Home » Our Pro Car Designer Fixes The Jeep Grand Wagoneer

Our Pro Car Designer Fixes The Jeep Grand Wagoneer

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A few weeks back I described the Ram 1500 Revolution Concept as unwrapping a present I didn’t know I wanted but upon opening immediately loved. Less than a month later, Ram has given us the actual production Ram EV you’ll be able to buy, and it was like opening an expensively wrapped gift from someone who really knows you only to find nestled within layers of gossamer tissue paper a pair of socks. Fuck me. Just put it on the pile with life’s other disappointments over there.

It’s the same don’t-scare-the-horses approach Ford has taken with the F-150 Lightning, and I get it, I really do. When you’re playing 4D Monopoly with real billions you don’t just Send It and hope for the best. But this is not the first time Ma Mopar has pulled the ol’ switcheroo.


After teasing us for years that there was a new Grand Wagoneer coming, when it was finally revealed in 2021 the all-new WS Wagoneer was a huge missed opportunity. There’s none of the heritage or character that makes the OG SJ Wagoneer so fantastic. I’m sure it’s a fine vehicle, but from a design point of view they had a free field goal and blootered the ball so high and wide there’s a danger NORAD mistook it for a Chinese spy balloon and sent F-22s after it.


I bow before no one in my love for the original SJ Grand Wagoneer (forget the XJ and ZJ abominations; sorry David). Over 29 years in production, it evolved from something of an ugly duckling to become the quintessential old-money all-American luxury off-roader.

Updated as, and when, AMC had any spare cash lying around it was still selling well when Chrysler bought the company. And since all the tooling was long paid off it generated good profits of around six thousand dollars per car in 1987. Time and forthcoming FMVSS standards eventually killed it in 1991.


I briefly get to daydream when we’ve evacuated the Autopian bunker again for yet another poisonous gas leak. In those precious moments of freedom, my mind wanders to an alternate career where I’m a highly paid design consultant with a barn full of my favorite cars. I’d have a gothed-to-fuck SJ Wagoneer and it would look something like this: monochrome and moody in color but fundamentally unchanged underneath.

Why do I love them so much? Probably because it lived long enough to become a timeless icon, yet still retained a weird mix of the anachronistic and barely up-to-date. It’s warm and friendly and ever so slightly twee, like a Range Rover Classic.

I lost an hour this morning trying to find the commenter who suggested redesigning the Grand Wagoneer. Not for the first time I came up empty, so hopefully, it was one of our beautiful and talented Rich Corinthian Leather members, and not one of the hoi polloi (just kidding. You’re all hoi polloi.)

Let’s imagine then I screech my jet black Citroën SM to a halt outside the Auburn Hills design center, stub out a Gauloises with a Cuban heel black suede Chelsea boot and stride into the studio to check on the progress of the WS Wagoneer. Horrified at the generic-looking full-size clay model before me I order an immediate Sergio Marchionne-style (RIP) do-over. Here’s one possible direction.


One of the defining attributes of the SJ is its high glass-to-body ratio. Crash regulations (more specifically FMVSS 216a if you want to look it up, nerds) essentially stipulate the roof must be able to withstand three times the weight of the vehicle when it’s all gone horribly shiny side down. This is one of the reasons behind thick pillars.

One of my big problems with the new Wagoneer is its design emphasizes the thickness of its pillars by painting them, as opposed to trying to hide them with blacked-out trim pieces. So that’s the first thing I’ve done – joined up the Daylight Opening (DLO) to give a more cohesive look. The new Wagoneer has a very deep, slab-sided look to the bodyside, and this little bit of visual trickery creates a clear visual distinction between the sheet metal and the glazing, making the car look shallower and longer.

Photo: Wagonmaster
Photo: Wagonmaster

There’s a rumor that the old SJ got its famous wood paneling because the tooling for the bodyside was so worn out the panels were coming out rippled. That’s probably not true, but regardless of how or why it happened, the wood became one of the things the car was known for.

Sadly, Jeep didn’t resurrect this defining visual feature for the new car, although that hasn’t stopped the aftermarket from trying. Grand Wagoneer restorers Wagonmaster offers a kit, but it looks like shit. Why? Because the WS isn’t designed to have wood paneling so it looks exactly what it is – tacked on. Now, you could be ‘that person’ who points that the original wasn’t designed with it in mind either, but surfacing wasn’t as sophisticated back then so it wasn’t as incongruous.


I’m not about to make the same mistake. Remember our EV station wagon? That had a small wood trim piece that wrapped around the tailgate and under the rear side glass. With the Wagoneer, I’ve run wood down the length of the body side, but much shallower in profile compared to the original. The trick is to make it look like it’s meant to be there, which I’ve done by making it sit flush and introducing a subtle cut-out for the top of the wheel arch flares.

