It may be a little bit lazy, but sometimes the best way to describe a car is as simple as just saying that it’s weird. Strange. Bizarre.
Whether it’s a funky bodystyle, some cheesy feature, or a kooky quirk, there have been tons of cars made over the decades that fall under my “weird” column. Sometimes being weird can be met with relative success. When a car’s eccentric style is labeled as “cute” it will be bound to hit a certain demographic, like the New Beetle back in the early 2000s. Sometimes a car’s styling can be a little too out-there and we’re stuck with big ugly messes like the Nissan Cube or Pontiac Aztek. It could be a weird engineering choice, who would have thought that the inherently flawed rear engine placement of the 911 would blossom into such a successful sportscar? There are just so many strange vehicles, but do you know which one I find to be the most weird? You probably see them every day, many of you might even own one, and most people just take it’s weirdness for granted, or have become desensitized to how weird they are because of how often they pop up around you. Of course, you’ve probably read the title, or at least noticed the pictures, so this isn’t exactly a plot twist but, the Jeep Wrangler is a really, really weird car.
You can start with just the name alone. Jeep. What does that mean? It’s probably someone’s last name, right? The person who invented the first Jeep was probably Charles Jeep or something, right? Actually, no. In truth, we don’t know exactly where “Jeep” came from. The most commonly accepted theory is that the original Willys was given the codename GP (for General Purpose) during military testing and that they simply just started pronouncing “GP” as “Jeep”. Another military-sourced theory is that “jeep” was a sort of old-timey slang word military men used to refer to vehicles that were in the testing phase before the transportation saw active duty, and for some reason the term “jeep” became associated to the Willys during WWII. Here’s the best theory though: Back in the 1930s, there was a recurring character in Popeye comic strips named Eugene the Jeep, who was some sort of… creature who had this mysterious power that let him traverse dimensions and climbs walls and ceilings as though he were weightless, and could quite literally go anywhere he wanted. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, the Jeep might have been named after Popeye’s freakish pet magical alien-dog-bear thing, and if that isn’t weird I’m not sure what is.
When your friend says, “Hey! Check out that Jeep!” and you look into the grocery store parking lot to see a Patriot, a Liberty, two Grand Cherokees, and a Wrangler sitting amongst the endless sea of other SUVs and crossovers, why is it that you automatically know they’re talking about the Wrangler? If your friend wanted you to look at the Patriot, A) you should probably start looking for new friends, and B) they probably would have said “Hey! Check out that Jeep Patriot!”
Why is it that a “Jeep”, 9 times out of 10, is going to be a Jeep Wrangler? I’ve even heard people go so far as to say that any Jeep that isn’t a Wrangler isn’t a “real” Jeep, whatever that means. As far as I’m aware, this is a unique occurrence, I can’t think of any other case where you could replace a vehicle’s model name with the name of it’s manufacturer in conversation and it would cause no confusion, all parties just default to assuming the conversation is about a Wrangler. As a matter of fact, I’ve even talked to people who legitimately did not realize that “Wrangler” was the vehicle’s name… and come to think of it, I can almost understand why; looking over a borrowed 2012 Jeep Wrangler, I failed to find a single badge on the exterior or interior that stated it was indeed a Wrangler. So not only does the name “Jeep” have an ambiguous history, it is also, for the most part, interchangeable with “Wrangler” in conversation. Compared to any other car for sale in 2016, that strikes me as odd.
So we’ve established that the Jeep Wrangler’s very name sets it apart from most other vehicles, but it goes even deeper than that. Having chassis codes isn’t exactly exclusive to the Jeep brand, but from the outside looking in I can understand why it’s easy to get confused. With a few exceptions, most notably the CJ (Civilian Jeep) there really hasn’t been any rhyme or reason to Jeep chassis codes. Sure, there’s the popular JKU which stands for JK Unlimited, but what does JK mean? TJ? YJ?
