The Jeep Grand Wagoneer’s design virtually never changed, making it one of the few automobiles that connected entire generations of people.
Kelly and I had long since fallen in love with the classic lines of the Grand Wagoneer. The legacy of the car is renowned; many credit the Wagoneer for inspiring the concept of a luxury SUV. It competed with Range Rovers because it offered finer appointments to a truck-based platform more often associated with rugged austerity. Wagoneers were a staple of WASP culture, the preppy automobile of choice for lawyers and doctors and their private school kids.
These days, the cars are symbols of a vintage culture that floats further and further away. Put a Christmas tree on the roof rack and a wreath on the front grill, and you have enough Lands End kitsch that you can probably leave the kids out of your holiday card photo. I’ve always wondered about who drives these things and what kinds of lifestyles they might lead.
So when we spotted a Grand Wagoneer around town, it was interesting to see not just the car but who was behind the wheel.
When Kelly was pregnant with Julia, she happened upon a Wagoneer in the grocery store parking lot: beautiful lines, a brilliant off-white paint job, well-kept wheels and thin, shiny chrome trim everywhere. As it happened, an older lady was coming out with her groceries, and Kelly complimented her on the vehicle. Kel went so far as to ask if she would consider selling it, but the woman smiled and said she wasn’t ready. Over the next several years, she’d see the lady out around town, and she always pointed out to the kids what a cool ride it was.
Something there was about the boxy Wagoneer that kept our hearts hopeful. Over time, we would look at a number of other cars inspired by that timeless design. Last summer, we seriously considered buying a Land Rover Discovery II, another squared-off, truck platform off-roader with a cult following. The Disco, though, is renowned for its unreliability, and ultimately I never felt comfortable sinking so much cash into a car whose engine felt a tick away from becoming a boat anchor.
The Disco fit our family, though–which is something that frames all of these silly conquests. When you have three kids, you’ve gotta have five seat belts. There are cars I have long drooled over–Corvettes, drop-top Jaguar XJs, TR6s, other midget-sized zip cars that dart through corners–but none of them work when you factor in the kids. And I’m just not the kind of person who wanted to tie up that much money in a car we couldn’t share with the whole family. (Ask me again later when the kids have all moved out.)
This past week I had nothing on my calendar for lunch, so I decided to walk into town for a burger. After lunch, I walked down to the bank to hit the ATM. Dad called, and I stood outside chatting with him. And then I saw it: the wood-paneled Wagoneer with the older couple inside, tooling down Broad Street, and turning into the bank’s parking lot.
There was a For Sale sign in the front dash.
Mindful of the fact that I was literally going to walk up to an older woman in the parking lot of a bank (would she shoot me, thinking I was trying to rob her?), I gingerly approached the car and motioned to her. She rolled down the window. I introduced myself, adding that I noticed the sign on the dash, and gosh what a great looking Wagoneer.
To my relief, she was very kind about being chatted up outside of a bank, indulging me in answering whatever questions I could come up with. Yes, they’ve owned it for about twenty years now. Yes, she drove it regularly. Yes, the power windows worked. Yes, it cranks right up and runs strong. In fact, she told me, not long after they bought it, they had the engine rebuilt and sunk about four grand into it. She reached into the woodgrain covered console in the center of the dash and produced the invoice from the garage where they had all of the work completed.
I realized I was staring at Kelly’s grandmother’s handwriting.
As it turns out, this Grand Wagoneer had had its engine surgery performed in the very same garage where my wife spent her time as a child. The car’s owner, who later introduced herself as Vivian Wooten, knew A.C. and Nancy (Kel’s grandparents), and Everette, Nancy’s brother and the shop’s mechanic, and “the boys” who did all the work. I was a little dumbfounded by it all, even though it’s a small world, and our town is but a sliver of it. I asked how much Mrs. Wooten wanted for the car, and she let me know. It wasn’t exactly cheap.
I walked back to my office, and later that afternoon texted Kel to tell her the entire story. She wrote back: “Get it!! I want that thing!!”
Now you may not know this, but my wife is not one to spend money frivolously. I cannot call her cheap, because after all she married me, but she is disciplined at keeping her emotions in check when it comes to financial decisions. I figured when I told her the asking price, she would balk.
But she didn’t. And I, curmudgeon that I often can be, couldn’t shake the serendipity of everything. I could never say with a straight face that this was divine providence–this is an old car, not salvation–but I found myself with a gut feeling that doesn’t often happen to me. I asked Kelly if she was serious. She was. I asked again. No, really, she says.
I had taken a picture of the For Sale sign with my iPhone so that I could keep up with the phone number on it. I called–busy. I waited and tried again. Busy. Walked to a meeting, spent thirty minutes, walked back to my office, tried the number.
