Home » Detroiter Attends Swap Meet And Buys Me A Motherlode Of Jeep Drawings From The Original Designer

Detroiter Attends Swap Meet And Buys Me A Motherlode Of Jeep Drawings From The Original Designer

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“At a swap meet in Detroit I recently came across a bunch of original sketches from the lead designer (or so I’m told) of Jeep at the time, Joe Papai,” Autopian reader Lucas messaged me on Facebook yesterday. “I thought you’d be interested in all this concept ZJ sketches!” Lucas then told me that he was still at the swap meet, and that he’d buy these priceless sketches on my behalf if I wanted him to. So today I’m $300 poorer, but richer in so, so many ways. Here’s a look at this incredible loot of Jeep design history.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ has a fascinating history. Many folks just see it as a moderately tweaked Jeep Cherokee XJ, but in reality, there was a time when it wasn’t clear what this vehicle — initially designed by American Motors back in the late 1980s (the vehicle wouldn’t debut until the 1993 model-year) — was going to be. Would it be a Dodge or would it be a Jeep? There was even a Dodge Version built:

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Image: Car Design Archives via The Drive

The Last American CEO — a book about Joe Cappy’s time at AMC, where he’d be the company’s final CEO before the Chrysler merger — discusses this whole phase of the ZJ project, writing:

…Lee Iacocca decided to stage a gunfight at the OK Corral. He requested both divisions — Dodge and Jeep — to prepare position papers. Joe Cappy, reporting to Ben Bidwell, would make the case for Jeep, while Ron Boltz, an incredibly bright product planner and Vice President reporting to Chrysler VIce-Chairman and product wunderkind Bob Lutz, would prepare the paper for Dodge.


The competing please from both Jeep and Dodge to get the all-0new SUV were made in front of Chrysler’s top brass.


Minutes later, Bob Lutz was on the phone. “Congratulations, Joe, the ZJ will be a Jeep.”

And once it was decided that it’d be a Jeep, what was the plan for it? Would it take over the Jeep Cherokee XJ’s spot as a mid-size family hauler, or would it become something different. Jeep showed off the “Concept 1” back in 1989, highlighting that it was built on the XJ platform, and that it offered significantly more space:


Here’s a brochure for the 1989 Concept 1 :

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It also wasn’t clear where the “ZJ” would be built.

In the end, AMC’s ZJ became a larger and more luxurious Jeep separate from (and sold alongside) its sibling, the Jeep Cherokee XJ; and it ended up bringing about an entirely new, state-of-the-art, multibillion dollar factory in the city of Detroit, Jefferson North Assembly Plant (JNAP):


Were it not for Chrysler’s decision to switch its inline-six-powered Grand Cherokee transmissions from an Aisin-built automatic to a Chrysler-built one six months in 1993, I have no doubt the ZJ would have gone down in history as one of the greatest Jeeps of all time. But alas, the transmission failures meant it will forever remain thoroughly in the shadows of its smaller sibling, the Cherokee XJ.

I myself remain obsessed with the ZJ because not only was it the car I initially learned to drive as a kid, but I am lucky enough to own a rare manual transmission variant, which rids of the reliability concerns and truly allows me to enjoy one of the greatest Jeep platforms ever built. It’s large, but not too large. It has solid axles that allow for great suspension articulation for off-road use. The fully-coil sprung suspension was a first for a Jeep, and offers a great ride. The interior comfort is phenomenal. I could go on and on, but I won’t, because I need to show you these amazing sketches that Lucas bought me at that indoor swap meet in Novi, Michigan. Behold:

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A note about these sketches from our designer, Adrian Clarke:

These are an absolute goldmine. It’s very rare to see sketches like this outside of the studio environment, because obviously the design studio is top secret and access is extremely limited. These XJ images look like different ideas for the front graphic. When designing a car the first thing that is nailed down is the exterior shape – the overall proportions and volumes. Then you add any feature lines to the body. Finally it’s the graphics – the lights, grilles and trim pieces that make up the jewelry of the car. That’s what we’re looking at here – the designer has the outline of front view of the car (probably from a computer plot of the body data – remember this is well before Photoshop) and is just trying out different themes and ideas. They’re quite simple in that there’s only two or three gray tones, but in the hands of a skilled designer that’s all you need to indicate highlight and shadow to represent a 3D form. The next stage would be to mock these up crudely on the clay model – using tape and paint to see if they would work at full size.

The side view sketches [below] are again freehand using ink, markers, pastels and pencils. The wheels look like they are cut out from a magazine or existing photo. This is done because wheels are time consuming to draw and tricky to get right. We still do the same thing today, only digitally. In the design studio time is everything. The roof rail system is a cut out piece overlaid on the same sketch – an old pre-Photoshop graphic design trick…Traditional old style media is time consuming and inflexible, which is why it was replaced by working digitally. Quicker, cleaner and allows you to make changes without having to redo the whole thing.

Holy crap! These are incredible!


