JEEP: EIGHT DECADES FROM WILLYS TO WRANGLER
JEEPERS AND THEIR CREEPERS
I was there, near the dealership’s parts department, picking up the plates for our new Jeep. After 17 years with an ’06 Grand Cherokee Limited 4X4 Hemi, my wife Tina believed it was time to upgrade, getting both a new design and significantly better efficiency. So while keeping the ’06 for the foreseeable future, our driveway is now graced with an all-new Grand Cherokee 4xe, the plug-in variant of the GC recipe. Its 26 miles (or so) of all-electric driving will get our grandson to his elementary school using only EV, and while the return trip is gas-powered, the result gives us around 30 miles per gallon combined; that beats-the-hell out of the 13 (or so) we get in the ’06.
This, of course, is a roundabout way of referencing what I found in that parts department, other than the plates. It was a softcover edition of Patrick R. Foster’s JEEP: EIGHT DECADES FROM WILLYS TO WRANGLER, a comprehensive overview of Jeep’s history, from its pre-WWII origins to the gentrified lineup you now see in Jeep showrooms. This is a history that precedes both Porsche and Ferrari – hell, it even precedes Tesla! And given its military service, the transition to civilian sales, and – much more recently – Jeep’s proliferation in upscale ‘burbs with nothing more offroad than the occasional pothole, there’s far more going on here than those other histories. Ferrari director Michael Mann should take a look.
As you’d guess, Mr. Foster begins with the Origin Story, which precedes World War II by roughly 18 months. It was in the summer of 1940 that a visit to small carmaker Bantam confirmed the military’s very real interest in a do-it-all reconnaissance vehicle, capable of carrying men to the front and – when hitting reverse – injured soldiers to the rear. Bantam, Willys and Ford provided proposals attempting to match the Army’s requirements, and – to make a long story less long – Willys and Ford received production contracts, while Bantam was consigned to making trailers for the Jeep, along with other military hardware. That’s despite the fact that the Jeep, as we now know it, was essentially a Bantam design, with Willys and (later) Ford incorporating its key design elements in what they would eventually offer to the Army.
As you’d know if only occasionally lifting your head from your cellphone, Jeep and its Willys parent successfully made the transition from foreign wars to America’s Back 40. Initially marketed to farmers and sportsmen, what went from its MA (military) designation to the civilian CJ-2 was perfect for both getting around the farm and, with its 4WD and power takeoffs, working the farm. With that success Willys was able to get its postwar mojo moving with consumer derivatives, including the first all-steel station wagon and its delivery vehicle stablemate. Immediately behind those intros was the Jeepster, a 2-door 4-seat convertible designed to fully tap the postwar economic boom – and the era’s social optimism.
Along with product profiles, including – but not limited to – the Cherokee, Grand Cherokee and the company’s ongoing (albeit intermittent) flirtation with pickups are the corporate moves, beginning with the merger of Willys and Kaiser, Chrysler’s purchase of AMC from Renault, and Chrysler’s later alliance with Daimler-Benz.
If you know little about Jeep beyond the CJ, later Wrangler and Grand Cherokee, you’ll be amazed by the number of all-new platforms and variants within Jeep’s 80+ years of history. Mr. Foster provides an almost conversational read, one that’s both interesting in its details and nostalgic in their retelling. I clearly remember seeing Tom McCahill’s review of the all-new Wagoneer in the early ‘60s for Mechanix Illustrated, as well as having a Jeep Surrey – from toymaker Tonka – in our kids’ automotive ‘stable’.
The 2023 Grand Cherokee 4xe is our third GC, beginning with a new ’98, which led to the ’06. And it’s our 4th Jeep; the purchase of a new ’87 Cherokee was our first. It’s an easy brand to like, and a rewarding vehicle – in any of its many iterations – to own. And if Jeep would ever build a 2-door Gladiator…I might just own another one.
The book, JEEP: EIGHT DECADES FROM WILLYS TO WRANGLER, is available from Quarto Publishing, your local bookseller or (perhaps) your local Jeep dealer. Quarto generously provided a review copy. And that’s good, ‘cause after purchasing the new Jeep…we’re out of money.