History Of The Hardtop Jeep Wrangler
At Top Lift Pros, there’s no hiding that we are avid Jeep enthusiasts. Heck, it’s the reason we got into the business of Jeep hardtop removal and storage in the first place; to get more people using their Wranglers for what they are made to do — ride.
It came to our attention recently, though, that not every like-minded Jeep Wrangler enthusiast is well-informed on the evolution of the Jeep and how it has progressed since its early beginnings.
This blog is a tribute to the history of the hardtop Jeep Wrangler and everything that the company has done to make one of the most notoriously fun and classic vehicles in the world.
The Origins of the Jeep Wrangler: A Journey Through Time
While the Wrangler name didn’t come to fruition until the 1987 model year when it made its debut as a replacement for the Jeep CJ, the Wrangler’s roots can be traced back to World War II. Willys-Overland had won a contract with the U.S. military to provide them with a quality four-wheel-drive vehicle for use in the war. The vehicle was officially known by the name MB, but it soon picked up the nickname “jeep.” There was no denying that these vehicles made a major impact on the war — making them a beloved icon by all of America.
1945–1954: Willys-Overland CJ
After the Jeep’s incredible success in WWII, Willys-Overland began manufacturing a version of the MB to sell to American citizens. In 1945, the Willys-Overland CJ-2A started production, and it quickly earned a reputation for being robust, reliable, easy to fix, and nearly impossible to break. These qualities made it a fantastic vehicle option for a variety of agricultural and commercial purposes. The CJ-2A was later followed by the updated CJ-3A and the CJ-3B.
1954–1983: Willys CJ-5
In 1953, Willys-Overland was bought by Kaiser Motors. The next year, the new-and-improved CJ-5 was introduced to the country. Although Kaiser manufactured a variety of different versions of this Jeep, the CJ-5 managed to stay in production for nearly 30 years. With this generation, Kaiser also officially coined the vehicle’s name “Jeep”. Kaiser-Jeep was purchased by American Motors Corporation in 1970, but the CJ-5 still lived on for over a decade.
1987–1995: Jeep Wrangler YJ
The beginning of the official reign of the Jeep Wrangler got off to a bumpy start. When going to name this new Jeep model, they had to get permission from Goodyear, who offered a line of all-terrain Wrangler tires, to use the name. What they did not think of was asking the Wrangler Jeans company for the same permission. This, in turn, resulted in a lawsuit that lasted for years. Somehow, curiously, Jeep was able to release the Wrangler YJ model despite the ongoing lawsuit without skipping a beat. The first edition came to market the summer of 1987 on — you guessed it — Goodyear Wrangler tires.
Considering its current reputation as the end-all-be-all of off-roading vehicles, it might seem a bit strange to learn that the first Jeep Wrangler was designed with on-road performance as the priority. The Jeep Wrangler YJ featured a lower ride height, wider track, reduced body roll, and a larger windshield — making it a much more domesticated off-roader. They also incorporated a square headlight design that was not deemed to be a favorable design decision. Soon after the initial release of the Wrangler YJ model in 1987, Jeep’s parent company, American Motors Company, was purchased by Chrysler Motors.
The Jeep Wrangler YJ models came with either a 2.5-liter four-cylinder or a 4.2-liter inline-six, with each engine offering the choice between a three-speed automatic and a five-speed manual transmission. Neither of these were incredibly quick, especially when compared to today’s models. In 1991, though, Chrysler developed a newer 4.0-liter I-6 with fuel injection to replace the old 4.2-liter which gave the YJ a much-needed dose of power. The YJ’s output jumped to 180 horsepower and torque rose to 220 lb-ft. This same year, Jeep released the first Renegade model which boasted a new body style. Over the course of the following years in the nineties, Jeep would continuously add even more creature comforts, such as rear seat belts, anti-lock brakes, and automatic transmission.