These sketches, never been seen by the general public, are bonkers! Look at the one just above with the amber turn signals up high. Then there’s the one on the right with the horizontal-bar in the center of the grille. My god, in the upper photo, what’s that on the left?! And the one at the top in the middle appears to have no upper grille opening!

I asked Lucas about these sketches, and he claims that the seller at the swap meet was friend’s with Joe Papai’s wife, and that he’d received the entire art collection from his estate after he died in 2020. By the way, you can see Joe’s signature in these other sketches from 1996 — ones that appear to show something similar to what would replace the Jeep Cherokee XJ, the 2002 Jeep Liberty:

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The Detroit Free press wrote an obituary for Joe Papai in 2020. Via the Detroit Free Press via Legacy.com:

Joseph Andrew Papai, Jr., age 80, passed away Nov. 24, 2020. He was born April 28, 1940 in South Bend, IN to Virginia and Joseph Papai and attended Central High School, graduating in 1958. He was awarded a partial scholarship to study art at the University of Notre Dame, graduating with a BA in Fine Arts. He was presented the prestigious Jacques Gold Medal from the Dept. of Fine Arts and received a full fellowship from the university, then obtaining his master’s degree. Joseph worked for Ford Motor Co., Coachmen Industries, American Motors and Chrysler Corp., and achieved an extensive list of design credits to his name, most notably the original Grand Cherokee design and the Jeep ZJ exterior theme in 1990. He also held patents for the design of Chrysler’s RAM and Dakota Truck.

Anyway, while it’s generally agreed upon that Larry Shinoda came up with the ZJ Grand Cherokee’s design theme, it’s clear that Papai played a significant role, and his sketches are mind-boggling, making you realize just how different this vehicle could have looked had things gone a bit differently.


In addition to the sketches, the seller at the swap meet offered these giant prints of the prototype ZJs from the late 1980s. You can see that the pillars are thinner than the 1993 production model’s, the door handles are totally different, the wheels are unique, the fuel door is on a different side, the rocker panels look different, and on and on.

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These prints and the sketches cost me about $300, but I’m thrilled to have them. The Jeep Grand Cherokee played an influential role in my life, inspiring me to study engineering and to work for Chrysler in Auburn Hills. Now to own the best variant of it — a base-model with a manual and rare accessories that I’d been searching for for yearsand to have these historic drawings, well, I’m geeking out over here!



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3 months ago

As the Detroiter who found these, they are absolutely going to the right home! Glad you’re excited David!

Dan Bee
Dan Bee
3 months ago

Wow. Awesome find. Next up: the garage sale find of a lost trove of Willys designer Brooks Stevens.

Box Rocket
Box Rocket
3 months ago

I’m most intrigued by the various “faces” in the concept phase. Pity they didn’t go for a 7-slot grille since that was (later during the Hummer H2 release) allegedly so important to them.

I can see influence from the K-car-based minivans in a few of them (oraybe the other way around?). The one with the split headlights bisected by the vertical bar especially looks like the first-gen models, but with newer composite headlamps instead of the standard sealed-beam units. Also looks like a few Chevrolet models.

The one above the finally-chosen one looks like a Ford Explorer/Ranger face.

The 10-slot one looks neat but also looks kinda like an inaccurate rendering of a piano-style keyboard.

The one with the amber signals above the lights looks French. In an alternate reality where Stellantis happened in the 1980s this might have won and/or been used for a corporate cousin.

I don’t understand what’s going on with the first one with the wide lights, 5-slot grille, and black graphic between the turn signals/corner markers. Hopefully it was just a graphic, but it looks odd, especially with the “futuristic” Jeep logo.

Moving to the side images:
The first one with the tan rockers and bumper covers reminds me of a Mazda MPV.

The second one looks the most “correct”, even though I associate the “woody” vinyl appliques more with the Cherokee, Wagoneer, and Grand Wagoneer of the era.

Third one looks like an Explorer but with very-needed amber sections in the taillamp (but it’d look better if red were on top). If you blurred out the hood/fender top section and the front corner I’m not sure how many would pick it out as a ZJ.

Something about the fourth one looks too “soft”. The wheels don’t help. Maybe it’s the lack of cladding on the rocker panels?

I’m glad they didn’t use the mirrors from the moving gray concept and the one in the maroon brochure. It didn’t look good then (too skeletal?), and looks worse with gm’s implementation on their trucks.

3 months ago

Those are super neat! That’s money well spent!

3 months ago

I eat up all the early design/production stories for the ZJ, this is a goldmine. Good score!

3 months ago

I share your enthusiasm for the ZJ. Still have ours from new. I got my driver’s license in that thing and this year makes 30 years of ownership!

We gotta meet up and talk ZJ’s sometime David.

Mariah Leight
Mariah Leight
3 months ago

This isn’t helping my strong desire to find a solid ZJ…

Most of those alternate noses are terrifying, but there’s a couple that might’ve been interesting.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x