What is the Jeep Wave?

If you’ve driven a Jeep at any time in recent history, you’re probably aware of the Jeep Wave. Now that about 2/3s of the vehicles on the road seem to be Wranglers, you’re not distracted by your mobile device, you’re distracted by having to constantly wave at people as you’re driving.

How the hell did this all get started anyway?

There are various theories about the Jeep Wave’s history. One of the top search results we found was from a Dodge dealer in Waukesha, Wisconsin, which is where we always go for impartial, deeply researched, fact-checked journalism: “During World War II, Jeeps were commonly seen driving on the front lines to transport supplies, sensitive mail, and carry the wounded to safety. The Wave started as a way to differentiate ally and enemy or as a simple greeting from one fellow soldier to another.”

Another popular theory about the Jeep Wave involves soldiers returning home from abroad after World War II. Jeeps had become so common in the Armed Forces at that time that many veterans wanted to continue to drive them once the war ended. When one Jeep passed another, the chances of the driver being a veteran were very high, so the Wave started as a sign of respect and recognition.

Yeah, that is great. But we think that might all be nonsense. The popularity of the Jeep Wave is directly proportional to how many Jeeps were on the road. If Jeep owners were waving at each other in the 1950s and 1960s, nobody really knew it because there just weren’t that many of them. Add up all the Jeeps produced prior to the introduction of the CJ5, and it adds up to just 600,000 vehicles in 22 years, and that’s worldwide, not just in the US.

In the early days, about as many Volkswagen Beetle owners were waving at each other as Jeep owners. The first Volkswagen Beetle arrived here just four years after VE Day, in 1949. Contrary to popular opinion, the Beetle was not an instant success. By 1956, the model was still so rare that – according to Betty Gordon, an early Beetle owner from Rochester, New York, Volkswagen owners would “honk and wave at one another as though to a long-lost family.” In my time as Editor at Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, I heard similar stories about owners of early sports cars like Tom Magliozzi’s MG-TD, which was so rare here after the war that not only would owners wave at each other, they’d stop, turn around and kill half an hour talking.

Motorcyclists, of course, have been acknowledging each other almost as long as there have been motorcycles. It became much more of a thing in the 1950s, when the act of riding a motorcycle was seen as something of a rebellion against society.

WATCH: The Evolution of the Jeep

So what about the real history of the Jeep Wave? In 1992 I bought my first Jeep, a 1983 CJ7. At that time, there was a very distinct hierarchy to the wave, and it was most definitely not something that was coordinated, encouraged, or recognized by Jeep or Chrysler, its then parent company.

The 1977 Jeep CJ7
The 1977 Jeep CJ7

At that time, if you had a YJ – then the current model of Wrangler for sale at Jeep dealerships – you were doing the waving and you weren’t getting a lot of waves back. It wasn’t a “Jeep Thing” it was a “CJ Thing.”

Meme about the jeep vehicle

Frankly, it was dumb. Aside from the square headlights, the YJ was exactly the same basic vehicle as the CJ in the earliest years of its run, and it was a significantly BETTER vehicle than the CJ was, especially as the years went on and the 4.0-liter fuel-injected engine became available.

1994 Jeep YJ Wrangler
The 1994 Jeep YJ Wrangler

Regardless of when the Jeep Wave started, it really began to pick up stride in 1996 when the TJ arrived as a 1997 model year. Suddenly, old vs. new went out the window, and it was because of sheer numbers.

Because the TJ was such a significantly more practical everyday vehicle than the CJ or the YJ they were EVERYWHERE. Take a look at the numbers: That first year, Jeep sold 126,130 TJs. Over the next 10 years, American highways would see an influx of nearly a million TJ-era Wranglers. In its entire production run, Jeep only built just HALF of the earlier YJs.

With a combined 1.5 million YJs and TJs on the road, the Jeep Wave really started to hit its stride in the mid-2000s. And the wave of Waves kept rolling when the JK was introduced in 2007. That’s when the four-door Wrangler Unlimited was introduced.

2007 Jeep JK Wrangler Unlimited
The 2007 Jeep JK Wrangler Unlimited

The JK-era Wrangler Unlimited brought Jeeps home to ordinary, relatively intelligent people with jobs and families. No longer was the Jeep the bastion of masochistic loners, happy driving an underpowered, unreliable, constantly flapping contraption that leaked water, wind and snow, had a heater that churned out warmth like a dog breathing on your ankle, and could barely fit two people comfortably (as if they find some other idiot to come along for the ride).

