From battlefields to suburban driveways, this is the history of Jeep

Jeep is one of the most patriotic carmakers in the United States. Born to fight, the original Jeep was developed solely to help America win World War II, and it became an icon almost by accident. Civilian sales started shortly after peace returned, but keeping the brand alive — let alone profitable — was extremely difficult. Like some kind of cursed idol, Jeep has passed from automaker to automaker, leaving a trail of dead companies in its wake.

The beginning

Willys MB Jeep
Willys MB ‘Jeep’

Jeep was born out of the American Army’s need for a vehicle that could replace both the horse and the motorcycle as a general-purpose form of transportation. In fact, one of the popular theories about the origin of the Jeep name posits that it comes from GP, an acronym for general purpose. Others point to Eugene the Jeep, a character from the Popeye comic strip. Wherever it came from, the name stuck.

The off-roader was developed by the American Bantam Car Company of Butler, Pennsylvania. It started out making licensed copies of British-built Austin 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. 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. After the war, it was Willys that retained the rights to the design and tried to give the Jeep a second life as a civilian.

Civilian life

Jeep CJ-2A
Jeep CJ-2A

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 the long-lived Station Wagon in 1946, a pickup 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.

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 was 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

1984 Jeep Cherokee Chief
1984 Jeep Cherokee Chief (XJ)

In 1969, the American Motors Corporation (AMC) purchased Kaiser to facilitate its exit from the automotive industry. While the Jeep brand grew significantly under AMC’s tenure, the rest of the Wisconsin-based automaker’s lineup slowly withered away, due largely to a lack of foresight, deep-rooted financial troubles, and quality issues. Even a partnership with Paris-based Renault ultimately couldn’t save AMC, so Chrysler purchased it in 1987 and closed it shortly after. In hindsight, all Chrysler wanted was Jeep’s name, image, cars, and intellectual property.

The 1980s saw the introduction 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 silently preparing to take over, Jeep was putting the final touches on a replacement for its long-serving CJ, which had spawned numerous variants since its introduction. The off-roader that traced its DNA directly to the World War II-era Willys was simply too crude for modern tastes, so Jeep started from scratch when developing its successor, the original Wrangler (YJ). It was more refined than its predecessor, but it remained extremely capable off-road. Users could still take the doors off, remove the top, and fold down the windshield.

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. It’s in its fourth generation as of July 2020.

SUV boom and bust

1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee
1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee (ZJ)

Jeep was a smart acquisition for Chrysler. The 1990s saw an explosion of interest in SUVs, and Jeep was ready to leverage its expertise and take advantage of the public’s enthusiasm. It introduced the first Grand Cherokee in 1992 to replace the decades-old Grand Wagoneer. 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 the 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 seriously quick 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. 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 left the pickup segment after it ended production of the XJ-based Comanche in 1992. It made a long-awaited comeback when it released the Gladiator, a truck based on the fourth-generation Wrangler, at the 2018 Los Angeles auto show. The model is offered exclusively with four doors, and it’s available with a diverse selection of engines that includes a turbodiesel V6. Jeep sells close to a million cars annually, and we expect it will continue to grow.

What’s next?

Jeep Wrangler 4xe
Ronan Glon

Looking ahead, Jeep will introduce the next-generation Grand Cherokee before the end of 2020. It will also resurrect the Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer emblems on a pair of SUVs built on the same basic platform as the Ram 1500. The Wrangler is getting a long list of updates, too. On the one hand, it’s about to receive a plug-in hybrid powertrain that will allow it to drive on electricity alone for short distances. On the other hand, it’s getting a naturally-aspirated, 6.4-liter V8 tuned to send 450 hp to the four wheels. Clearly, Jeep still knows how to surprise its fans.

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