It rang. Mrs. Wooten answered. I tried to explain I was the tall guy who cornered her at Wells Fargo. For a moment, she sat silently on the other end. “Oh yes!” she said, finally. “We’ve run so many errands today, I forgot I’d gone to the bank.”
We spoke, and we agreed on a time for me to come over that afternoon to look at it before dark, and soon I was driving into the country to find this Wagoneer.
Mrs. Wooten and her husband, Jimmy, live on a small farm of about 60 acres a couple miles north of Interstate 40, down a gravel lane that split two pastures and led to a simple, two story farmhouse surrounded by century-old oaks. They kept the Wagoneer behind the house in a homemade carport that also housed a second, 1979 Wagoneer, a Ford tractor, and a pick-up truck. Across the yard was a J20 pickup, which Jimmy called the “snow truck.” The automobiles were each covered up with old bedsheets, as if he had just put them to bed for the night.
It was cold, and there wasn’t much daylight left, but Jimmy gave me the keys and we hopped in the Wagoneer and took it out for a drive. I couldn’t believe what I was finding here–I knew enough to know that these cars often rot from underneath, but I couldn’t see any rust. Their interiors can look dumpy, but this one was remarkably clean for a 1987 model. Jimmy had kept everything in its best condition, waxing the exterior twice a year, polishing the chrome, faithfully servicing the motor. The engine started without hesitation and didn’t knock or rattle; the transmission shifted through each gear smoothly; the steering was infamously vague. It was slow and a bit noisy, and I loved it.
Everything in the car was simple, no-frills. Under the hood was the rebuilt AMC 360 V8, and everything was visible, with plenty of room to wrench on it when the time came. There are no computers or screens in an old Wagoneer.
Along the way, Jimmy and I compared notes, looking for people we might know in common. He is 81 years old, and he’s had some health problems, and it was getting harder to keep up with everything they had. They’d closed the chicken house years ago, and now they only kept cattle. They never had children, and there wasn’t anyone to help.
Back at the farm, standing in the chill of sunset, we haggled a bit. I asked, and he asked, and I gave him a number, and he gave me a number, and I gave him another. He went inside to see if Mrs. Wooten would agree to the price I’d suggested. I snapped a few pictures of the car. He came back out to report she’d countered, and we shook on the price. But then I realized it was Friday evening of a holiday weekend; banks wouldn’t be open again until Tuesday. I told Jimmy that I felt awfully bad asking him just to trust me, but would he take a personal check? He looked me up and down, then said, let’s trust each other.
I said we’d need to get the title notarized, and I’d have to think about where to find a notary public on a weekend. He mentioned the UPS store would do it–in fact, he’d just been there to have a living will notarized ahead of a hospital procedure he’d be having this week. I felt a little worse for haggling over the price.
We both agreed that all of this was contingent on letting my wife have the chance to see it and shake it down in person, which we did Saturday morning. They kindly brought the Wagoneer into town, and Kel loaded up the kids and we spun around an old K-Mart parking lot. We had a few doubts; this was a silly thing to spend money on. But then we got past them. The Wootens chuckled at our kids and complimented them over and over again. And I found myself writing the check, and we took care of the paperwork, and we were suddenly in possession of a 1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer.
I drove the Wootens back to the farm in the Wagoneer (curiously, they hadn’t brought another vehicle, perhaps suspecting we were going to bail out of the deal), and stoic as she was, I couldn’t help noticing Mrs. Wooten seemed sad to let it go. She asked if I might bring it back for a visit some time, and we all smiled, and I said of course.
Now it’s sitting in our driveway. I keep waiting to see if I wake up with a stomach full of regret. It seems hard to rationalize buying a 32 year-old car that you won’t drive every day, one that will always need work. Eventually something will break, and I will have to roll up my sleeves to try to fix it or pay someone to do what I cannot. And I’m fine with that.
Because maybe… just maybe, it was meant to be. Or at least we made it so. As the couple who loved it so long stares down the dark winter of their lives, the world’s great clockmaker puts us all together in a bank parking lot, and I show up, check in hand, to help in this small way, to relieve them of this heavy machine they have tenderly cared for and tucked into bed at night, all with a promise to love and enjoy it ourselves. To be the stewards that they have been.
In that way, I hope this becomes more than a silly materialistic infatuation, more than a Lands End catalog aspiration. Let’s trust each other, Jimmy said to me as twilight came coldly near. Staring at the Wagoneer against the pasture, it affirmed some part of my soul to know we could.
February 4, 2021 update: I was sorry to learn that Mrs. Wooten passed away this week following an illness. I’ve often thought about her request for me to bring the Wagoneer by for a visit, something I sadly never got around to doing. I did, though, send her a copy of our 2019 Christmas card, which proudly featured her beautiful Jeep, and we had a conversation probably a year or so ago to catch up. Today, I’ll fire up the Wagoneer for a drive in her memory.