The Evolution of the Jeep

Photograph by Bettmann/Corbis

1940 American Bantam Car produces the first Jeep for the U.S. Army.

By the end of World War II, 650,000 Jeeps had been produced for use on the battlefield. Veterans returning home spread the word about the vehicle’s reliability and all-terrain capabilities and began buying them from the government. The Jeep brand had a series of owners before Chrysler bought it in 1987.

The next year, a Canadian anthropologist named Grant McCracken got a call from Chrysler. Could he help explain something? Lots of city dwellers were buying Jeeps, and the carmaker didn’t understand why. McCracken visited with these Jeep owners and found two things—first, preppies, whose tastes were going mainstream, liked Jeeps as much as weathered chinos. Second, the Jeep, with its military roots and go-anywhere abilities, “was seen as the right car for the mean city streets,” he says.

Photograph by Superstock

In 1990, Ford Motor brought out the Explorer, a Jeep-inspired family-size vehicle built on a truck chassis, and in 1993 Chrysler unveiled the Jeep Grand Cherokee. At the time, U.S. car buyers were abandoning domestic models in favor of German and Japanese makes. But the SUV—and the pickup truck, too—were Detroit’s alone. Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler came out with more and bigger models. With the margins they were making on SUVs and trucks, U.S. automakers had little need to produce cars good enough to compete with Toyota and Honda.

For a while, the strategy worked. Then, when gas prices rose and the financial crisis hit, it didn’t. GM and Chrysler had to be bailed out. Americans still love their SUVs, though. Over the past year they’ve bought 5.2 million of them.

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