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Jeep Wrangler: Take a deep dive into the history of this iconic 4x4

An in-depth crash course in the history of Jeep's off-road hero.

A fourth-generation Jeep Wrangler is upon us for the 2018 model year featuring a lighter curb weight, suspension improvements and interior tech upgrades. Likely the biggest bit of news is the more substantial powertrain lineup that includes a turbocharged four-cylinder, gas V6 and turbocharged diesel V6. A plug-in hybrid option will also join the fray in 2020.

We've already salivated over the all-new Wrangler in person after its world debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show, and were lucky enough to recently have a go behind the wheel of it, too. Consumers will be able to get their hands on the new JL Wrangler when it hits showrooms in January, but before that happens, let's take a quick look at the history of the legendary off-roader.

1941-1945 Willys MA/MB: Wartime roots

A 1941 Willys MA.


No Jeep Wrangler history recap is complete without a mention of the Willys MB. In 1940, the US military asked 135 car manufacturers to submit proposals to design and build a new light reconnaissance vehicle. Willys-Overland was one of three companies to bid on the contract to develop a rectangular-shaped vehicle with four-wheel drive, a smooth engine, fold-down windshield, three bucket seats and wheelbase less than 75 inches. The Willys pilot model was known as the Quad.

With improvements to better meet the military's lengthy requirements list, the Quad morphed into the MA and then the MB. The MB would go on to beat out the Bantam BRC and Ford Model GP to become the military's standardized vehicle.

Interestingly, the now synonymous vertical slot grille was first grafted onto the front of the MB by Ford. The Dearborn automaker was contracted to manufacture MBs to help keep up with wartime demands during World War II. MB production surpassed 368,000 units by Willys-Overland, with Ford building another 277,000.

1945-1985 CJ series: The Civilian Jeeps

The V8-powered CJ-7 Golden Eagle.


Following the war, Willys took the Jeep to the people offering the CJ-2A to the public first in 1945 with a base price of $1,090. Compared to the MB, the CJ-2A featured drivetrain revisions, larger headlights and driver's windshield wiper. Comfort improvements came in the form of an improved suspension, cushier seats and beefier frame to up rigidity. The CJ-2A's four-cylinder engine produced 60 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque.

Additional CJ models would follow including the CJ-5 that was produced from 1955-1983 with more than 600,000 units built. Throughout its run, the CJ-5 was available with four cylinders, inline six cylinders and a 5.0-liter V8 with 150 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque.

The CJ-7 was built from 1976-1986 and was the final CJ model in production before being replaced by the Wrangler. Compared to the CJ-5, the CJ-7 featured a longer wheelbase to accommodate an optional automatic transmission. Engine choices included a pair of inline four- and six-cylinder engines and a 5.0-liter V8.

1987-1995 YJ Jeep Wrangler: More civilized

Rectangular headlights were a thing.


Marketplace demands saw Jeep launch the Wrangler in the summer of 1986 as a 1987 model to replace the CJ. Compared to the CJ, the YJ Wrangler was more comfortable on road and packed additional creature comforts to be a more civilized Jeep. This generation of Wrangler is instantly recognizable with its rectangular headlights.

From launch, the Wrangler was available with two engine options. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder served as the base powerplant with 117 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque, which was only available with a five-speed manual transmission. A 4.2-liter inline six-cylinder served as the optional engine with only 112 horsepower, but 210 pound-feet of torque. The six-cylinder could be had with the manual or an optional three-speed automatic.

1997-2006 TJ Jeep Wrangler: Hooray for round headlights

The 2001 Jeep Wrangler Sport.


The TJ Jeep Wrangler debuted for the 1997 model year and with it came the retro-inspired round headlights from the MB and CJ. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder producing 120 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque was the standard engine, while a 4.0-liter inline six-cylinder with 181 horses and 222 pound-feet of torque was offered for customers looking for more punch.

The hardcore off-road-focused Wrangler Rubicon was introduced in 2003 offering locking front and rear differentials, four-wheel disc brakes and beefy 31-inch all-terrain tires. The following year brought the introduction of the Wrangler Unlimited with a 10-inch longer wheelbase and an increased tow rating that jumped from 2,000 to 3,500 pounds. Unlimited models came standard with the 4.0-liter six-cylinder and four-speed automatic gearbox.

2007-2017 JK Jeep Wrangler: Now also with four doors

The four-door Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.


The third-generation Wrangler landed for 2007 with a new frame, larger dimensions and fresh design compared to its predecessor. The JK Wrangler generation also saw the debut of a new four-door model wearing the Unlimited designation with seating for five passengers. The sole engine offered at launch was a 3.8-liter V6 that churned out 205 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque. Transmission options included a six-speed manual or four-speed automatic.

A mid-cycle update was performed for the 2012 model year that saw the 3.8-liter V6 replaced by Chrysler's workhorse 3.6-liter Pentastar V6. For the Wrangler application, the Pentastar made 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of twist. The optional automatic gearbox was also upgraded from a four-speed to a five-speed unit, while the six-speed manual carried over.

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