Seated behind the wheel of a 1986 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, Leon Miller turns the ignition key, then gently taps the vehicle's accelerator to rev the motor.
"These models run better if you let them warm up first," says Miller, 77, of Kerrville, Texas (pop. 20,425). "They use the old-style carbureted engine as opposed to today's fuel-injected ones."
Miller should know. His business, called Wagonmaster, resurrects used Grand Wagoneers to their former glory, then sells them worldwide to fans of the beloved "Woody," so nicknamed for the model's simulated wood-grain side panels. To date, Miller and his crew have refurbished or, as he calls it, "renewed" nearly 1,400 Woodies.
"This one has a brand-new windshield," he says, steering the red Woody through traffic in Kerrville. "We also installed an optional sunroof and new stereo system. We do everything we can to make these vehicles look and perform like they just rolled off the showroom floor."
Miller's passion for Wagoneers, introduced by Jeep in 1963, took hold when he purchased his first one in 1979. "These vehicles were way ahead of their time with four-wheel drive, air conditioning, power windows, doors and locks, and many other extras," Miller says. "They had character and class, too. I became so attached to them that I bought several more."
After retiring in 1992 from the cattle feed business, Miller tried buying a new Wagoneer but learned that Chrysler had discontinued the line a year earlier. Disappointed, he phoned the Detroit automaker to complain and was connected with Brooks Stevens, the car's designer, who offered a suggestion. "He told me I could buy a '91, go through it, and do a renewal," Miller recalls.
Miller jumped on the idea and refurbished his first Wagoneer in a month. A friend was so impressed with the outcome that he bought it. So Miller renewed another Woody, and another friend snapped up his second renewal. That's when Miller decided to turn his hobby into a business.
"I decided to get my dealer's license six months later," he says. "In my first year, I renewed 12. Now we renew 70 to 90 a year."
Not long after opening his four-bay shop in Kerrville, Miller hung his sign in cyberspace, creating www.wagonmaster.com, where buyers can view photos of current inventory and specifications on each vehicle. Miller buys his used vehicles largely from individuals who find his website. "My cutoff is 70,000 miles or lower," he says. "And they must have no rust or serious body damage."
Candidates for "renewal" also must pass a 54-point inspection at a certified Jeep dealership. If the car passes, Miller buys it. Wagonmaster shop foreman Rhonda Moon, 55, and her crew of five then take over and meticulously clean and update the old-fashioned SUVs in four to six weeks. "They come out looking pretty much like new," says Moon, a 14-year employee. "Chrysler used high-quality upholstery and carpeting to manufacture the Wagoneers, so that's one reason we're able to turn them around so nicely."
Renewal costs range from $8,000 to $15,000. Most Woodies sell for $20,000 to $30,000. "We update a lot of mechanical features to make them more dependable and enjoyable," Miller says. "For example, we replace the fuel pump and electronic module with parts that are superior to the originals. On a scale of one to 10, we call all our Woodies elevens!"
Customers hail from around the world and include celebrity clients such as country singer Alan Jackson, designer Tommy Hilfiger and even the Prime Minister of Kuwait.
Shane Shanafelt, 39, of Dallas, purchased a tan 1983 Grand Wagoneerwith only 17,000 milesthe same model he owned while dating his wife, Beth, in college. "Our kids didn't understand what the tape deck was, and they asked where the iPod plug was," Shanafelt says with a laugh.
Meanwhile, at his shop, Miller checks on a 1986 dark blue Woody to be shipped to a customer in Pennsylvania. "As long as people keep buying my Grand Wagoneers," he says, "I'll keep looking for them!"