Before Chrysler took over in 1987, the general rule of thumb was that the code needed two letters, and one of them needed to be a J. The biggest exception to that rule was probably the FC, and the reason it was exempt was because it’s designation actually made sense (Forward Control, or Forward Cab, depending on who you ask) whereas the other codes were seemingly just a letter drawn from a hat and followed by a J. Things didn’t clear up after ‘87 either, with codes like WK2 and KK spitting on the sacred random-letter-plus-J formula. I like to think that the chassis codes are all a part of some long standing and ancient puzzle, whoever solves it gets access to a Hellcat-powered Renegade (whose chassis code is BU, which again makes total sense) or the Ark of the Covenant, or some other proverbial bringer of the end times. The hypothetical prize definitely won’t be something normal, this is Jeep we’re talking about.
So Jeep has a weird history and a weird name, so what? Lots of car companies do. The thing is, most of the other car companies grew out of their weird history. Much like your MySpace page from 2006, some car companies are even ashamed of their past and try to cover it up. Not Jeep. Jeep is that weird kid you went to highschool with, that kid who knew he was weird, but didn’t care because it meant he got more attention, and by the time you graduated high school you almost enjoyed seeing what kind of weirdness the kid would come up with every day, it eventually became normal to see him running around doing whatever it was weird kids did when you were in highschool. Jeep has being doing weird things for such a long time now. We don’t bat an eye at one when we see it driving down the highway without doors, and it makes perfect sense that the owners of these vehicles need to wave at each other every time they meet. It’s weird, and unless I’m going insane, which is a theory I would never discredit, it doesn’t seem like anyone ever wants to recognize just how strange Jeeps are.
Let’s start with how they look. Well, they’re a box. With wheels. They’ve carried the same basic design since the MB’s conception in 1941. People love to harp on the 911 for never spicing things up, but it’s almost never pointed out that Jeep has been doing the same thing for over two decades longer! But nope, it’s normal that they’ve kept the same design for 75 years, because Jeep. Sure, there’s the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” argument, and please let it be made clear that I am in no way complaining, it just strikes me as odd that nobody seems to care about Jeep using the same stencil since before your grandfather was born, yet there was an internet backlash when the sixth generation Camaro borrowed too many design features from the fifth generation. With two squares and two circles in Microsoft Paint, you can build something that’s just as instantly recognizable today as it would have been 20 years ago. And that’s not strange at all.
It’s perfectly acceptable to just remove half the body panels on your Jeep and drive it down the highway, and do you know why? Jeep. Jeep even encourages you to do this by making it incredibly easy, with the doors hanging on hinges not unlike ones you’d find on the door leading into your house, the door stop is a nylon rope and any electrical components such as power mirrors or windows can be disconnected with a quick pull of a plug. You can remove both doors, the roof, and the entire rear quarter of the Wranglers body with some basic hand tools (and maybe a buddy, if you’re rocking the hard top) in just minutes. Would it not be strange to see an open top, doorless Pontiac Grand Am going down the freeway? Then why is it so normal for a Jeep to be able to do that? The soft top equipped Wrangler is technically a convertible, and that doesn’t seem to phase anyone, but when Nissan unveiled its two door ragtop midsize SUV, the Murano Cross-cabriolet in 2011, it was regarded by many to be the biggest automotive disaster of the first half of the decade. It was branded an abomination for being an SUV with two doors, and for having a collapsible soft top roof, who would possibly want such a vehicle? It went on to sell terribly, living a short and miserable life.
