Jeep Wrangler History

Jeep Wrangler History

Last Updated June 13, 2023 | Meghan Drummond

The Jeep Wrangler is one of America’s most iconic vehicles, and one of the few vehicles that has been in continuous production. Though the Jeep's style has evolved over time, the core of the Jeep can trace its lineage back to the Willys MB of WWII, more commonly referred to as a "jeep." Though there are a lot of theories about where the name Jeep came from, the most commonly held is that it was named after a Popeye’s comic character who would "go anywhere and do anything."

So, how did these rugged vehicles transition from necessities of wartime to civilian vehicles and then to the hardy and multipurpose Wranglers that we know today? Though the first vehicle with the "Wrangler" name didn’t debut until 1986, it’s undeniable that the Wrangler owes much of its existence to the Jeep CJs.

 Willy’s Jeep from WWII

CJ Jeeps: 1945-1986

Post World War II, once an Allied victory became certain, Willy’s began design on a civilian Jeep. This model, known as the "CJ" for civilian Jeep was available in May of 1944. They’d added a tailgate, lower gearing, and a canvas top, but the frame was still very much a "Jeep." The original spare tire rode on the side of the Jeep instead of on the tailgate where it would eventually come to live, but otherwise, it looks very much like the Wrangler we know today.

"It's as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat." -Ernie Pyle

Jeep chose to offer these vehicles in unique color combinations. By 1948, you could purchase a Jeep in Emerald Green, Potomac Gray, Picket Gray, Michigan Yellow, or Normandy Blue. Their patriotic names were meant to symbolize hope in a post-war America. The CJs were a popular vehicle, and eventually, there were seven iterations of it.

In 1980, a 60 Minutes segment demonstrated that the CJ could rollover. People were naturally alarmed after watching the footage. Later, it was revealed that these test results were wildly overstated. There had been 435 trials and only eight rollovers. Four of the rollovers were from the same Jeep, suggesting its tires were bad. But the damage was done. The CJ name was irrevocably damaged, and would forever be associated with rolling over. Instead, Jeep replaced the CJ with the Wrangler.

dark yellow Jeep CJ

Wrangler YJ: 1986-1995

The first Jeep Wrangler YJ debuted in 1986 at the Chicago Auto show. Its rectangular headlights gave it a new face, and though it continued to have the same separate body and frame that made the CJs so popular, it borrowed its suspension and interior from the Cherokee. The YJ Wrangler was more comfortable than the CJ and handled better. It also had anti-roll bars to combat the fabricated claims of increased rollover.

Unlike the CJs which were designed to be fun for off-road and were very much seen as a "weekend driver" the Wrangler's additional comfort features made it a possible daily driver.

Not everyone was a fan though, in addition to people finding the rectangular headlights off-putting, Jeep was hit with a lawsuit from Wrangler jeans. Thankfully a later CEO of Wrangler Jeans eventually dropped the suit, realizing it was pretty silly.

In 1991, Jeep increased the horsepower and torque of Jeep’s engines by changing the engine to an AMC inline six-cylinder. They continued optimizing for performance, and in 1993 they first installed anti-lock brakes.

It wasn’t until 1994 that Jeep first offered an automatic transmission option, preferring manual transmissions until then. Many "true Jeep" fans were not happy about the additional automatic offering, proving that people have always been concerned with posers. But adding automatic transmissions converted more people who were a little hesitant over to Jeep, and they appreciated the additional comfort. The Wrangler YJ continued to be produced for two more years before the last one rolled off the track in 1996.

A black Jeep Wrangler YJ in the desert.

Wrangler TJ: 1996-2006

Wrangler offered major improvements periodically, but the TJ was the first true second-generation Wrangler, produced more than a decade after the first. The Jeep Wrangler TJ debuted in 1997. Jeep had learned from its wins and losses. They increased the stiffness of the frame and body but also switched to coil springs to improve the smoothness of the ride. They also returned the Jeep’s original round headlights, to the joy of Jeep enthusiasts everywhere (they really do look more friendly than the angrier square ones).

The engine choices remained the same as the YJ though, and in many ways, the TJ was more of a redesign than a relaunch. Still, the improvements allowed for increased use of the Jeep as a day to day vehicle. With fewer rattles and more temperature control, the Jeep retained its distinct charm while also offering some of the comforts that drivers needed to use their Jeep on a more full-time basis.

A bright red Jeep TJ

Wrangler JK: 2006-2018

If you wanted a four-door Jeep, you had to wait until 2007. It’s hard to believe, but it took until the Wrangler JK for Jeep to offer a four-door model, and it was a very successful decision. Now, almost seventy-five percent of Wranglers are four-door models. Let’s face it, off-roading is just better with friends.

Likewise, offering traction and stability control increased the safety of the JK. Even though it launched as the US economy crashed, it remained popular despite its lack of fuel economy. The JK held on to many of the features that had first distinguished the Wrangler as an off-road vehicle. The roll bars, the removable doors, the fold-down windshield, and the soft top were all still available. Even as Jeep offered more options, it maintained the ones that had made it first popular.

A bright yellow Jeep with the words CJ Off-Road

Wrangler JL: 2018- Today

2018 saw the birth of Wrangler’s fourth iteration: The Wrangler JL. With maintained off-road performance and an improved on-road presence, the JL offers features that distinguish it from the JK while still heralding back to that first military vehicle from WWII.

Understanding that off-road customers care more than ever about staying connected, Jeep wisely added comfort features like Bluetooth compatibility, and though it still comes in a six-speed manual, the automatic has been upgraded to an eight-speed. Additionally, even more safety features were added, included parking sensors and blind-spot monitoring.

Perhaps the most exciting change were the JL Wrangler engine options, which for the first time included a diesel engine for the North American Wrangler.

A black and white image of the first Jeep

Jeep has historically walked the line between being a hardy little off-road vehicle and being a warm and welcoming brand that can cater to the urban weekend warriors as well. This hasn’t always been an easy balance to strike, but with each iteration of the Wrangler, Jeep has worked harder to stay the course and offer people not only the features they expect but also the safety and comfort features they’re pleasantly surprised by.

The Wrangler nameplate continues to be one of the most universally known as Jeep’s true signature, and an incredible community has sprung up around this vehicle. It’s almost as exciting to see how it’s grown as it is to speculate on what Jeep will do next.

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Image Credit: Jeep

This article was researched, written, edited, and reviewed following the steps outlined in our editorial process. Learn more about CJ's editorial standards and guidelines.