I Went To Vietnam And Discovered A Custom Jeep Wagoneer Unlike Any Wagoneer You’ve Ever Seen

I Went To Vietnam And Discovered A Custom Jeep Wagoneer Unlike Any Wagoneer You’ve Ever Seen
Image: David Tracy

You may have noticed that I pretty much fell off the grid these past few weeks trying to find a greater meaning to this life. I didn’t even come close to accomplishing that, but I did find some damn cool cars in southeast Asia, including this custom, 1972 Jeep Wagoneer located, inexplicably, on the outskirts of Saigon.

My brother and I improvised a trip to Ho Chi Minh City (which many locals still call Saigon) a few weeks ago. We had no hotels booked, no transportation plans other than flights I’d purchased the day prior, and I had only received my travel Visa hours before departure.

In many ways, the trip could have gone poorly (I did get food poisoning, but I don’t consider that a major setback since, if you think about it, are you really enjoying the local cuisine if you’re not getting food poising?), but it actually went great. And that’s thanks in no small part to the motor scooter I rented—a machine that afforded me vehicular freedom unlike any I’d ever experienced.

I’ll write more about it was like blissfully scootering around Vietnam at some later point, but for now, it’s time to focus on the Jeep Wagoneer that my brother and I found while putting around suburban Saigon.

As we rode around Vietnam, there were certain cars we expected to see—Toyota Land Cruisers, Ford Everests, VinFasts, and various minivans that I wish we got in the U.S.—and then there were vehicles that really stick out. One of those was an old M38A1 military Jeep that Mike spotted as he sat behind me on the scooter.

But no vehicle stood out like the Jeep Wagoneer we saw through the doors of this shop:

How the hell did this Toledo, Ohio-built Jeep—with its Kenosha, Wisconsin-built engine—make it all the way to Ho Chi Minh City? I have no clue! But as soon as we saw the sheetmetal, we knew it an SJ-platform Jeep.

I will say that, right away, I was a bit confused. The aftermarket wheels weren’t a big deal, since it’s not common to see stockers swapped out, but the paint colour was off, the rear window was strangely tinted while the others were left clear, the side mirrors were clearly not stock, the three-piece bumpers had been painted black, and the grille was a bit off:

The front end, for the most part, looks pretty much exactly like a standard 1972 Jeep Wagoneer, shown below, except there’s a badge at the centre of the Vietnam Jeep’s nose. I’m not sure why someone put that there, but it, along with the painted front bumper, definitely makes the front of the Jeep look a bit different than what I’m used to.

But as odd as the nose is, the rear end is even wackier, ditching the classic wraparound taillights in favour of illumination from a Toyota Land Cruiser 80-Series. The housings are actually pretty well integrated into the sheetmetal, I think:

You’ll also notice the painted rear bumper, the fuel tank door (which normally doesn’t exist), and the little antenna on the quarter panel—these are all things you wouldn’t find on a stock U.S.-market Wagoneer.

The strangest part of this Jeep, though, is its interior, which is almost completely custom, and—per the mechanic who walked us around the Jeep—made in Vietnam:

Covering the floors was what looked like a black vinyl carpet. The seats, which appeared mounted on custom frames, were wrapped in brown leather, the dashboard appeared to have been recently painted (the vehicle itself was painted in Vietnam, I was told), and the dash topper and door panels looked to be made of custom leather or leatherette.

What’s especially cool is that this Jeep has a third row—something never offered on Wagoneers, even though the vehicle was certainly long enough to accommodate the extra passengers.

Under the hood is the standard 258 (4.2-litre) AMC inline-six, which is almost certainly bolted to a Hyda-Matic GM-sourced three-speed automatic and a part-time four-wheel drive transfer case.

Looking at the leaf-sprung solid axles underneath, I’d say, mechanically, the Jeep looks pretty bone-stock. So when I asked the mechanic where he gets parts for something so rare, he just told me he orders them from overseas. That’s got to suck having to wait all that time for basic parts, while I can just drive 10 minutes to O’Reilly Auto Parts and get damn near whatever I need. But I have to applaud the devotion to keeping this beast on the road.

I remain baffled that a Toledo, Ohio-built Jeep Wagoneer ever existed in Vietnam, I’m even more baffled that one this old has survived (even if it required a bit of customisation), and most baffled by the fact that I somehow managed to find this thing.

Surely, the Jeep gods led me to this machine to bring joy to my life. And for that, I am grateful.