If wood is a bit too New England liberal arts academic for your taste, then this panel could be offered in a variety of different contrasting finishes. This is a six-figure SUV now, and customers at that level like personalization which is why the new L460 Range Rover keeps its ‘tuning fork’ trim at the leading edge of the door even though it’s no longer required to function as a vent.

Stellantis Chief Designer Ralph Gillies has said they tried the wood paneling on a mockup in the studio but dismissed it for being too retro, which is a bit fucking rich for a company trading on the heritage of something General Patton used to be driven around in. My solution being flush mounted would require a recess in the sheet metal which means you couldn’t have any trim—but if it works on a Range Rover it can work here.



The rear I struggled to get right, until I had the idea to recess the whole of the tailgate area and not just the glass like on the SJ. I’ve turned the rear wheel arch cut out from a negative surface on the original to a positive on my redesign, and then used those surfaces to provide the volume to keep the rear light clusters vertical, without cutting into the tailgate opening. One of the features I like about the Escalade is its full-height rear lights give a distinctive Down the Road Graphic (DRG) at night time, and here I’m trying for the same effect.

There’s a negative “step: in the lower tailgate for the license plate, and the wood wraps around the to provide visual continuity in the rear three-quarter view and break up the body color. The rear side marker lights sit below the trim similar to the indicator treatment at the front, and I’ve used Helvetica for the script because designers are incapable of choosing any other font (actually I thought this was a fun resemblance to old AMC graphic design, although I don’t think they actually used it).


Should Ralph have given me a job all those years ago when my old mate J Mays put us in touch? Or are you cruelly going to take my new Hot Wheels Grand Wagoneer out of its pack and stomp on it mercilessly until I beg you to stop? Let me know what kind of wood you’d like down in the comments.

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1 month ago

Am I the only one to notice the shape and outline of the side glass framing sort of represent a giant “W” for Wagoneer? Quite possibly the largest easter egg that Ralph has done and nobody else has noticed this.
He’s a fucking genius and I actually like the new Wagoneer. They’re a bit too rich for me for a vehicle that’s not very exciting to drive, but I’ll be watching the market for a used one in 3-4 years.

1 month ago

I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere so I’ll share my theory: The Grand Cherokee L follows the SJ Wagoneer styling much more closely than the new Wagoneer/Grand Wagoneer because it was originally intended to be the Wagoneer. The D pillar treatment is much closer to the SJ and the rear taillights are near-copies of the earlier SJ taillights. They’re also closer dimensionally. The SJ Grand Wagoneer looks enormous but it’s really only 4Runner-sized.

At some point Stellantis decided (likely correctly) that there was more money to be made attaching the Wagoneer name to a $100k Suburban competitor than a $65k stretch Grand Cherokee. But I know the truth. And I want a Cherokee L with woodgrain.

1 month ago

There are a couple of things that bother me about the current production Wagoneer. One is that the windows openings are horribly unbalanced. The bottoms have nice rounded corners while the tops are harsh, perfect 90 degree angles. If they had had a hard angle on at least one of the bottom corners, it wouldn’t look so mismatched. In general, the windows don’t match the shape of the body panels they’re in.

Secondly, they need to step away from the JC Whitney chrome trim tape. All of the chrome accenting around the windows and drip edge looks anachronistic, like they had the shape finished and someone said “doesn’t look retro enough” so they ordered the tape, slapped it on and called it a day. The chrome isn’t integrated into the design in a meaningful way and it highlights the already ghastly window design.

I guess Stellantis started using the same vision benefits supplier that GM switched to around the time the last Silverado came out.

Joon Choi
Joon Choi
1 month ago

I see a ton of the new Wagoneers / Grand Wagoneers in my ultra-rich NYC suburb and they are absolutely hideous in real life. The proportions are just all wrong, feels like looking at some of Lovecraft’s “Cyclopean” architecture.

1 month ago
Reply to  Joon Choi

1000% agreed. Only, having grown up in Texas, it looks like a Houstonian to me. Big ol’ fat guy, bloated around the middle, tiny little legs, lumbering around trying to prove something that can’t be proven.

1 month ago

The production car looks 100x better than that model. Where are the taillights? Why does this look like a cybertruck with a hog nose? Getting rid of the chunky B and C pillars is the only improvement to the design that I see.

1 month ago

As a matter of fact, I just rechecked online. If you want to see the most OCD restorations of Grand Wagoneers for sale they are at http://www.grandwagoneer.com. I still don’t know what they cost, but it must be fearsome.But, they are perfect examples of the model.

1 month ago

Thinking more about this situation, I remembered looking at some completely restored original Grand Wagoneers some time back. There is more than one company out there buying old ones up and going nuts and bolts on them for a completely refurbished, like new or better example. IIRC they were hovering around 100K, more or less. But they were beautifully done, and perfect for affluent fans of the GW.
Since the new ones seem to be around the same price, these are an alternative I would consider.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x