Then there’s the whole Jeep cult-ture. You really don’t get to see this side of the fence until you’re behind the wheel of one, which I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing on multiple occasions. First off, is the famous “Jeep Wave” everyone always talks about. For those who aren’t aware, a Jeep Wave is what happens when two Wranglers (or another Jeep chosen from a small selection) meet one another on the road, and both parties are expected to give a cheerful wave. It doesn’t matter if one party is a tattooed up, 50 year old, shaved head Hell’s Angel’s’ type in a V8-swapped JK riding on 40 inch tires, and the other party is a teenage girl driving a bone stock TJ Sport, the Jeep wave is always to be sent and returned and it is considered insulting to not partake. The general camaraderie shared between Jeep owners, based off nothing more than the badge they wear, is both shocking and awe-inspiring. It’s encouraging to know that two people can have that sort of instant friendship based off of nothing more than an apparent shared interest. Just today I was sitting in a Jeep, waiting for traffic, looking for a break so I could jump in and join the flow. One minute goes by. Two. Five. There must have been an accident or something, I never did find out why, but the traffic was hectic and nobody wanted to let the guy sitting in the Wrangler out onto the road. Finally, another modified JK crawls along, sticking out like a sore thumb, and seemingly without giving any thought to it the driver slowed and flashed his lights, giving me room to join. I know with near one hundred percent certainty that if I was driving an Accord, it wouldn’t have been another Accord giving me the break, and if it was, it wouldn’t be because we were Accord bros. You just don’t seem to have those kinds of experiences in other vehicles. Again, not something I’m complaining about, but you have to admit that it’s pretty weird that such a community can be built off a vehicle.
That’s the bright and sunny side of the Jeep community, but you only really get to see that side of it if you’re driving a Wrangler, or a modified XJ, or some other Jeep that the community has collectively decided can wear the badge of being a “real” Jeep. This side of the community is obviously more prevalent in internet forums and such, but it still leaks out into the real world. You’ll see it every now and then, like when some poor unsuspecting Compass driver figures he’s “one of the boys” now, giving a big Jeep Wave to the first lifted JK he meets, he’s likely to get a big nothing in return. I’m just as guilty as anyone. I know I’ve already made some jabs at certain models in this piece, and I’ll probably continue to throw jabs at them in the future, and I’ve received those jabs from other people before too; A Jeep Liberty (KK) is what got me through college. You don’t typically see fans of the same brand at each other’s throats so aggressively over which model they happen to own, but Jeep is, once again, that strange little exception.
Do you know what Jeep guys hate even more than “lesser Jeeps”? Jeep guys hate Jeep the company. I know I’ve already brought this up, but it needs another mention because it is probably the strangest aspect of Jeep fanboy culture. Right now it’s pretty hip for Jeep guys to hate FCA. Every time a new model is announced, there’s an immediate wave of internet comments screeching about how the Italians are ruining Jeep, somehow forgetting that Fiat saved Chrysler from apparent doom.
A decade ago Jeep guys were complaining about how Mercedes was ruining the brand, and how the TJ-replacing JK was far too large to be any good at wheeling. Even before that you had Jeep guys complaining about how Chrysler was making Jeep too soft, pushing luxury models and marketing them towards families. Hell, if the internet existed in 1948 I’m sure people would have complained about the Willys Jeepster as well, an open top rear wheel drive car has no place under the Jeep name! Like any other manufacturer, Jeep is in the game to make money first and foremost, so adapting to the market or trying new things is to be expected, they’re actually normal in this regard; their diehard fanbase are the weird ones. Normal fans of any other manufacturer would be delighted to hear their favorite brand was profitable, or coming out with a new model, but Jeep fans just spit on the notion and demand everything rolls off the assembly line with two solid axles and a 20 year old inline six engine.
If you’ve never driven a Jeep Wrangler before, I highly recommend it. Actually driving the Wrangler is the weirdest thing about them. You notice all these little nuances that you might not notice if you’ve never been inside one, and how incredibly different they are from anything else on the market. Have you ever driven an old truck? Driving the JK almost feels like driving a half ton truck from the 80s that somehow snuck into the modern age, the proportions of the interior, while fairly modern in design, definitely draw just as much inspiration from the past as the exterior design does. The almost-vertical rock catcher of a window can still be folded down over the hood, the same as its forefathers, and is low enough to obstruct your view of traffic lights in certain intersections. The hood is held down with external latches, and has rubber bumpers in the middle of it to keep your windshield safe when it’s folded down. Due to the size of the windshield, it only has one windshield washer fluid nozzle, which is a weird thing to bring up, but I couldn’t think of a car that didn’t use two so it’s just another abnormality. If you were to lift up the carpet in a Wrangler, you would find holes with rubber plugs in them. Those are there so you can hose the mud out of your interior. Wait, why was your interior full of mud? Probably because you took off your doors before hurtling through that giant mud bog. I hope we can all appreciate the fact that Jeep’s solution to a problem presented by a weird feature was solved with another weird feature, rather than just giving up with non-removable doors.
