The Secret War of the Jeep Wrangler
Even under Italian ownership, Jeep is arguably the most American car company there is. It’s survived a World War, four owners, and 75 years of building trucks to handle some of the most rugged terrain on earth. From its humble beginnings as a builder of no-frills military vehicles, Jeep has endured more ups and downs than most automakers can claim, and today is in the midst of a massive global expansion, with exciting new models poised to make the automaker more popular than ever before. The jewel in Jeep’s crown is still the iconic Wrangler, the simple off-roader that can trace its lineage directly back to the original Willys MB, and the cornerstone for Jeep’s reputation of ruggedness and go-anywhere reliability.
But big changes for the Wrangler loom just over the horizon. The next-generation model is due in 2017, and radical new details about the truck have created a massive controversy within the company. Last October, Parent company Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles’ Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne shocked the automotive world by publicly casting doubt on whether the next-generation Wrangler will be built at the Jeep complex in Toledo, Ohio – the factory where the first Jeeps rolled off the assembly line in 1941. A decision to move away from the Toledo complex would be a major decision for the brand, and factory representatives and local politicians have recently stepped in to present FCA with an ambitious plan to keep the Wrangler in Toledo. At stake is the economy of an industrial city, and one of Jeeps last direct links to its storied past.
At the crux of the issue is the need for a thoroughly modern Wrangler. The last major redesign for the truck was in 2006, just before Chrysler plunged into financial trouble. Unlike the previous version, this new Wrangler had a larger body, a more civilized interior, and even a stretched four-door version. Despite these improvements, it was still a heavy, body-on-frame, solid-axle truck that made competitors like the Land Rover Defender feel downright luxurious. And as fuel economy standards are getting higher by the year, its 3.6 liter V6 gets a combined 18 miles per gallon – worse than Chrysler’s V8 powered 300 sedan.
Despite these shortcomings, Jeep has no trouble moving the trucks, with 235,904 built in 2014 alone. With strict new safety and fuel economy standards looming in the near future, Jeep needs to modernize the Wrangler if it wants to keep it in production, and the changes it has in store for the legendary truck are radical enough to rattle the Jeep faithful.
The 2018 Wrangler is shaping up to be the biggest departure for the truck in its three-decade history. Following the lead of the new Ford F-150, the new Wrangler is rumored to have an aluminum body for significant weight savings, a smaller engine (most likely a turbo-charged inline-four), an eight-speed automatic transmission, and a possible fully-independent suspension. The Wrangler’s solid axles are essential to the Jeep’s legendary off-road performance, and while an independent suspension would greatly improve road handling and fuel economy, it would rob the truck of its off-roading performance – a characteristic that Jeep has built its reputation on. Building the complex next-generation Wrangler would be such a departure from the old model that FCA chairman Marchionne has to publicly cast doubt on whether the Toledo, Ohio factory is up to the task. This is the latest saga for a factory that has weathered countless storms while consistently building Jeeps since before World War II.
The original Jeep was borne out of an open submission by the U.S. Army for a rugged four-wheel drive “General Purpose” vehicle at the as Europe plunged into war. After publicly unveiling their military truck by driving it up the steps of the Capitol Building, the struggling Willys-Overland company won the government contract and the Willys MB went into production at its Toledo, Ohio plant in early 1941. By 1943, Willys had realized that the Jeep’s wartime reputation could translate to post-war sales and trademarked the name. After the war, a slightly-modified Jeep was put into production, beginning the CJ, or Civilian Jeep series. While the CJ-Jeeps were a consistent seller, Willys struggled after the war, and was bought by Kaiser automobiles in 1953. This began a long history of brand being owned by a succession of struggling automakers.
Kaiser floundered and sold Jeep to American Motors in 1970. As the last independent American automaker, AMC was besieged by quality and financial issues before being absorbed by Chrysler in 1987 – which had recently emerged from near-bankruptcy a few years before. By then, the Jeep CJ-7 was nearing the end of its production run, and Jeep decided to give the truck its first major overhaul. The Wrangler was introduced shortly before Jeep was taken over by Chrysler, and was met with skepticism by the Jeep faithful until it proved it was as capable off road as the out-going CJs. While the Wrangler was seen as an almost too-modern interpretation of the Jeep when it was introduced in 1986, three decades of automotive advancements have made the traditional body-on-frame solid-axle Jeep feel old-fashioned. The next-generation Wrangler needs to be modernized, and officials in Toledo are trying to prove that they’re the best place to build it.
Toledo’s assembly lines have been churning out open-top Jeeps consistently since 1941, and they aren’t willing give up on the Wrangler. After sinking over $500 million into the Toledo plant before the new Jeep Cherokee launched in 2013, FCA has no plans to shutter the iconic factory, which employs 4,938 workers and has and has been producing cars since 1910. Still, losing the Wrangler would put 1,700 jobs directly in jeopardy, and plant officials fear that additional jobs would be lost as the factory shifts production to another FCA product. While Marchionne remains undecided on the Wrangler’s production future, the City of Toledo has presented FCA with an ambitious and lucrative incentive plan to keep the iconic Jeeps rolling out of their plant.
The plan calls for doubling the size of the Wrangler’s assembly line to nearly 3 million square feet. This would increase the plant’s production capabilities to over 350,000 vehicles a year – a figure well within Marchionne’s global sales goals for the truck. On top of the increased capacity, there’s also a development plan to secure an extra 100 acres for the plant, as well as an undisclosed sum in cash incentives. Toledo officials presented it to FCA last month, and so far, the company’s response has been encouraging. Talking about the Wrangler’s future at the 2015 Automotive News World Congress, Marchionne said that he had reviewed the plan, and “I’m going to spend a lot more time with our team, with the governor and the mayor of Toledo. And if I can find a way to make it happen, I’d like to keep it there.”
Despite the initial positive reception, there is still a long way to go before FCA decides the Wrangler’s fate. Toledo officials suffered a tragic loss when mayor Michael Collins died suddenly earlier this month. Collins had been instrumental in brokering talks with FCA, and his loss is a significant setback for the city. Marchionne has said that the only way the Wrangler will stay in Toledo is if the costs of retooling are less than shifting production to another plant, so the issue is now in the hands of FCA’s number crunchers.
This conflict has caught the public’s attention because it isn’t just a simple labor dispute. A city’s economic security and a brand’s origins are at stake. When Jeep’s Toledo factory began producing rugged little trucks for the Army nearly 75 years ago, war loomed on the horizon, television was in its infancy, and most cars still had running boards. Today, the factory’s fate is in the hands of a multi-national corporation looking to expand in a competitive global marketplace. The fact that Jeeps have rolled out of the same plant for eight tumultuous decades is a feat nearly unheard of in the automotive world. The Wrangler is a major part of Toledo’s civic identity, the Jeep complex is essential to their economy – and they won’t lose it without a fight. Wherever the next-generation Wrangler is built, it’ll be an important step for the Jeep brand, and the city of Toledo hopes that its illustrious past will keep it a part of the Wrangler’s future.
Check out Autos Cheat Sheet on Facebook