Watch Jeremy Clarkson Off-Road The Rubicon Trail In The Beloved Jeep Wrangler YJ

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The YJ was the very first Wrangler that Jeep ever built, and it was extremely important. While someday I’ll write about how one of the YJ’s main jobs was to eschew the negative image that convertible Jeeps had garnered in the media (thanks to rollover concerns), for now, let’s watch Jeremy Clarkson take the machine on the U.S.’s most legendary off-road playground: The Rubicon Trail.

The Jeep Wrangler YJ is one of the most polarizing Jeeps of all time, as it was the only “universal-style” Jeep (i.e. CJ or Wrangler) that featured square headlights. For many years, Jeep purists loathed the Jurassic Park Jeep, but in the past decade or so it has seen a resurgence in popularity as nostalgic young adults who grew up watching CGI dinosaurs eat people off toilets reminisced about the YJ in that famous movie series. Also, I think the design has actually begun aging quite well.

The YJ is the successor to the Jeep CJ-7, which came after a long line of CJ Jeeps that began with the World War II Jeep-inspired CJ-2A, like the one I off-roaded in Moab, Utah (see above). As you can see in the clip, early CJs were small, featured no roof (the roll bar is also aftermarket), and had a flathead motor under the hood. But over time, the engine became taller thanks to overhead valves, roll bars and roofs became more and more substantial, and thus, center of gravity shifted up. Track width increases, wider tires, and the addition of sway bars helped mitigate rollover concerns, but in December of 1980, 60 Minutes released a damning story about an IIHS report titled “Serious Rollover Problems Found In Jeep CJ-5 Utility Vehicles” — a story that changed the course of Jeep history, and possibly led to the establishment of the Jeep Wrangler name.

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The Wrangler brought lots of changes, like increased track width, lower ride height, a rear track bar that over-constrains the suspension (again, I’ll get into more detail on this in a later story) and wider springs. Plus, it really brought the Wrangler one step closer towards livability, with a modern plastic dashboard, comfortable seats, and a nice set of gauges. But did these “softenings” hurt the YJ off-road? Not really; the YJ was still very much a real Jeep, especially after 1991, when it received the fuel injected 4.0-liter torque-monster under the hood:

As you can see in the old Top Gear clip above, Jeremy Clarkson is quite impressed by the YJ Wrangler as he attends a Jeep Jamboree even on the Rubicon Trail in the Sierra Nevada region of California.

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Look at that thing. It was the first Jeep that required a bit of actual effort (and tools) to fold the windshield, but it wasn’t too bad (on later Wranglers, folding the windshield became very hard; now it’s no long possible to fold the A-pillars down); it’s got a great five-speed manual transmission; it has the ultimate engine under the hood; it’s small and lightweight; it’s perfect.

Look at how close I was to buying one:

To this day I don’t understand how I let a tiny rust bubble prevent me from owning such a glorious machine, but I’ve grown as a man since. I know now not to let such trivialities get between me and a vehicle so glorious.

Screenshots: YouTube/dady281202 (Top Gear)

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17 Responses

  1. I know you’re a jeep guy and all, but “ultimate engine”? C’mon man.
    Anything with the intake and exhaust on the same side is just ok. And that is coming from a guy with a Ford 300. I’ve had three 4.0 jeeps. Yj, xj, and zj. Xj was the best.
    Look at what any Japanese straight six from the era can do and tell me that the 4.0 is better. Simpler, sure, ultimate no way.
    Ps really enjoy reading all your adventures

  2. I’m always so impressed with the abilities of the YJ. The suspension is terrible, but they were so small and light it really didn’t matter too much when crawling. The TJ was a big improvement without losing too many of those advantages. People are so busy trying to fit 37’s and dana 60’s that they forget how well small and light works. Granted, you can’t really do small, light, and street legal anymore so…37’s it is I guess.

  3. My cousin had a YJ with the 5 speed and the 4.0. Great, great summer vehicle. It wasn’t so great comfort or reliability-wise in the winter (carbs suck almost as bad as Jeep insulation), but it could get through pretty much anything.

    If the front leaf springs didn’t frighten me so much, and if most of them in my area hadn’t bio-degraded in the late 90s, it would be a fun project car.

  4. My first car was an ’89 YJ 4.2L with the BA10/5 Transmission. I still own it! The transmission was in rough shape when I got it and AX15 transmissions weren’t exactly all over the place in 2000 so I had it rebuilt. 22 years later and its still hilariously reliable, despite being probably one of the least reliable Wranglers ever made. Even though it needed the transmission re-done, it’s had a very easy life and could be one of the nicer YJ’s left.

    1. That’s how it works in the Jeep world. Here’s some history on the Wrangler:

      Back when the YJ production ended and the TJ was coming out, all of the off-road critics were raving about how it was the end of the Jeep era and the TJ was not going to be a true off-road vehicle.

      Back when the TJ production ended and the JK was coming out, all of the off-road critics were raving about how it was the end of the Jeep era and the JK was not going to be a true off-road vehicle.

      At least the cycle was somewhat stopped with the release of the JL, since most people realized that Jeep didn’t want make the JL less capable, it was just a question if they could keep it just as capable as the JK or more, while keeping the price reasonable, and meet modern fuel economy and safety standards.

  5. I’ve always thought the YJ was the sharpest looking of all the Wranglers, I particularly like the grill with the center kink. I’d love to have one to park next to my MJ. Square headlights Jeeps are awesome, particularly with a 4.0L and an AX15 transmission.

  6. Back around 1980, I was stationed at Ft. Ord, CA as a Surveyor. Our main training area at the time was at Ft. Irwin, some 300+ miles to the south. Accordingly, we only made the trek twice a year or so and spent at least a month on each trip.

    At that time our vehicles consisted of the M561 Gamma Goat and the M151A1 jeep, both extremely capable off road. I especially enjoyed the jeep. On more than a few occasions, I would drive to the extreme NE of Ft. Irwin and drive through a very narrow pass right into Death Valley! The Gamma Goats couldn’t follow due to their width.

    Great fun that the Army provided for free and paid me to do it!

  7. I still need to get myself a Jeep someday. I learned to drive in one (a CJ-8 Scrambler), and was able to do a little light off-roading in it back then, I’ve always wanted to get my own and really learn how to do it right.

  8. I was on the Rubicon when Mercedes was in the process of buying Chrysler. There were about 30 Mercedes executives on the trail. We chatted with one of the guys running their group and he told us they wanted to find out what made Jeep so special. The Germans driving on the trail were a fun group to watch. I think they were mostly drunk and loved yelling at each other in German. One guy slid his rig into a rock pretty hard and the group erupted like you can’t believe.

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