How The YJ Was Born: A History Of The First Jeep Wrangler (2024)

  • Story By
    Benjamin Hunting

Introduced in the late 1980s to replace the competent but dated CJ series of Jeeps, the original 'YJ' generation Wrangler was as controversial as it was revolutionary for the brand when it first arrived. Although it took years before Jeep purists accepted that the Wrangler was a worth successor to the brand's storied history, the new Wrangler proved to be exactly what the company needed to move its four-wheeler into the SUV mainstream, eventually becoming the massive profit-generating juggernaut that it is today.

How The YJ Was Born: A History Of The First Jeep Wrangler (1)

What made the Jeep Wrangler YJ such a step forward for the automaker, and why did it cause such consternation among the faithful? The answer lies in several key decisions that helped push the vehicle into the mainstream while also fiddling with a design formula that dated back to the end of World War II. The YJ broke important new ground for Jeep, but it also forced the company to reckon with the power of its own traditions when contemplating its successor.

Better, Safer Handling

Jeep had a great run with the CJ-7, a vehicle that refined the manufacturer's original off-road platform to the point where it could meet the demands of daily driving without impacting its impressive off-road credentials. By the mid-'80s, however, the CJ-7 was approaching its 10th anniversary, and there was no question that the rest of the sport-utility market had moved on in terms of refinement, features, and comfort.

How The YJ Was Born: A History Of The First Jeep Wrangler (2)

It was with this in mind that Jeep began working on a replacement for the CJ-7 in 1982. Parent company American Motors was full steam ahead on revitalizing the Jeep brand, with the unibody XJ Cherokee debuting the following year and instantly finding an audience among SUV fans. Although the body-on-frame follow-up to the CJ couldn't take advantage of the XJ's more modern construction methods, most of the changes made to the vehicle's design were in a similar spirit of further improving its ability on pavement.

How The YJ Was Born: A History Of The First Jeep Wrangler (3)

The Jeep Wrangler YJ stayed close to the CJ concept, with notable changes inspired by the public reaction to the XJ Cherokee. Despite maintaining a steel ladder frame, the same 93.4 inch wheelbase, and featuring Dana axles front and rear, the new YJ was lighter than the CJ in an effort to improve fuel economy. It was also lower (by half an inch) and wider than the older Jeep, which further improved efficiency while adding increased stability at higher speeds, (a problem that had long dogged the still-available CK-5 platform and lead to a series of lawsuits against AMC regarding rollovers). Anti-sway bars were installed for the first time, its leaf springs were also widened, and its steering system and other suspension details were cribbed from the XJ.

More Vroom, More Comfort

The YJ Wrangler also borrowed from the XJ's engine lineup, which meant it initially offered a 2.5L, cylinder engine (117 hp, 135 lb-ft of torque) or a 4.2L inline six good for 114 hp and 210 lb-ft of torque. Transmissions included a three-speed automatic (for six-cylinder models) or a five-speed manual. By 1991 AMC's venerable 190 hp 4.0L inline six arrived on the scene, and it became the preferred Wrangler engine, and in 1994 the automatic was expanded to four-cylinder models.

How The YJ Was Born: A History Of The First Jeep Wrangler (4)

Inside, the Cherokee alsoimproved much of the Wrangler's cabin, which meant a more civilized passenger compartment that was quieter, more modern, and more weather-proof than what had been offered in the past. In terms of exterior styling, the YJ was instantly identifiable as the next step in the CJ's evolution, but with one major difference: square headlights replaced traditional round units, sparking a firestorm of disapproval among Jeep fans that continues to this day.

Big Sales, Big Packages

Regardless of how hardliners felt about square-headlight Jeeps, the Wrangler YJ sparked a sales explosion when it arrived for the 1986 model year. While far from the smooth daily driver represented by the XJ Cherokee, the YJ was certainly much easier to live with than the CJ and gave up none of that Jeep's considerable off-road capability.

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After its sale to Chrysler in 1987 (and post-trademark lawsuit from Wrangler jeans), Jeep began to pay far more attention to the Wrangler brand than it had the CJ-5 and CJ-7. This manifested primarily in a continual stream of unique YJ editions aimed at luring in curious customers who may not have previously considered buying such a rugged vehicle.

How The YJ Was Born: A History Of The First Jeep Wrangler (6)

The party began with the Islander package in 1988, which added a more refined color palette and sticker set to go with its flashier wheels.

How The YJ Was Born: A History Of The First Jeep Wrangler (7)

Jeep also went all-in on its trim levels, dividing features up among the upscale Laredo, the quicker Sport, and the popular Sahara.

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The most unusual version of the YJ was the Renegade, which boasted an Autostyle body kit that included box flares, street-style tires and wheels, fog lights, upgraded shocks, and power steering.

A Firm Foundation For The Future

By the time the Wrangler YJ was replaced by the TJ for the 1997 model year, the vehicle's square headlights had been banished in favor of the round design still seen on the SUV today.

How The YJ Was Born: A History Of The First Jeep Wrangler (9)

At that point, however, the Wrangler was well on its way to iconic status, which meant that the rest of the TJ's styling and feature set was merely an evolution of what the YJ had brought to the table.

