To understand America’s Jeep obsession, you’ve gotta get muddy

For more than 75 years, Americans have been in love with Jeeps. Even as the SUV has been developed into a fast, great-handling, and luxurious segment of the vehicle market, the basic Jeep MB/CJ/Wrangler has remained more or less unchanged. In truth, if Jeep ever did change the basic formula, they would risk destroying the cult appeal of the vehicle. So what is it about Jeeps that has captured the imagination of millions over the decades? Why do people continue to buy these Spartan four-Wheel-Drive boxes on wheels?

“I think everybody wants to own a Jeep at some point in their life,” says Pearse Umlauf, President of Jeep Jamboree. “And by Jeep I don’t mean a Cherokee or a Grand Cherokee or a Patriot or something like that. I mean one that’s descended from the original army Jeeps.”

Born during wartime

We covered the ongoing history of Jeep in our in-depth feature, but here’s a bit of a primer. Back in 1941, everyone knew the United States would be drawn into World War II. It was just a matter of time. The United States military knew they would need a new kind of vehicle to fight the war, so they put out a call to automakers to develop and propose a new lightweight “small truck” designed to carry four men, or stretchers, or a little bit of cargo.

Everybody wants to own an original army Jeep at some point.

Companies including Ford, Willys, and American Bantam competed for the contract to produce the new “General Purpose” or GP vehicle. The word Jeep is a sounding out of GP, although the name also derived from a character called “Eugene the Jeep” in Popeye comics.

The Willys design won the contract, although more Jeeps were produced by Ford than by Willys during the war years. In battles from the Pacific to the Russian front, the hardy and capable Jeep won admiration from U.S. servicemen, and hundreds of thousands were abandoned around the world at the end of the war.

Success on the home front

At the end of the war, the Willys-Overland company decided to keep on making Jeeps. The “CJ” name stands for “Civilian Jeep” and the new models were essentially identical to the military Jeeps that returning soldiers already knew how to drive.

For 10 years, the Jeep didn’t change much, until the advent of the CJ-5 in 1954. Willys updated the bodywork slightly, changed a few mechanical parts, and made the CJ-5 for 30 years through several changes in ownership. The CJ-7 was nearly identical, and was produced from 1976-1986.

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In 1987, Jeep (now owned by Chrysler) changed the name of the CJ to Wrangler, but kept most things about the same. The new Wrangler carried the engine and drivetrain from the related Jeep Cherokee SUV. Jeep aficionados call the 1987-1996 models by their code “YJ”, and the subsequent 1997-2006 models are known as “TJ.” In 2007, the basic Jeep model was the “JK” and the new four-door extended wheelbase version is a “JKU” or simply “Unlimited.”

Another revision of the Jeep is expected for the 2018 model year, but all indications are that the new model will be another evolution of the Jeep design, rather than a revolution. Those not steeped in Jeep history can be forgiven for overlooking the differences between all these models. A modern Jeep, for all the improvements in design and utility, is still a direct descendant of the wartime model.

Enduring appeal

It’s definitely the feeling of freedom and the ability to go anywhere and to do anything that you can think of.

So why do people love Jeeps enough to keep the line going for 76 years? In that time, pickup trucks and SUVs have developed so that the modern versions are barely recognizable compared to their ancestors. They’ve gotten much faster, better-handling, and far more luxurious than anything offered even 30 years ago. But while the Jeep has also evolved into a more comfortable and highway-friendly vehicle, you can still take the doors off and remove the hard or soft top and see the DNA of the 1940s.

“I think it’s definitely the feeling of freedom and the ability to go anywhere and to do anything that you can think of,” says Jeep enthusiast Matt Hull of Pennsylvania. “I have two Jeeps: a 1979 CJ-7 Renegade and a 1997 Jeep Wrangler Sport. I love both but my dad bought the CJ new from the showroom floor. It’s as much a member of the family as I am.”

