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Milestones: Jeep Turns 75




You’ve heard the saying: “It’s a Jeep thing.” There’s something special — and uniquely American — about the brand that traces its roots to the slab-sided, do-anything rigs that helped win World War II. That Jeep is now the most valuable and profitable brand for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is nothing short of astonishing, as is Jeep’s story over the last three quarters of a century. So, where does the Jeep name come from? Perhaps it was a slurred pronunciation of “GP” (G for government and P for 80-inch wheelbase passenger vehicles). It may have been pulled from Popeye’s weird “jungle pet,” Eugene the Jeep, or cribbed from a catchall phrase coined for incoming military test vehicles. No one’s quite sure. Whatever the origin, the name stuck, and the vehicle first known as the Willys MB became a Jeep when Willys-Overland registered the brand name in 1943.

Early Jeeps were essentially repainted MB models used as ranch runabouts, farming appliances, and exploration vehicles. The first major design change to the Willys CJ came in 1954 with the CJ-5, a model that continued until 1983 and embraced the brand’s growing subculture with special editions such as Renegade, Golden Eagle, and Tuxedo Park. By the time the CJ-7 rolled around in 1976, the open-topped four-wheeler was known as the most capable off-roader available on a showroom floor.

While the CJ and Wrangler set the bar for four-wheelin’, Jeep set a new standard of what large trucks and SUVs should be, with its upscale and luxurious Grand Wagoneer 4×4. It was followed by the smaller Cherokee and then the Grand Cherokee, which crashed onto the scene—literally; the brand-new SUV drove up the steps of Detroit’s Cobo Hall and burst through a massive pane of breakaway movie glass during its world premiere at the 1992 Detroit auto show. The Grand Cherokee became a runaway hit, selling more than1.6 million units in its first five years of production.

1940s Willys MB1940s Willys MB
Where it all began (1940s Willys MB): Designed to turn troops mobile, 
the most iconic Jeep was rugged, simple, reliable, and dead easy to fix.

As Americans began to gravitate toward SUVs without the off-roader drawbacks, Jeep reacted quickly to the trend, building its second-generation (XJ) Cherokee on a more compliant, unibody platform. It would later do the same for the Grand Cherokee as well as the smaller Liberty, Compass, and Patriot. But even as its vehicles started seeing far less of the rough stuff, Jeep maintained a Trail-Rated philosophy, making sure most of its lineup was capable in five key off-roading conditions: water fording, suspension articulation, maneuverability, ground clearance, and traction.

More recently, Jeep launched its Trailhawk variants in an effort to make its more pedestrian models even tougher. Jeep has also largely replaced its mechanical, low-tech four-wheel drive with cutting-edge electronic drivetrains that can be tailored to a selected terrain. Now even the pint-sized Renegade Trailhawk can keep up with the pack during Jeep’s annual Easter Safari through Utah’s famed Moab off-road paradise. All the while, the body-on-frame, solid-axle Wrangler has kept climbing rocks, slinging mud, and fording streams.

From military utility to off-road stalwart to broad-reaching consumer brand, Jeep has become a true American success story. Now there’s seemingly a Jeep for every taste, including the soon-to-arrive, supercharged version of the Grand Cherokee SRT with more than 700 horsepower. And with an all-new Wrangler, a long-awaited Jeep pickup, a three-row Grand Wagoneer, and replacement models for the aging Compass and Patriot all on the way, Jeep’s future appears as bright as its present.

 

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October 29, 2016