Driving the Jeep Wrangler around feels wrong. It feels like a big toy, like one of those side-by-side ATVs. You can tell that, especially the regular two door model, is designed for fun over practicality, with its almost non-existent trunk and cramped rear seats (you can remove the seats for greater cargo space) it is not designed with family life in mind. They aren’t exactly comfortable either, with solid axles back and front, a short wheelbase, squishy suspension, and almost complete lack of sound deadening, it’s a little harrowing to drive one with any sort of enthusiasm and those issues are multiplied exponentially when popular modifications like suspension lifts and tires come into play. If it sounds like I’m complaining again, I’m not, I promise. All of these negatives become positives the second you leave the road, when you start playing in the dirt and crawling over rocks. The suspension helps with things like ground clearance, the solid axles provide “flex” and wheel articulation, the short wheelbase makes it so you can always have as many wheels on the ground as possible and coupled with the relatively compact size (the cause of the cramped interior) it will squeeze around other obstacles with ease. The lack of sound deadening doesn’t matter here, the best way to experience the great outdoors is take off your doors and roof and let the wilderness come to you! The Wrangler is truly the master of the trail and stands untouched in what it can be capable of. Not that others haven’t tried…
Some say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s the case, Jeep’s cheeks must be beet-red right now. If it wasn’t for Jeep, we may not have Land Rover today, which was created in the years shortly following WWII as a sort of British Jeep. The Japanese got their own Jeep in the 1950s when America contracted Toyota to build some new toys for the Korean War, and thus the Land Cruiser was born, which eventually spawned the FJ Cruiser line several years later. Ford jumped on the bandwagon in the mid 60s with the Bronco, followed closely by the K5 Blazer, both larger and more V8-like alternatives to the CJ. In the 1980’s people were starting to get a little sick of the now 40-year-old CJ, and the market became flooded with “Jap Jeeps” like the Mitsubishi Montero, Suzuki Samurai and Sidekick, and found reasonable success for a while. These days the Wrangler is almost completely unchallenged in the compact-mid size off road focused segment, it has dug a niche and is the reigning king of the castle, for now anyway.
Even the mighty Hummer finds its roots tangled up in Jeep and AMC lineage. AM General, the manufacturer of the Hummer, actually was Willys-Overland aka Jeep, it wasn’t until AMC bought the brand and made a separate division for military and government contracting reasons that they called themselves AM General. When Renault picked AMC up, AM General broke off and became an independent manufacturer because the American military didn’t want France to control the production of their Jeeps. So when Chrysler bought AMC in the 80’s they didn’t get Jeep’s military division, so the Humvee was developed separately from Jeep. So Hummer is more of a younger half brother living in a different State than a copycat. But the Hummer is still a descendant of great grandpa CJ, as is the Wrangler… kind of a weird family tree, isn’t it?
I would love to meet someone from a parallel universe, one where Ford obtained the rights to the name after WWII and let it fade away in the early 50s, a universe where they don’t have Jeeps the way we do, but have every other car we otherwise have. I want to see the look on their face when they find out that there’s this one vehicle that we call a Jeep Wrangler, when we tell them it’s a body-on-frame midsize SUV, it’s got two live axles, it’s got doors and a roof that you’re supposed to take off, they creak and rattle, and are incredibly uncomfortable and have few practical uses. That they have a cult following of rabid fans who simultaneously love and hate everything about the Wrangler, and tell them all about the weird history the brand itself endured. I just want to know what a complete outsider thinks of the Jeep Wrangler, because I think it’s incredibly weird, but nobody else ever really brings that up, and it’s making me question my sanity.