What to read while in quarantine

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(March 25, 2020) As we sit in our self-isolation brought on by COVID-19, the isolation and boredom makes it possible, if not necessary, to catch up on tasks we’ve let slide. It also increases the need for entertainment that is far removed from 24-hour news channels, Facebook, and the often insidious effects that come with our electronic tethers.

For longer than I would like to admit, I have had a copy of Patrick R. Foster’s Jeep: Eight Decades From Willys to Wrangler sitting on my desk. I requested a copy form Motorbooks because of my first years in the automotive journalist business. Back then, I was starting out at AutoWeek, and curious as to why our readers — high-income individuals, to use the marketing speak of the time — invariably had a Jeep Wagoneer in their considerable stable of vehicles.

The Wagoneer was a four-door wagon that replaced the Willys Jeep station wagon in 1963. That vehicle hit the market as a 1946 model and was the first all-steel family station wagon. Ex-Ford executive Charles “Cast-Iron Charlie” Sorensen had been brought in during 1944 as president of Willys-Overland Motors to help the company move from military to civilian production. He canceled the company’s car programs, and set the company’s contract designer, Brooks Stevens, the task of creating new vehicles on the Jeep chassis, but built using stamping presses from the appliance industry as body companies like Murray, Briggs and Budd had no interest in working with small fry like Willys.

Stevens created a number of vehicles based on a common platform and sharing a common look — and many parts — with the wartime Jeep. This was the car that the Wagoneer was created to replace nearly 20 years after its design was committed to paper. Like its predecessor, the Wagoneer — now in Grand Wagoneer form — would remain in production until it was dropped in 1994 for lack of sales. It finally had been usurped by the Grand Cherokee; a vehicle that owed its existence to the Jeep XJ Cherokee and Wagoneer that launched in 1984 when American Motors owned the brand.

Longevity, as Foster shows, is a hallmark of Jeep. It arose out of a military planning document that sought to end the army’s reliance on horses and mules to transport equipment in theater, and morphed into a multi-purpose reconnaissance and command car also able to haul men and equipment long distances while being sturdy enough to act as a platform for a machine gunner.

Foster expertly and succinctly takes the reader through the incredibly tough standards set by the military planners, the competition between American Bantam, Willys and — to a lesser extent — Ford to create this unique vehicle, and the incredible amount of work necessary to build it within an insanely short timeframe. This section alone is worth the price of admission, and leaves one wondering if we have the ingenuity and creativity to do something like this today.

During most of its existence, change was not a watchword for Jeep, in large part because its parent companies were not flush with cash. This meant that changes were often made on an as-needed basis, and limited to upgrades instead of new vehicles. This didn’t stop the creation of new concepts and designs (some very un-Jeeplike), including a pickup that used the front section of an AMC Hornet mated to a stub frame carrying a six-foot bed. This small pickup would have been called the Jeep Cowboy, and been powered by either an inline six or 360 cu.in. V8. High demand for AMC’s Hornet kept it from production, but it wasn’t the last new idea the company had by any means.

While partnered with Renault, AMC set Roy Lunn, head of Jeep Engineering, to work on a radical new line of vehicles. Launched in 1984 as the XJ series, the new Jeep Cherokee was a unit-body four-wheel-drive SUV that was 21 in. shorter, 1,200 lb. lighter, and no less capable than the full-size Cherokee and Wagoneer its successors eventually would replace. Jeep also mocked up a four-door sedan based on the XJ (which looked like it came from the Volvo family tree), a five-passenger minivan with four-wheel-drive, and perhaps the coolest Jeep to never reach production, the Jeep JJ.

Aimed at the market then being taken by storm by the likes of the Suzuki Samurai and Chevy’s Geo Tracker, the JJ was a handsome-bordering-on-cute small two-door SUV that placed a transverse front-drive powertrain longitudinally in the nose of the vehicle. Tha halfshafts that normally would drive the front wheels were replaced by driveshafts that sent power to the front and rear differentials. Unfortunately, a disagreement with Alain Clenet and ASHA Corporation over the unique drive system, and “mission creep” which expanded the JJ line to include a four-door model that would require substantial development that would have greatly increased the program’s cost, scuttled the project.

As the reader gets closer to the present, the book falls into a trap common to the genre: reciting the trim levels and prices, technical changes, and sales of the various models. The reason is simple: the lack of distance from the events makes it difficult to create the context necessary to put the near-present into an historical perspective.

Despite this, Foster has created a book well worth the time of Jeep aficionados and the generally curious alike. It’s the perfect respite from the doom and gloom of this year of quarantine, and well worth the price. It also makes you wish he’d tackle the Jeep JJ story next.