Jeep may be one of the most iconic automotive brands, but it was built on the backs of a series of failed corporate owners. Like some kind of cursed idol, Jeep has passed from automaker to automaker, leaving a trail of dead companies in its wake. Even its current steward, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, is now showing signs of instability.
Jeep was born out of the Army’s need for a vehicle that could replace both the horse and the motorcycle as a general-purpose transportation device. In fact, one of the popular theories on the origin of the Jeep name posits that it comes from an acronym for “general purpose:” GP. Others point to Eugene the Jeep, a character from the Popeye comic strip. Wherever it came from, the name stuck.
The vehicle that name stuck to was originally designed by the American Bantam Car Company of Butler, Pennsylvania. American Bantam started out making licensed copies of British Austin small cars. By 1940, when the government began a bidding process for a small, four-wheel drive military vehicle, the company was down on its luck.
American Bantam cobbled together a prototype that exceeded the Army’s design parameters. But the Army was concerned about the tiny automaker’s ability to build the quantity of vehicles it needed, so it contracted Willys Overland and, later, Ford, to build what became the Jeep.
Ford literally tried to put its own stamp on the Jeep design by branding as many parts as it could with an “F,” to differentiate the Jeeps it made from those made by Willys. But after the war, it was Willys that tried to give the Jeep a second life as a civilian.
Willys converted its military Jeep—known as the MB—into the CJ-2A. “CJ” stood for “Civilian Jeep,” and Willys would continue producing these repurposed military vehicles in several distinct generations for roughly four decades. The CJ was eventually replaced by the Wrangler, which continues to fill a similar niche today.
Jeep was born out of the Army’s need for a vehicle that could replace both the horse and the motorcycle as a general-purpose transportation device.
Willys didn’t stop there, though. It sought to create an entire lineup of Jeep vehicles, marking the beginning of Jeep’s transition into a standalone brand. It rolled out some eye-catching designs, including a Jeep station wagon in 1946, a Jeep pickup truck in 1947, and the Jeepster, a small convertible designed to look more like a conventional car. The concept of more car-like Jeeps would be revisited again decades later in the form of Jeep’s first crossovers.
But just as the original Jeep left American Bantam behind, the Jeep brand proved more resilient than its parent. In 1953, Willys was bought by Kaiser, which responsible for another important World War II vehicle—the Liberty Ship. Kaiser jumped into the car business after the war. It dropped the Willys name altogether in 1963, becoming Kaiser-Jeep. That same year, Jeep introduced the Wagoneer, a more civilized alternative to the CJ. With its fully enclosed, station wagon-like body, the Wagoneer was one of the earliest forerunners of the modern family SUV.
AMC and Chrysler
In 1969, Kaiser-Jeep was bought by AMC. While the Jeep brand grew significantly under AMC’s tenure, the rest of the Wisconsin-based automaker’s lineup slowly withered away. Even a partnership with Renault ultimately couldn’t save AMC (the hateful Renault-based AMC Alliance probably didn’t help matters). In 1987, the company was bought by Chrysler, which was mostly interested in Jeep.
The 1980s saw the introduced of two significant Jeep models. The first was the XJ-generation Cherokee, which came along in 1984. The XJ was Jeep’s first truly modern SUV, and helped push the brand even further into the mainstream. The XJ remained in production with some alterations until 2001, when it was replaced by the Liberty.
The XJ was Jeep’s first truly modern SUV, and helped push the brand even further into the mainstream.
While Chrysler was preparing to take over, Jeep was preparing a replacement for its long-serving CJ. The off-roader that could trace its DNA directly to the World War II Willys MB was simply too crude for modern tastes. So Jeep introduced the first-generation Wrangler, the YJ.
Combining the look and off-road ability of the CJ with some modern amenities, the YJ looked like a good package. But Jeep purists initially dismissed it. They particularly disliked the YJ’s square headlights, which were replaced by more traditional round lights in subsequent generations. Ultimately, though, the Wrangler became a fixture of the Jeep lineup, and a fourth-generation version is expected to debut soon.
SUV boom and bust
Jeep was a smart acquisition for Chrysler. The 1990s saw an explosion of interest in SUVs, and Jeep was ready to take advantage of the public’s enthusiasm. It introduced the first-generation Grand Cherokee in 1992, giving Jeep a proper premium model. But as the 1990s drew to a close, things started to unravel.
Chrysler merged with Daimler AG in 1998, and began to focus more intensely on trucks and SUVs at the expense of fuel economy and overall quality. Jeep’s first car-based crossovers—the Compass and Patriot—were universally panned, while the massive Commander became a white elephant once the 2008 recession hit and gas prices started to spike. In the midst of all of this, Jeep introduced the first-generation Grand Cherokee SRT, a hot rod that totally ignored off-road capability in favor of on-road performance.
The 1990s saw an explosion of interest in SUVs, and Jeep was ready to take advantage of the public’s enthusiasm.
After it was cut loose by Daimler and crippled by the recession, Chrysler entered bankruptcy. But instead of fully collapsing, it was bought by Fiat to form what is now known as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles—FCA. The new owners made some controversial decisions, including bringing back the Cherokee as a crossover, and introducing the pint-sized Renegade. At the 2017 New York Auto Show, Jeep also unleashed the 707-horsepower Grand Cherokee Trackhawk—a vehicle the designers at American Bantam probably couldn’t have imagined.
Jeep sales are strong and the automaker boasts an extensive lineup of models, but history could very well repeat itself. While Jeep is doing well, many of FCA’s car-focused brands are not, leading to some questions about the Italian-American automaker’s long-term viability.
Whether it’s Nazis or the shifting tides of business fortune, nothing has stopped Jeep yet. Regardless of what the future holds, Jeep will keep rolling on.