2014 Jeep JK Wrangler Sahara Soft Top
The 2014 Jeep JK Wrangler Sahara Soft Top

As a result, by the end of its production run, Jeep sold almost as many JKs in the United States than it had sold YJ- and TJ-era vehicles combined. Now, soccer moms and middle managers who used their Wranglers for daily transportation of children were starting to wave at each other.

2021 Jeep JL Wrangler Unlimited
The 2021 Jeep JL Wrangler Unlimited

And that’s been eclipsed again since the JL-era showed up in 2018. Suddenly, Wrangler production shot up to a quarter of a million vehicles per year, and really hasn’t slowed down since, even during the pandemic.

So, the Jeep Wave really began to take off as a major, recognizable phenomenon when Jeeps became immensely popular.

It’s not like the CJ-era Jeeps were super rare, but consider this: Jeep built CJs in various forms (CJ2A, CJ3, CJ5, CJ6 and CJ7) for nearly half a century, and only sold about 1.5 million in that entire time. If the numbers continue the way they are now, Jeep will sell that many Wranglers in just five years.

1966 Jeep CJ-5 Tuxedo Park Mark IV
My 1966 Jeep CJ-5 Tuxedo Park Mark IV

Here’s an interesting phenomenon: I now drive a 1966 Jeep CJ5. My daughter drives a 2003 Jeep Wrangler, from the TJ era. On any given day, if I drive the TJ, I’ll get as many waves as I would if I drove a current model year Wrangler.

Driving the CJ5? I barely get a nod. The tables have completely turned for CJ owners, where the drivers of modern Jeeps don’t seem to realize that CJs are part of the Wave club. The indignity.

Meme about an ignored jeep wave

The Jeep Wave is so popular that Jeep itself has co-opted it into its own extended warranty program. The program covers Jeep vehicles with pre-paid maintenance contracts extended 24 or 36 months after the original factory warranties have expired, along with things like preferred access to VIP events around the country. The Chrysler Factory Warranty is also available for Jeep owners.

And there’s something new happening, too: Jeep Ducking. Only in this case, we know EXACTLY how it started, because we can identify the exact person who started it, one Allison Parliament of Ontario, Canada. Parliament told the Taunton (MA) Gazette that she was born in Canada, but splits her time between there and Alabama, where her Wrangler was registered:

She said she was out and about driving her car, which has Alabama license plates, after quarantining for two weeks and taking a COVID-19 test when she was approached by a man she didn't know.

"A not-so-kind person walked up to me, grabbing my shoulders so hard he left bruises and pushed me back into my vehicle and told me to 'Get the f out of our country' and that I wasn't welcome in Canada," she said.

Parliament said she knew instantly why she was attacked. She believes the person was scared of her spreading COVID-19 in a country with a low transmission rate given that the U.S. is leading the world in coronavirus cases and cases are spiking in most states.

"I was born in Canada. I was raised in Canada, and I've never seen anybody do anything like that or hate anybody where I'm from," she said. "That's not what we're about. But COVID changed that so much. They're terrified of anybody coming in with American plates and there's a lot of bad feelings about that."

But instead of getting angry and reacting with more hate, Parliament said, she and her friends who were with her at the time decided to look for something fun to do. They went into a nearby store and bought a rubber duck and left it on a nearby Jeep with a note explaining the duck.

Picture of a toy duck
Toy duck above a jeep vehicle
A Car Talk Editor Actually Got Ducked While We Were Writing This Story...

The recipient thought it was funny, Parliament said, so she and her friends decided to take to Facebook to tell others, and the idea took off. In just the first week, she said, they got 3,000 people involved. There are now over 10,000 in her official Jeep ducking group on Facebook, and considering the number of other groups and Instagrammers, she estimates there are now tens of thousands of people involved in all 50 states, all but one Canadian province and even some duckers in Spain and Australia.

Honestly, we weren’t all that into #duckduckjeep until we read the history. We’re in now, though, 100 percent. If you see my beat up old CJ parked somewhere in eastern Massachusetts, by all means, feel free to Duck it.

Todays Car-o-Scope

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