Retired Jeep Plant Manager Gives Thoughts on Jeep's Current Direction

Date 2006/8/31 8:03:01 | Topic: Facilities

Jerry is a JeepNewsNow.com reader and retired Jeep plant manager. We asked him to give us his thoughts on the direction of the Jeep brand. -mike

As a retired Jeep Manager and long time Jeep Freak, I am often asked questions about the current direction of Jeep in the marketplace. Clearly Jeep is evolving into new areas with increased and more diverse product offerings to gain more customers. The dynamics of this evolution have raised serious concerns for those of us in the veteran Jeep customer base. To better understand these concerns, I need to share some of the Jeep History over the last twenty years.

My experience with Jeep started in Toledo in 1983 as we introduced the new XJ Cherokee and continued through the launch of the TJ Wrangler in 1997. During this stretch I became a veteran of the AMC/Renault regimes and later became an integral member of the transition team for the Chrysler acquisition. The latest change occurred with the Daimler/Chrysler merger which is now considered a takeover by many. The role of the Toledo Assembly Plant, the Management team and the Union workforce went through major changes as we were transformed from the "Heart and Soul of the Jeep Corporation" to just another vehicle assembly plant in the annual production plan of DCX. This was a difficult experience for all of us and there were many casualties along the way. The following points will help to illustrate these transitions.
1. During the 1983 to 1987 timeframe, the Toledo Plant Management and personnel were heavily involved in the styling, design and product engineering development of the vehicles being produced at the Toledo facilities. Vehicles such as the XJ Cherokee, Comanche Pickup and unique variations for the right-hand drive, diesel engine, police and special duty postal vehicles were prototyped and piloted at the Toledo Plant. Tool and Die development along with some fabrication was also done by the plant in conjunction with AMC/Renault Corporate engineering. This was the normal way of doing business which created an "esprit de corp" in the workforce and pride in our products unequaled in the industry.

2. After the acquisition by Chrysler, the plant was discouraged from activities involving anything outside of vehicle assembly but were still involved to a lesser extent where Chrysler lacked the expertise and historical perspective of what makes a Jeep a "Jeep".

3. This trend continued and by the time Daimler took over, the plant was mostly excluded and all but forbidden from any significant involvement in engineering, styling and design elements of the products. As a consequence, a lot of product knowledge and "Jeep know how" were under-utilized and often lost to the process resulting in product compromise. The product image of ROUGH, TOUGH and DURABLE began to weaken through the use of common DCX designs, components and suppliers. Unfortunately, the most threatening change for the product was the assignment of Engineering and Program Management personnel who didn't know (and didn't seem to want to know) the difference between a Dodge Neon and a Wrangler. I actually met an engineer who was working on Wind and Water Integrity during the TJ launch who did not know that there was a CJ in the Jeep lineage and could not understand why anyone would ever take off their doors or fold down the windshield. Now that should scare you!!

Don't get me wrong. The Jeep brand is stronger today because of DCX and their involvement to expand the product offerings to appeal to more that just the hardcore off-road types. But the concern is that the expansion of the Jeep brand must not come at the expense of Jeep's legendary position as the leader in the four wheel drive and SUV market. One can only hope that the Jeep lineup will not be allowed to degenerate into lame, gutless, passenger car weanies that will destroy the 65+ years of Jeep's proud history and world recognized icon. For some, the current proliferation of vehicles wearing the Jeep nameplate may be seen as a yellow caution flag. It is unlikely that you will see a Grand Cherokee SRT on the Rubicon Trail anytime soon or that this winter a Jeep Compass will show up to plow the snow from your driveway. Only a few years ago, there was a huge debate over whether the market would support both the XJ Cherokee and the Grand Cherokee with many folks at Chrysler suggesting that would be too many Jeep models for the public to comprehend. That was then and this is now. Today even the most devout Jeepers are struggling with the expansion of Compass, Patriot, Liberty, Grand Cherokee, Commander and the Jeep icon Wrangler. The obvious question is "are all these real Jeeps"? If you look at drivetrains, engines and suspensions you will quickly answer, NO. But not so fast, in the end, the market and the consumer will decide. And while that decision is being made, we may all have to redefine what JEEP really means.



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