Most people would consider the most recent generation of the Wrangler to be the quintessential Jeep. But how did we get to this point? What history went into designing this most perfect Wrangler?
In order to appreciate and understand the Jeep Wrangler we have today, you have to understand the roots of Jeep and where the vehicle came from. What chain of events over the last 60+ years transpired to give us the Jeep we know and love? It all started like most great inventions, out of necessity.
When The US Army wanted to replace their aging fleet of light motor vehicles, which at the time consisted of motorcycles with sidecars, they reached out to 135 companies to design them what they needed. Because of the very short time line and tight specification requirements only 3 companies responded to the request, American Bantam Car Company, Willy-Overland Motors and Ford Motor Company. The time line put in place by the Army was gave the manufacturers just 49 days to produce a prototype and 75 days to deliver a fleet of 70 test vehicles. The new vehicle also needed to be 4wd, hold a crew of 3, have a wheelbase less than 75 inches, a track no wider than 47 inches, a fold-down windshield, payload capacity of 660 lbs, have at least 85 ft-ls of torque and weigh no more than 1,300 lbs empty. This would prove to be a challenge.
American Bantam Car Company was the only of the 3 builders to get their prototype to the Army in the time allotted. What would soon be referred to as the WWII US Army Jeep was delivered to Camp Holabird, MD for testing on Sept. 23 1940. Shortly after, the Army determined that the Bantam didn’t have the ability to produce the number of vehicles they would demand, or the financial stability to be the winning bidder, so Willys and Ford were asked to complete their prototypes and submit their vehicles to be tested against each other to determine a winner.
The Army passed along the blueprints of Bantam’s design to the other manufacturers which caused all 3 designs to end up very similar. Since the Army was under heavy pressure to choose a new vehicle they ended up placing orders of 1,500 vehicles with each of the companies. At the same time the unrealistic weight limit of 1,300 lbs was lifted and the production vehicles were permitted to be 2,160 lbs. Soon after the Army decided to standardize production and chose Willys to be the sole producer, since their vehicle had a more powerful engine and lower cost than the others. At that time Willys took the best of the all three designs and produced the Willys MB. When it became apparent that they couldn’t keep up with demand, Ford was asked to go into production as well building the same vehicle that they called the GPW.
After the war Willys continued producing the MB with minor changes for civilian life and they called it the CJ, which stood for civilian Jeep. This was the first mass produced 4×4 vehicle in the US. After many iterations of the CJ including multiple special additions and body style changes, AMC who now owned the Jeep brand released the YJ in 1987. The YJ was designed with more on-road comfort in mind in an effort to boost sales. Of course Jeep purists were none-to-happy about the square headlights and other changes, but ultimately the YJ was accepted in the Jeep community and sold well until the introduction of the TJ. The new generation saw the return of the CJ style round headlights, but a departure from the rougher riding leaf spring suspension in favor of a more comfortable coil spring suspension. Comfort and on road improvements were always the theme of the generational upgrades, while keeping the off-road capability that made Jeep so famous a close second. The current generation was launched in 2007 and is named the JK. The new Wrangler was offered in a 2 door and 4 door body style for the first time in an effort to appeal to a new type of Jeep owner. The Wrangler JK arguably added more on-road function and comfort features than any refresh before. From a completely restyled interior to stability control, additional airbags, remote keyless entry, navigation and satellite radio, the Wrangler was completely redesigned. These features made the Jeep Wrangler a viable option for drivers who never gave Jeep a second look in the past.
While the Wrangler has a come a very long way since the first test vehicles came off the line in Bantam, Pa, it has always held fast to it’s heritage as the toughest 4WD vehicle produced today and the winner of wars. There will always be the argument of whether or not the current generation of the Jeep is “too sophisticated” to carry the Jeep name and future models will always receive scowls from purists and owners of earlier generations. However as long as Jeep holds the title of most capable off road production vehicle in the world, there can be no argument that Jeep remembers where it came from.