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The importance of the YJ is hard to overstate. Alongside the XJ, it represented the most valuable properties in AMC's portfolio at the time it was courted by Chrysler, which ended up buying the Jeep division based on the strength of these two models. With a higher budget and more care spent developing the Wrangler, Chrysler was able to transform the 4x4 from off-road outlier to modern-day centerpiece, positioning it as the crown jewel of the entire Jeep brand. Inexpensive to manufacture, remarkably profitable to sell, and still tied to the decades long history of its Civilian Jeep (CJ) ancestor, the YJ paved the way for the Wrangler's current off-road dominance.

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How The YJ Was Born: A History Of The First Jeep Wrangler (2024)


What is the history of the YJ Jeep? ›


AMC recorded record sales in the 80s and discontinued the CJ-series and introduced an All-New Jeep Wrangler (YJ) in 1986. A year later, in 1987, American Motors Corporation was sold to Chrysler Corporation and the Jeep Brand became a part of Chrysler Corporation's Jeep/Eagle Division.

What is the history of the Jeep Wrangler? ›

The Wrangler's history dates back to World War II, when the U.S. Army asked a handful of companies to build a small and powerful vehicle with four-wheel drive that would be used as a reconnaissance vehicle around battlefields on different fronts. Willys ultimately won the contract and began building the Willys MB.

How many Jeep Wrangler YJ were made? ›

Over the YJ's lengthy 8-year run, AMC and Chrysler produced over 630,000 Wranglers; though paling in comparison to the JK's 2.1-million unit run, that's still a lot of Jeeps!

What does YJ stand for in Jeep? ›

I understand that the CJ jeep apparently stood for "civilian jeep." Then, in 1987 Jeep created the first Wrangler, which was referred to as the YJ, and followed by the TJ in 1997. Now, Jeep Wranglers are referred to as JK.

How many miles does a Jeep YJ last? ›

How many miles do Jeep Wranglers usually last? Per Motor and Wheels, the average Jeep Wrangler for sale will last anywhere from 10-15 years. Typically, this SUV for sale near you will last 100,000-280,000 miles, which is a broad range.

When did the YJ start? ›

Between 1986 and 1995, the Wrangler YJ came out, and had a look very different from the well known Jeeps of the time. The Wrangler YJ was released with rectangular headlights, that gave the Jeep a more aggressive look than the previous models.

What is the oldest Jeep Wrangler? ›

It all starts with the Jeep CJ series and then moves on to successive generations.
  • CJ Jeeps: 1945-1986. ...
  • Wrangler YJ: 1986-1995. ...
  • Wrangler TJ: 1996-2006. ...
  • Wrangler JK: 2006-2018. ...
  • Wrangler JL: 2018- Today. ...
  • Proud History.

What is the oldest model of the Jeep Wrangler? ›

Each generation is given a name, and they are as follows:
  • YJ (1986-1995)
  • TJ (1997-2006)
  • TJU/LJ (2004-2006 Unlimited models)
  • JKU (2007-2017 Unlimited models)
  • JK (2007-2017)
  • JL (2018-)

What is the oldest Jeep? ›


Willys-Overland delivered the prototype "Quad" (named for the 4x4 system it featured), to the U.S. Army on Armistice Day (Veteran's Day), November of 1940. The design was completed in a remarkable 75 days.

Who designed the Jeep YJ? ›

YJ (1986) Although introduced in 1986 (under the control of Renault), and by 1987 (the first model year) under the new ownership of Chrysler, the first-generation Wrangler had been developed by American Motors Corporation (AMC).

Which is better, YJ or TJ? ›

For all intents and purposes, the TJ exemplifies the typical Wrangler look. In terms of broad performance differences, the TJ recouped some of the lost off-roading abilities of the YJ by raising the vehicle a tad and swapping leaf springs for a coil spring- suspension system.

Where was the Jeep YJ built? ›

The Jeep YJ, sold as the Wrangler in the United States, replaced the Jeep CJ line in 1986 and was built in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, until the plant closed on April 23, 1992. Production was then moved to Toledo, Ohio, using the same plant that produced the Willys Jeeps during World War II.

What is the top speed of a Jeep Wrangler YJ? ›

  • 4WD. Manual, 5-speed.
  • 57 l.
  • Manual.
  • 140 km/h. 87 mph.

How much horsepower does a YJ have? ›

Wrangler YJ Motor and Transmission

1991 also saw the introduction of the more powerful 180-horsepower 4.0 L engine that reigned superior over its 4.2 L 122hp predecessor.

How do I know if my Jeep is a YJ? ›

This one should be really easy to identify, being it is the only Jeep Wrangler to ever have squared headlights. The Jeep Wrangler YJ is a successor to the civilian Jeep (CJ). The only difference between the Jeep CJ and Jeep Wrangler YJ's suspension, were that the YJ's leaf springs were much wider.

Which is better CJ or YJ? ›

The biggest thing you should know about the YJ is that it was a redesign of the legendary CJ. They came with a stiffer frame, which helps with durability, plus the rear seating area has more protections. Stability was also improved through the use of wider front leaves in the suspension, plus a winder track and body.

Are YJ Jeeps collectible? ›

Now with these jeep wrangler YJ's if you can find one that's in decent shape, they are starting to become almost 37 years old so these really are becoming a collector's item, and they are the first generation wrangler.

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