Hull’s sentiment is echoed by Jeep lovers everywhere. “The appeal of a Jeep is the idea that there’s nowhere you couldn’t drive it,” says Kristin Coble. “It’s like driving a vacation with the top down and doors off. Total relaxation! And when the weather sucks, I never worry about getting from A to B. I always feel safe in my Jeep.”

(Off) road testing

In the last couple of months, I’ve had several opportunities to road-test, and off-road-test, Jeeps ranging from modern Jeep Wrangler Unlimiteds to a selection of vintage Jeeps back to the 1950s. It turns out that at 6 feet, I’m too tall to drive the original 1940s Jeep, because the driver’s seats were not adjustable in that era and they were built for the average soldier at about 5-foot-6.

The 1997 TJ series was the first to use front coil springs instead of leaf springs, and that gives modern Jeeps a big handling advantage compared to those that went before. The 2007 JK extended the basic wheelbase by 2 inches and gave the Jeep 3.5 inches more track, better shocks, and a stiffer frame. Electric locking differentials also came in at that time.

Rugged Ridge/Youtube

There’s no denying that the latest Wrangler Unlimited is an impressive machine. The substantially longer wheelbase gives the Unlimited better highway manners than previous generations. You get all the benefits of a modern transfer case and both front and rear locking differentials, and a completely modern Pentastar V6 engine rated at 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque.

Most modern Jeep owners never torture-test their Wranglers, but as the enthusiasts say it’s important to know that you can do it if you choose. In two separate off-road events in Georgia and Virginia, I put the latest Wrangler Unlimited through terrain I believed impassable when I first saw it. The Jeeps just ate up everything I could throw at them, from mud and deep water to scrambling over rocks or loose dirt on a hillside that might as well have been called a cliff.

Two kinds of Jeeps

It’s a common saying that there are two kinds of Jeeps: Those on the showroom floor and those that have been modified.

Jeeps have spawned the biggest aftermarket of any vehicle in the world. In part, that’s because they’re so easy to modify.

There’s a lot of truth to that, and Jeeps have spawned the biggest aftermarket of any vehicle in the world. In part, that’s because they’re so easy to modify. Even fenders and doors are easy to replace, so there’s really no limit to what you can bolt onto a Jeep.

I recently attended part of the Jeep Heritage Expo at Omix-ADA in Atlanta and toured the warehouse where they keep over 15,000 separate replacement parts for Jeeps all the way back to 1941, as well as an impressive collection of classic Jeeps.

The Rugged Ridge division of Omix-ADA alone has over 3,000 aftermarket modification parts for the Jeep market, and adds several hundred new products each year. Many of the aftermarket parts are patented, and Omix-ADA supplies a tremendous number of outlets with parts and accessories.

Preserving Jeep heritage

The purpose of a Jeep is to go off-road, and the entire aftermarket is built around that goal. But each year, locations and opportunities for off-road driving diminish. To preserve those opportunities, Omix-ADA owner Al Azadi has established a foundation to help Jeep clubs maintain trails and access to off-road areas.

“Al and his foundation have given over $250,000, and over $100,000 just in the last couple years,” says Henk Van Dongen, Director of Marketing at Omix-ADA. “We’ve set aside $50,000 a year for the last three years to help preserve trail access.”

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Anywhere in the United States and around the developed world, you’ll find Jeep clubs pitching in to maintain trails and keep off-road areas clean and undamaged. Virtually every club includes a code of conduct to help prevent erosion and damage to the wilderness areas that remain accessible by 4WD vehicles.

Among the leading promoters of off-road Jeep driving is the Jeep Jamboree. Jamboree events are held in remote locations with challenging terrain, and Jeep owners sign up to drive into the event with support along the way.

“We put 7,000 Jeep owners through the Jeep Jamboree program on an annual basis,” Umlauf says. “I think there’s a sense of not only accomplishment of what the vehicle can do, but it pushes people beyond their limitations. We see it all the time at Jamborees, where they have that Jeep experience. There’s an obstacle and they’re coming in saying, look, I can’t do this. I can’t do the trail, guys. We tell them, you can do it. Just trust the vehicle. And they get through that obstacle and you watch the look on their face. I mean, they are a changed person.”