It all began back in WWII, when the U.S. Army challenged manufacturers to come up with a purpose-built all-terrain vehicle that was fast and light enough for reconnaissance missions.
Although several prototypes were submitted for consideration, only one company met all of the army’s requirements: Willys Overland. So great was the demand for the new vehicles, that Willys allowed the Ford Motor Company to use their specs – manufacturing several hundred thousand extra vehicles to help fill the need.
Thus, the army’s so-named “general purpose vehicle” was reduced to G.P., and eventually became affectionately known as “jeep” and quickly grew to symbolize the Allied Force’s role in bringing about peace, carrying military commanders, helping to establish communication lines, and transporting wounded from the front lines.
Realizing that the jeep’s popularity could carry over into the marketplace in peacetime, Willys introduced the first civilian Jeep in 1944, and thus, the CJ was born.
Since then, Jeep has established a reputation as the toughest off-roader ever produced, adopted by the adventurous who choose to live their lives off the beaten path.
Through seven generations and three corporate ownerships, the CJ remained basically the same vehicle until 1986, when it was replaced by the Wrangler.
My tester this week, a Wrangler Sport, embodies the Jeep spirit in its purest form. Devoid of all the luxurious niceties we’ve come to expect in even our most utilitarian vehicles, it has neither navigation nor back-up camera, no heated seats, no power door locks, and the windows are strictly roll-your-own. Forgoing the useful, yet blasphemous addition of rear doors, it’s a classic two-door configuration.
And yet, primitive though its level of creature comforts may be – the Jeep Wrangler is at the top of some people’s “most coveted vehicle” list.
While the phrase “It’s a Jeep thing” has long been part of the automotive lexicon, I never really grasped the full extent of its meaning until fairly recently. Invited by Jeep USA on a three-day trek across the top of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, I realized for the first time, that “Jeep” could be used as a verb.
Thirteen thousand feet above sea level, after clambering over boulders the size of Volkswagens, clinging to old mining roads and inching our way up sheer sandstone rock cuts – I became a believer.
So it was with great delight that I collected the keys to this week’s tester, despite knowing it would be a noisy, primitive week of deep fuel consumption.
Within minutes of setting out on the road in my bright red Wrangler, I received the first of what would be many waves from others in the fraternity. It’s part of the mystique of Jeep ownership, that acknowledgement of solidarity.
2014 Jeep Wrangler Sport, dashboard. Click image to enlarge
Mechanically, my Wrangler is light years evolved from that 1944 Willys CJ, yet Jeep has managed to preserve the integrity of its original design remarkably well.
Square and chunky, and about as aerodynamic as a chest freezer, the Wrangler is riveted together from flat sheet metal with exposed hinges. The upright windshield folds down out of the way, and top, fenders and doors can all be removed for warm weather bushwhacking or dune crawling.
While the interior has been updated significantly from the previous generation’s dour, plastic wasteland – it’s still comprised of rugged materials hewn into upright planes. But they’ve been massaged into more stylish shapes made brighter by chrome trim, and there are now soft-touch surfaces on most of the contact areas.