Handsome HERO

BY Peter Bleakney . Aug 12 04:00 am

Calabogie, ONT. — As far as recognizable nameplates go, Jeep is king. Utter that four-letter word in any corner of the globe and you can bet anyone within earshot will instantly conjure up the image of a rough-and-tumble, roofless 4x4 with a vertical grille, round headlights and old-timey front fenders. Probably green and slightly dented, too.

But for all its familiarity, the true origins of the Jeep moniker are lost in a 75-year-old mist. Some claim it came from slurring the letters GP, which stood for “General Purpose” or “Government Purposes.” Another camp believes it was named after Eugene the Jeep, Popeye’s weird comic strip jungle pet who straddled two dimensions and did magical things. There are also records of the word “jeep” being used by U.S. army mechanics to describe new, untested vehicles as far back as 1914.

Nonetheless, the Jeep legend was born in 1941 when the Willys MB started rolling out of a factory in Toledo, Ohio. With American involvement in the Second World War pending, the U.S. army sent out a call for a small, agile four-wheel-drive “light reconnaissance vehicle.” Three companies answered: American Bantam Car Manufacturing Company, Willys-Overland and Ford. Willys-Overland eventually won the contract, although elements from the Bantam prototype were incorporated into the final design, and we can thank Ford for contributing the iconic stamped-steel grille.

And here I am today at the wheel of a 1944 Willys MB Jeep, about to pilot what has been coined “America’s greatest contribution to modern warfare.” With an 80-inch wheelbase, it’s a wee little punter but it sure looks tough as nails. The 60-horsepower flathead four chugs to life, I push in the stiff clutch, slot the three-on-the-floor down and left into first gear (with a crunch), then proceed to roll ahead — and back in time.

At this Jeep 75th Anniversary event held by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, the 1944 MB is a charming relic that brings a smile to all who drive it. Between Willys-Overland and Ford (who built the MB under license), about 650,000 of these critters were produced, most leading a considerably more harsh existence than this pampered specimen from Chrysler’s museum in Auburn Hills, Mich.

If Jeep wanted us to experience the full span of the brand, it certainly picked its bookends well. Minutes after hopping out of the khaki 1944 Willys MB, I’m negotiating Calabogie Motorsports Park in a searing-red, $70,000 2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, bragging a 475-hp, 6.4-litre Hemi V-8, eight-speed paddle-shift auto, Brembo brakes and 20-inch wheels. The ventilated seats are cooling my derrière as this behemoth bellows around the technical road course in a surprisingly physics-defying manner. Yep, this is a Jeep, too.

But maybe the true essence of the brand lies somewhere in the middle. Earlier in the day, we joined a handful of members from the Eastern Ontario 4x4 Club, and they led our convoy of Jeeps (Cherokee, Renegade, Grand Cherokee Summit gas, Grand Cherokee Summit diesel, Wrangler Rubicon and a pair of Wrangler Unlimited 75th Anniversary models) up a mighty steep, rocky and partly muddy ascent.

The Rubicon and Wranglers were the only ones wearing the Trail Rated badge, but that didn’t seem to bother the rest of the vehicles, all of which were on street tires. My luxurious Grand Cherokee diesel ($76,880 as tested) dutifully scrambled up in low range, its air suspension in the highest setting and its wheels occasionally cocking in the air like a dog at a hydrant.

I grabbed a Sarge Green (love it) Wrangler Unlimited 75th Anniversary Edition six-speed manual ($42,990) for the descent, and yes, this Trail Rated tough-nut (that doesn’t look that far removed from the 1944 Jeep) felt a lot more at home up here. Whereas I sort of tiptoed through the muck in the cushy Grand Cherokee, this Wrangler called for a much more juvenile approach: make as big a splash as possible and get mud everywhere.

Club member Ben Boulet purchased his Jeep CJ-7 new in 1979. Dubbed “Super Frog” (a nickname he got in the army), this well-used 4x4 with a fabulous patina sees off-road duty most weekends. A sticker on his dash reads, “If Man were meant to hike, God wouldn’t have created Jeeps.” He recently bought a new Grand Cherokee for his wife, in his words “for putting up with me for all these years.”

Undoubtedly, what spawned from a little green 4x4 that was merely “answering the call” is nothing less than astounding. The Jeep was never meant to be a brand nor, heaven forbid, a style icon, and yet here we are 75 years on, and Jeep accounts for almost one-third of FCA sales worldwide. In 2015, that translated to 1.2 million vehicles in 160 markets.

Not a whole lot of Jeep buyers will do what I did today — descend a sheer rock face in a hard-core Rubicon or clip some racetrack apexes in a thundering Hemi-powered Grand Cherokee SRT. And yet, I may have discovered the real soul of this septuagenarian brand on the last afternoon drive along country roads in a roofless and doorless Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. We’re not talking speed, ride comfort, fuel economy or handling here because, frankly, there isn’t much of any of that to be found in this most highly focused, and yes, compromised of production Jeeps. But I get it. I understand why the Wrangler inspires such cultist devotion.

Our Jeep is caked in telltale mud and the sun and wind beat on us mercilessly. It’s perfect. When it comes to stubbornly defying convention, it doesn’t get much better than this.


— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016 

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