1997–2006: Jeep Wrangler TJ
In 1997, Jeep introduced the second generation of Wrangler, the TJ. It featured two key advancements: the return of round headlights, as well as a coil-spring suspension instead of leaf springs which immensely enhanced the ride quality. Jeep spent $280 million in an effort to make the Wrangler have more appeal for on-road use while still maintaining its superior off-road capabilities. The body of the TJ was also much stiffer than the previous YJ Wrangler models.
In reality, though, the TJ was a major update to the YJ, but not a complete redesign. That meant carrying over the YJ’s engine options until 2003 when the 2.5-liter AMC four-cylinder was replaced with Chrysler’s newer 2.4-liter four-cylinder. Jeep also added another gear to the optional automatic transmission in order to get the gearbox up to date with the 21st century automotive advancements.
The year 2003 also marked the birth of the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon model. This trim level was geared towards the hardcore off-roaders — coming standard with locking front and rear differentials as well as a 4:1 low-range gear ratio, disc brakes, and 31-inch all-terrain tires.
In 2004, the TJ-L, more famously known as the Wrangler Unlimited, was introduced. IT featured a roomier backseat and cargo area and also a significantly greater towing capacity — up from 2,000 to 3,000 pounds. It was also made available in the Rubicon trim package.
2007–2018: Jeep Wrangler JK
For 2007, Jeep completely redesigned the Wrangler to be bigger and badder than ever. The mid-2000’s were the age of the giant SUV’s craze, with giant Hummers and Suburbans roaming the streets. Jeep had to meet consumer expectations with their new model to include size and safety. It was made was taller, wider, and longer, and it rode on a longer wheelbase. It was designed to be even more comfortable than the previous TJ models and offered safety features such as stability traction control. Jeep JK also marks the first offering of a four-door Jeep model, which was a decision that quickly proved successful.
The JK Wrangler was also the first generation of Wrangler to not feature any AMC-sourced parts. This meant offering a new, 3.8-liter V-6 engine and dropping the four-cylinder. The JK Wrangler also provided new transmission options, as well. Buyers could choose between a six-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. After Jeep refreshed the Wrangler with an upgraded interior and a 3.6-liter V-6, buyers got the option of a new six-speed manual or a five-speed automatic. None of these engine models can be deemed “fuel efficient” by any means, but that hasn’t ever been the market that Jeep tries to capture, and it still proved to be just as successful as, or more than, the previous models.
In 2012, Jeep released the first model that actually had some pep in its step with the Chrysler Pentastar engine. The output jumped significantly to 285 horsepower and 260 pounds per foot of torque. The biggest kicker was that the Pentastar engine, which featured a 3.8-liter five-speed, actually raised the fuel economy by 1 mpg despite the boost in performance.
2018–Present: Jeep Wrangler JL
After over two years of teasing us, the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL finally debuted in late 2017. The body style was wider, but still featured much of the classic Wrangler aesthetics. With the JL generation, Jeep finally began to focus efforts on improving the Wrangler’s efficiency. They also added more technology and further improved the Wrangler’s off-road capability. The body is still made out of high-strength steel, but the hood, doors, and windshield frame are now aluminum.
Although a 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 is still available, Jeep now offers a turbocharged four-cylinder, and recently added a 3.0-liter diesel V-6 option. You heard that right, a diesel Wrangler!
The JL also comes with all of the advanced technology options that have come about such as an 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment system, rear parking sensors with cross-traffic alert, and a blind-spot monitoring system.
This is how the Jeep Wrangler has progressed throughout history into what it is today, and there’s no denying that it’s still a classic. No matter what year, make, or model you drive, a Top Lift Pro is essential for hardtop Jeep owners to easily hoist and store their top in seconds. So you can spend less time in the garage and more time out in the sun on the open road.
Even if your Wrangler is a soft top, the Jeep Store-A-Door is the perfect item for easily taking the doors off your Jeep and keeping them safe while you’re out on your off-road adventures. It’s a must-have for owners of any Jeep Wrangler JK and JL models.
Learn more about the Top Lift Pro all-in-one hardtop lift, door attachment, and storage unit.