiude, Black & Tan, Freedom, Willys, Rubicon Recon, North Edition, Sport Altitude and Sahara Altitude. Available powertrains include the 285-horsepower Pentastar V6, a new turbocharged 4-cylinder engine with eTorque technology producing 270 horsepower and 290 lb-ft of torque and — new for 2020 — a 3.0-liter V6 EcoDiesel producing 260 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque. This new Jeep is much more comfortable on pavement than its predecessor while retaining legendary off-road capability.
Jeep Wrangler High Altitude
A new addition for 2020, the Wrangler High Altitude debuted at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show offering an advanced level of luxury and premium features. The exterior has body-color elements including the hardtop, fenders, door handles and bumpers; matte black running boards with integrated steps; and 20-inch gloss black aluminum wheels and a matte black Trail Rated badge. Full LED lighting includes headlights, running lights, fog lights, accent lights and taillights. Special colors for the High Altitude include Ocean Blue, Gobi and Snazzberry. Inside, the High Altitude Wrangler gets full leather trim on the dashboard, center console and door panels as well as quilted Nappa leather seats.
Jeep Wrangler Black and Tan
New for 2020, the Wrangler Black & Tan is offered in all exterior colors with a heritage look that includes 17-inch Machine Granite wheels, all-terrain tires, side steps, low gloss badging and a premium tan soft-top. Inside, Wrangler Black & Tan features Wizard Black instrument panel trim and Heritage Tan cloth seats.
Jeep Wrangler Freedom
Jeep adds the Wrangler Freedom for 2020 as a tribute to the U.S. military with military-themed interior and exterior design elements. Based on Wrangler Sport S, additional features include an American flag on the front fenders, a military badge on the tailgate, a military decal on the hood, a black premium Sunrider soft-top, deep-tint rear windows, Satin Carbon 17-inch aluminum wheels, all-terrain tires and side steps. Inside, Wrangler Freedom features black cloth seats with black leather bolsters, Light Tungsten accent stitching, as well as military symbols on the seats, steering wheel, doors and armrest. Jeep will make a $250 donation to the USO for each Wrangler Freedom sold.
Jeep Wrangler Willys
A popular Wrangler package, the Wrangler Willys returns for 2020, the first time it has been offered for the current-generation Wrangler. The Willys package includes a limited-slip rear differential, Rubicon rock rails, Rubicon shocks, heavy-duty brakes and 32-inch Firestone mud terrain tires. Jeep’s Command-Trac 4X4 part-time, 2-speed transfer case is standard with a 2.72:1 low-range gear ratio to boost off-road capability. Wrangler Willys adds a Willys hood decal, black 17-inch aluminum wheels, a gloss black sport grille, all-weather mats, LED headlights and LED fog lights.
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Recon
The Rubicon Recon returns for 2020 based on Wrangler Rubicon, powered by the 2.0-liter turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine with eTorque mild hybrid technology and additional equipment to raise Rubicon to a higher level of off-road capability. Wrangler Rubicon Recon features Dana front and rear heavy-duty axles; a Rock-Trac NV241 2-speed transfer case with a 4.0:1 low-range gear ratio; electric front and rear locking differentials; a disconnecting front sway bar and 33-inch Falken Wildpeak Mud-Terrain tires. Additional equipment includes heavy-duty rock rails; LED headlights and taillights; a gloss black grille with a body-color surround; a Recon fender badge and matte black fender vent with an American flag; 17-inch aluminum wheels with a black finish; a matte black hood stripe, steel bumpers with bumper loops and Rubicon gray grille inserts.
Jeep Wrangler North Edition
For 2020 Jeep offers the Wrangler North Edition with features designed to improve performance and comfort in tough winter driving conditions. Standard equipment includes heated seats, a heated steering wheel, remote start, heated mirrors, all-weather mats, all-terrain tires and tow hook. Also included is a Jeep Trail Rated kit that contains a tow strap, D-rings, carabiner, gloves and safety kit.
Limited Edition Jeep Wrangler JPP 20
At the 2020 Chicago Auto Show, Jeep introduced the limited-edition Wrangler JPP 20 to highlight off-road Jeep Performance Parts and accessories available from Mopar. Standard equipment includes a 2-inch lift kit, a Rubicon Warn Winch, LED lights, full-aluminum doors, steel tube doors, and a JPP steel bumper. Mopar Custom Shop technicians will install additional JPP equipment for each order following factory production.
The long-rumored Jeep Wrangler Pickup finally arrived — without the Wrangler name — when the 2020 Jeep Gladiator made its debut at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show. The new Gladiator midsize truck shares the look of the 4-door Wrangler Unlimited, but it is more than a Wrangler with a pickup bed added — FCA used its experience with Ram Trucks to build Gladiator. The new truck still carries the attributes and standout features of the Wrangler, including its legendary off-road capability, open-top driving, and even the removable doors and folding windshield. But it is also a proper truck with the utility and equipment to match or exceed all other midsize trucks on the market.