By DAVID THOME
Special to ADAMM
Jeep’s success story began when U.S. military leaders decided they needed a small, hardy vehicle for battlefield reconnaissance. Designed in a whirlwind, the original model rose to the task, performing so well that one famous general credited it with winning World War II.
Seventy-five years later, Jeep SUVs and crossovers that still bear an uncanny resemblance to that first model are winning hearts and minds of a wide range of civilian drivers. According to Automotive News, Jeep is Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ best-selling brand, outpacing Chrysler and Dodge combined.
Contemporary models still appeal to off-roaders and are sold to farmers and construction firms as working vehicles. But they’re no less desirable to suburbanites and business people who use them to commute to work on well-paved interstate highways.
The company has already paved the way to continued success by introducing the 2017 Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, which GizMag.com reviewer C.C. Weiss calls “the most capable factory-produced Grand Cherokee ever” and Summit, “the most luxurious” model in the company’s history.
Jeep also has introduced several 75th anniversary edition models.
“Some people like the luxury of the Grand Cherokee,” said Ambika Dziak, sales consultant for SCHLOSSMANN’S Dodge City Dodge Chrysler Jeep in Brookfield. “But some people are looking for a fun car like the Wrangler, which can be a convertible in summer and a truck in winter.”
Jose Rivera, sales consultant for GRIFFIN’S Hub Chrysler Jeep in Milwaukee, said that people who go hunting and fishing in the wilds of northern Wisconsin love the ruggedness of models like the Wrangler and Trailhawk, while others sense the ruggedness bubbling under the smooth, carlike ride of the Grand Cherokee.
Jamie Baake, sales consultant for UPTOWN Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram in Slinger, said that Jeep’s history lends a hint of adventure and romance to the line of modern-day SUVs for people who almost assuredly will never go off road, but instead want a vehicle that’s comfortable, roomy and, with the four-wheel-drive engaged, great in snow.
“There’s a Jeep for everybody,” he said. “We sell them to men, women, young old, all ages, all shapes and sizes.”
Jeep’s road to becoming an American icon began as war spread across Europe and Asia in the late 1930s.
According to Smithsonian magazine, the U.S. Army invited 135 companies to develop working prototypes of a light-weight, four-wheel-drive reconnaissance car, but only two — Willys-Overland and tiny American Bantam — accepted. Part of the problem was that “the Army had set what seemed like an impossible deadline of 49 days,” says author Doug Stewart. Willys asked for an extension but was denied.
Bantam hired free-lance engineers and met the deadline, but didn’t get the contract because government officials feared the already-bankrupt Pennsylvania company couldn’t deliver the required number of vehicles. Instead, Stewart says, Willys-Overland and Ford were given opportunities to propose tweaks, budgets and production schedules.
“The Willys-Overland MB was the vehicle that eventually saw the battlefield,” writer C.J. Bantam wrote for 4WD.com. “It was the most versatile automobile the military had ever experienced. The MB is credited with modernizing warfare, thus inspiring General Dwight D. Eisenhower to conclude that ‘America could not have won World War II without it.’ Reporter Ernie Pyle summed up the MB’s ample functionality as, ‘It did everything. It went everywhere. Was as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, as agile as a goat.’”
By war’s end, Willys-Overland had supplied 640,000 Model MBs at a cost of less than $800 each to every branch of the military.
The story could have ended there, but Tribune Newspapers reporter Casey Williams says that “Willys-Overland wasted no time rolling out a ‘Civilian Jeep’ in 1945” that had a four-cylinder engine and solid axles, but “was dressed with brighter colors and nicer seats for the mass market.”
The Civilian Jeep—or CJ model—survived until 1987, when it was replaced by the Wrangler. By then, Jeep’s ownership had passed from Willys-Overland to Kaiser, Kenosha-based American Motors and, finally, the Chrysler Corp.
Jeep made some strides during the AMC years, according to FourWheelerNetwork.com writer Jim Allen, including introducing an offshoot of the CJ in 1971. The Renegade II, Allen says, featured a closed rear body with a swing-away tire carrier, a rear seat, V-6 engine, limited-slip rear differential, roll bar, alloy wheels and body paint that came and body paint that came in “lurid” colors, including Mint Green, Baja Yellow and Big Bad Orange.
Furthermore, Allen says, AMC made the CJ bigger and gave it more power. “The AMC 304ci V-8 in the ’72 CJs was a big deal, making it one of only two short-wheelbase 4x4s available with a V-8. The new 304 made 150 hp and 245 lb-ft of torque,” which was more than its main competitors.
In an odd twist, 4WD.com’s Bantam credits another Wisconsin carmaker with laying the groundwork for Jeep’s success. The first four-wheel-drive vehicles appeared in 1903, but in 1913, the Thomas B. Jeffery Co. of Kenosha, famous for Rambler automobiles, launched the Jeffrey Quad, a 4×4 designed for military use.
The Quad’s off-roading ability made it a battlefield fixture for the Allies during World War I. But while the Quad “could perform off the road like no other vehicle,” it was too “massive, conspicuous and slow” to do the job that the Jeep eventually handled so well.
Tradition is important to devoted Jeep owners. For example, Jeep’s look, though updated over the years, has retained characteristics unique to the brand. “You can recognize that a vehicle’s a Jeep by the seven slots in the grille,” Dziak said. “No other car has that.”
Rivera added that current details like the X pattern on the 2016 Renegade’s taillights harken back to the gas cap on the original World War II Willys-Overland MBs. “That kind of thing really appeals to millennials,” he said.
Finally, Baake said, Jeeps continue to instill patriotic sentiments.
“That history, that hint of patriotism is there,” he said. “That appeals to everyone.”
Other ADAMM-member Jeep dealers include WILDE Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram Subaru, Waukesha; SCHMIT BROS. Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, Saukville; RUSS DARROW Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram of West Bend; RUSS DARROW Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram of Milwaukee; PALMEN Dodge Chrysler Jeep of Racine; PALMEN Motors, Kenosha; LYNCH Chrysler Jeep Dodge, East Troy; FRANK BOUCHER Chrysler Dodge Jeep VW, Janesville; EWALD Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram, Franklin; EWALD Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram Oconomowoc; and 5 CORNERS Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram, Cedarburg.