There are more Jeep owners than either of us can count who first got the bug during childhood. If you've been bitten, here's a basic primer on Jeep generations and a thought or two on what to consider.
Jeep Wranglers have had four generations, each with its own code name.
- 1987–1995 was the YJ
- 1997 to 2006 was the TJ (technically, there was no 1996 model year but both YJs and TJs were manufactured during that transition year)
- 2007 to 2018 was the JK and its four-door version the JKU
- 2018 to date is the JL or JLU
My first Jeep was a 1995 YJ. It looked like this.
Note the rectangular headlights. This is probably not the Jeep you’re thinking of. No one else liked the look of them either. But they’re still great Jeeps in terms of fun & function.
My second Jeep was a 2000 TJ. I wrote a stupid long Quora thread about mine here: Baker Egerton's answer to What is a fun fact about your car? But I’m guessing the TJ is the one you’re thinking of by “one of the older models” — unless you’re thinking of the CJ series.
I’ll skip ahead, and then come back to the TJ model to address the rest of your question.
The JK / JKU models are completely different vehicles. I own this 2009 model.
These are much wider than the TJ series and, while they retain all the key features that make a Jeep a Jeep (solid axles, windshield that folds down, top that comes off, etc.), they have a totally different feel on the road compared to the older models.
So for that vintage Jeep look and feel, I’d go for a TJ. Or even better, the longer-wheelbase version of the TJ which some people call an LJ.
(I grabbed this photo from online, since I’ve never owned an LJ. Sadly.)
There are numerous resources that will guide you through “what to look for,” so I’ll leave you to them. But they pretty much all focus on one word. Rust. I’m talking about frame rust in particular: the kind you won’t see just walking around the Jeep. You’ll need to get underneath and hammer around a bit — or have someone put it up on a lift and give it a good going over. If it’s rusted out, walk away and keep looking. This is a Jeep owner’s worst nightmare.
Beyond that, you’ll need to look out for the usual foibles of an older vehicle (the youngest of these are now at least a dozen years old). I’m not a mechanic so, unless you’re mechanically gifted, I’d suggest finding a good candidate and having him or her give it a look.
Two final suggestions:
If you can find a Jeep TJ with the Rubicon package made from 2003 to 2006, buy it — although it will cost you a premium. The Rubicons are better optimized for offroad, and they hold their values even better. (Jeeps hold their values phenomenally well, as you’ll soon discover.)
I strongly recommend you look for one with a 4.0 liter six cylinder engine, as opposed to the 2.5 liter four cylinder. It’s not that the 2.5 is a bad engine; I had one in my YJ. It’s just that the 4.0 is so much better.
And a bonus suggestion. If, during your search, you come across a unicorn — otherwise known as a CJ8 for a reasonable price — drop everything else and buy it. Good hunting.
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