Wagonmaster Breathes New Life into Jeep Classics
For 25 years, the Texas company has been restoring the Jeep Wagoneer for global clients. JK Forum pays a visit to where the magic happens.
If you keep your wrist at 12 o’clock on the wheel, you don’t feel the steering play as much as if you use both hands.
That’s just one of the things we learned about driving a Jeep Wagoneer from Chip Miller. He’s the guy to ask. He is the “Wagonmaster,” and the son of Leon Miller, who founded the Wagonmaster company in 1993. Around the time that Grand Wagoneer production was shutting down, Leon reached out to Jeep to see if they would ever resurrect the legendary American SUV. That led to him being connected to Brooks Stevens, the man credited with the iconic vehicle’s original design. Jeep was not going to bring the Wagoneer back, but Stevens encouraged Miller to refresh and renew Wagoneers himself. The original “Wagonmaster” bought, refinished, and sold 12 Wagoneers during his first year of business. Chip later partnered with his father, and in 2014, he took over as full owner.
Over the past quarter century, the Wagonmaster company has sold over 1,800 revitalized Wagoneers and Grand Wagoneers to well-heeled professionals in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Europe, and even Kuwait. Wagonmaster has clients all across America. If you ever find yourself on Nantucket Island, you’re bound to see a Wagonmaster Wagoneer there. At one time, there were 38 of them on the vacation destination’s 105 square miles of windswept beaches and picturesque lighthouses.
We recently headed out to Kerrville, Texas, to meet Chip Miller and tour the Wagonmaster facility. It was hard to believe that a business that sells luxury SUVs for $70,000 to $80,000 to people all over the world was there in the small, quiet town. If we had been driving too fast, we might have missed it. Once behind Wagonmaster’s gates, we spot a rainbow of full-size Jeeps with bands of blue, maroon, brown, and pale yellow. A Cherokee Chief adds a flash of orange. Its 6,700 original miles are extremely low for any vehicle of its age, but especially low for an old school Cherokee. Miller tells us that while Wagoneers were always viewed as the Cadillacs of Jeeps, the 1974-1983 Cherokees were treated like pickups, and used and abused accordingly.
Further back on the lot, creme and green Wagoneers in various states of disrepair await their fates. Some of them are too far gone and only good for parting out. Many had come before them. Miller shows us a cargo container filled with spare parts, ranging from seats and interior trim pieces, to zip-tied bundles of “Wagoneer” and “4 Wheel Drive” badges.
The Wagonmaster Conversion Process
Other Wagoneers will eventually be transformed into official Wagonmaster conversions. The process starts with the original vehicle itself. Wagonmaster typically seeks out rust-free, undamaged specimens with less than 70,000 miles on them, although they may raise the mileage cap depending on the model.
Then, Wagonmaster’s crew gets to work, reconditioning key areas such as the suspension, steering, brakes, transmission, and electrical system. They coat the underbody to protect it against corrosion.
Technicians renew or replace the cooling system’s thermostat, radiator, fan clutch, water pump, and hoses. They flush the AC system; refresh or swap out its compressor, condenser, evaporator, and hoses; and pressurize and recharge it. Each engine gets dismantled and receives new main bearings, seals, timing chain, cover, oil pump, oil pan seal, and motor mounts. The Wagonmaster engine treatment also includes replacing the carburetor with fuel injection.
The swap takes about six hours and, according to Miller, gives the modernized engine 10 to 12 percent better fuel economy. Of course, the four-wheel drive system gets some TLC, too. Wagonmaster rebuilds the transfer case, replaces the hubs and wheel bearings, and services the differentials and vacuum switches.
A couple of bays in the back of Wagonmaster’s property serve as its interior department, where Wagonmaster Wagoneers get replaced or renewed interior components, such as carpet, seats, console, and soundproofing.
Despite his impressive stock of spare parts, Miller says that since the corduroy inserts from factory Wagoneer seats aren’t available anymore, he has an upholsterer in San Antonio cut them out of the old seat faces and graft them into the seats’ fresh leather exteriors. As an upgrade, Wagonmaster will even add a heating function to the new seats.
It offers other upgrades such as a DVD entertainment system with two front headrest-mounted screens, and two Alpine audio/Bluetooth phone packages, as well. Xenon headlights are also an option, but it’s hard to imagine a great deal of people choosing such an anachronism. The Wagoneer looks perfect as it is, yesteryear lighting and all.
Another San Antonio shop lays down fresh coats of paint on Wagonmaster’s builds. New woodgrain exterior siding is an essential part of Wagonmaster’s updates. Miller explains that once the metal framework underneath each panel gets even the slightest bend or dent in it, it can never go back to normal and needs to be replaced.
Getting Behind the Wheel
After the tour, it’s time to start driving. We can’t take our eyes off of a Midnight Blue and Desert Tan 1991 Final Edition. Miller is used to our reaction and reveals that customers request this color combo the most. This particular Grand Wagoneer may have been one of the last 1,560 that came off of the production line in Toledo, Ohio, but it still has a carburetor.
Miller doesn’t want us driving it before it warms up properly, so we ride shotgun as he drives out to his father’s sprawling estate for photos. Chrome-covered switchgear allow us to lower our power window and adjust our seat. The only shapes in front of us are rectangles; two blow cooled air and one is the cover for the glove compartment. The gleaming square hood ornament points us toward a property filled with rolling hills and a towering windmill. Seeing the Grand Wagoneer at the center of such a bucolic scene makes it easy to understand why so many designers feature the FSJs in their photography.
We head back to Wagonmaster to pick up a brown ’83 Wagoneer Limited with a 360 cubic-inch AMC V8 that had received the company’s fuel injection upgrade. We return to the photo spot, and this time we are behind the wheel. After he sees us turning the leather-wrapped wheel back and forth in an effort to keep “Brownie” going straight, Miller explains how much easier the drive could be with our wrist at top dead center. We feel as cool as we look in such an eternal status symbol.
The Wagoneer’s 4WD & cargo space make it potentially useful, but it’s not something you buy out of necessity. You buy it because you want it — and want to be seen in it.
The Wagoneer’s four-wheel drive and cargo space make it potentially useful, but it’s not something you buy out of necessity. It’s something you buy because you want it — and want to be seen in it. The 5.9 burbles away as we chug down the rural roads. Bumps in the pavement reveal Brownie’s utilitarian origins. Wagoneers are a common sight in Kerrville, but we don’t want any of the locals to see a wrecked one stuffed into the back end of another vehicle, so we give the heavy, stiff brake pedal the substantial and consistent downward force it requires to do its job.
No amount of fresh paint and new chrome can make the Wagoneer feel or perform like a modern Jeep. It’s not supposed to, anyway. It’s an axe with a mahogany handle; a hammer with a sterling silver head. The Wagoneer is an icon that people still love for its classic design and in spite of its dated limitations. It’s a vehicle that’s both of a time and, as Wagonmaster’s evergreen business shows, timeless.
Photos for JK Forum by Derek Shiekhi