The Model T. The Gameboy. The iPhone. What do these products have in common? They all were pioneers in their industry, and were able to single-handedly revolutionize their market. They managed to hit that proverbial bulls-eye of success thanks to creativity, timing and risk (not to mention a whole lot of luck). One vehicle which not only hit that elusive bullseye, but struck it on an all new target was the original 1984 Jeep Cherokee. It was so successful and perfect an execution of what a compact SUV should be that it remained in production nearly unchanged for 17 years, with the last examples rolling off the line in 2001. Today, the classic XJ Cherokee (XJ being Jeep-Speak for the platform underpinning the Cherokee) is seen by most as just another part of the automotive landscape. This fact is quite telling, considering the design originally appeared 32 years ago – the XJ is as timeless as Sinatra’s voice, with the casual observer taking nary a second glance to the now archaic design.
Until the Cherokee’s debut, SUVs were rough, tough, and crude machines, built with the singular purpose of being capable to traverse heavy terrain. Some classic examples include the BOF (Body-on-Frame) Ford Bronco, Chevrolet Blazer, and Dodge Ramcharger, all popular choices in the 1970s. These excelled where asphalt was nonexistent, but became tiresome to drive on paved roads, where the drawbacks of being based on a crude full-size truck platform became readily apparent.
Jeep’s lineup in the 1970s competed with the aforementioned vehicles, but lacked any other product. Simultaneously, government-mandated CAFE standards were demanding that Jeep build a smaller, more economical vehicle. To do this, Renault (which had invested in the struggling AMC in return for market share and a foothold in the American market) and Jeep worked together to come up with a smaller, next generation Jeep SUV. The result of the Franco-US underdog partnership was nothing less than game-changing: The unibody, compact, four door Cherokee.
It’s hard to stress how revolutionary this car was went it broke ground in late 1983. The timeless design, done by AMC designer Dick Teague, was fresh, attractive, and timeless. For many, including your author, his final work for AMC has defined what the quintessential SUV should be. A unibody structure allowed for a lighter weight and a better on-road ride, meaning that it had no trouble traversing the urban jungle to get to the mall or to pick up the kids from school. Its suspension design offered the clearance, durability and off-roading chops that has made the Jeep name such an icon in off-roading circles. Initially offered in three trim levels, two body styles and with choice of three different engines, the Cherokee could be equipped to be anything for anyone.
By designing the Cherokee from the start to be a four-door unibody, Jeep was eliminating the two biggest factors deterring customers from SUVs – the rough ride resulting from a truck-based frame, and the impracticality of two doors. By overcoming these two limitations, Jeep essentially opened the floodgates of buyers who previously had to settle with being enamored by SUVs from afar. Families bought them up in droves to indulge in the outdoorsy and romantic lifestyle that the Jeep moniker promised, even if the closest they got to realize that lifestyle was parking in a gravel lot at the local rec soccer fields. The success of the practical Cherokee paved the way for the SUV boom that struck in the 1990s, and was one of the final death knells for that venerable family truckster, the station wagon.
The stalwarts of the industry had to quickly pick their jaws up off the floor after seeing scrappy underdog AMC find such success with the Cherokee. Ford had its BOF Bronco II to compete with the compact Jeep, but found little more than angst from a rollover issue that plagued the fun-size II. GM’s twins, the Chevy S-10 Blazer and GMC S-15 Jimmy, found better success, especially after an update brought along four-door variants in 1991. But it still was not enough to beat the Jeep, which sold 2.3 million units between launch and 2001.
Our feature car is a 1995 or 1996, as 1995 was the first year for the airbag (which this car has), while 1996 was a carryover year until the refreshed 1997 model came out. Also seen here is a snazzy dark blue paint job over the light tan lower cladding, a handsome two-tone that was only offered on the Country trim level, a trim which also included the lacy-spoke wheels and a variety of interior niceties. While there are a few different Cherokees on campus, most are the refreshed ’97-01 models. I have always preferred the original 1984 lines, which in my eyes are more timeless and cohesive than the redesign. Due to the passing of the time, the pre-refresh cars are becoming harder to find, making the discovery of this example here at Bryant a pleasant surprise.
Thanks to the Cherokee, consumers were introduced to the prospect of a practical, everyday SUV that was at home either traversing the roughest American countryside or on an errand run to the local box stores. This all-purpose utility is a concept we take for granted today, but was revolutionary in 1984. This example, with its light patina, aptly represents the energizer-bunny reputation of the original XJ. As the Bryant parking lot attests, Cherokees today continue to roam both on the road and off, a patriarch among SUVs and a true game-changer among the automotive world at large.