The Unwanted Wrangler: Why Now is the Time to Buy a Square Headlight Jeep Wrangler YJ

The Jeep Wrangler YJ: The Jeep enthusiasts love to hate, the Jeep your wallet will learn to love. This year the most hated Wrangler of the lineup is turning 30, and here’s why you need to buy one now! (Disclaimer: I owned the green 1995 Wrangler pictured and it was a fun and relatively trouble free year of off-road adventures)

Very few vehicles capture the go-anywhere do-anything American attitude like the humble Jeep. A product of second world war, the civilian jeep can be seen from beaches to mountain tops across the globe. Although it has gained a few pounds and features over last 75 years, the basic design has remained largely unchanged; open top, removable doors, 4-wheel drive and round headlights. Well, not quite.

For a period of 8 years, the classic design was changed, a difference that sent shock waves throughout the Jeep community: square headlights. This year, the black sheep of the Jeep lineup is turning 30, and now is the time to pick up a Jeep Wrangler YJ.

The 1970s and 1980s were not an easy period for the brand. Parent company American Motors struggled to maintain an aging lineup of SUVs and pickups. The iconic CJ5 was decades old and its younger brother the CJ7 was also showing a lack of innovation. Then in 1980, a single 60 minutes’ story changed the fate of the classic design forever.

A report ran in December of 1980 descried the CJ5 as being “dangerously unstable”, and demonstrated its propensity to rollover (though many question the legitimacy of this report citing unrealistic testing conditions). Regardless, the fate of the humble CJ5 was sealed, and by 1983, the model was dead.

A new design was needed, one that brought forth a sense of stability and safety. Although released after the Chrysler take over of the brand, the 1987 AMC designed Jeep brought forth new looks and a new name: Wrangler.

Code named YJ, the new Jeep marked the biggest revolution in design for the jeep since its birth in the mid 1940s’. The big unwanted news was a kink in the grill and the dreaded rectangular sealed beam headlights.

Beneath the controversial bodywork there were design changes that significantly altered the character of the vehicle. Realizing customers were driving their Jeeps on a daily basis, AMC altered the architecture to make it more usable day to day. Solid axles still meant the new Wrangler retained its legendary off-road capability, but a wider track and new conveniences increased on road driveability. CJ purists hate the lights, they hate the plastic dashboard and they hate the transition to on-road civilian duty the Wrangler name represents. But the YJ is a highly capable off-road vehicle that is an incredible value.

The YJ was produced between 1987 and 1995. Early Wranglers produced between 1987 and 1990 have the sport style roll bar, while post 1991 Wranglers incorporated a squared off rear section in order to incorporate rear shoulder belts.

Several engines were available throughout the YJ’s lifetime. Early models came equipped with either a fuel injected 2.5L four banger or a carryover of AMC’s venerable 258 carburated inline 6. While largely reliable and reasonably powerful, the most desirable choice is the fuel injected four liter inline six available from 1991. Developing 180 horsepower and 220 lb-ft of torque, many owners report running these workhorses for hundreds of thousands of miles between rebuilds.

Equipped with leaf springs front and rear, solid axles and of course a traditional frame, the YJ is very easy to modify, and can be turned into an off-road beast very affordably.

With fuel injection, solid axles, (relatively) modern conveniences and the go anywhere capability buyers have come to expect, the Jeep Wrangler YJ is a relatively capable vehicle with the fun loving attitude of the Jeep brand. But why is now a good time to buy one?

The YJ is verging on classic status. With the rapid rise in value of classic 4×4’s and the price associated with new wranglers, YJ’s offer an affordable way to get into the world of Jeeps and off-roading convertible fun.

Now that you’ve decided you can roll with the rectangles, what do you look for.

Several trims were available throughout the production run, most notably the top of the line Sahara and the bold Renegade. Regardless of trim, the 4.0L is the engine you want. With adequate power to motivate oversized tires and reliability to survive the harshest off-road environments, four liter YJs will typically command a slightly higher price.

Speaking of price, a good rust free 1987 -1995 Wrangler can be had for under $6000. As usual with used jeeps, you are better off finding a stock example and doing the modifications yourself then finding a highly modified Wrangler that served a hard life on the rocks.

1995 was the only year available with a fully galvanized body, there was no 1996 model year.

Regulation in the late 1990’s required cars sold in the U.S. to come equipped with OBD-2 ports, and rather than redesign the aging OBD1 diagnostic software, Chrysler stopped production in favor for the new round headlight TJs available for the 1997 model year.

I thoroughly enjoyed my year long ownership of my 1995 Jeep Wrangler YJ, and while the 3 speed automatic may have sapped any and all driving sprightliness out of the reliable four liter, it was an affordable way into the Jeep world that has me hooked for life as you can tell by the video below.