What is the point of Jeep? A self-consciously styled vehicle that makes much of its connection to a piece of Second World War-era military equipment couldn’t be more out of step with the modern era. Yet somehow Jeep survives and even thrives.

Perhaps the ultimate butch brand, Jeep’s origins go back to the 1940s, when John Willys’ company, the Willys–Overland Motor Company, started building the original military Jeep, alongside Ford and the American Bantam company (which also designed the prototypes). More than 650,000 of these light army transports were built before the end of the war. Willys retained the design and technology and attempted to turn the Jeep into a consumer vehicle. 

Jeep on rough terrain

Eventually, the idea took hold, but not before a huge number of imitators had spawned around the world (including the UK’s Land-Rover). War surplus Jeeps also found their way into private hands, helping create the market for tough four-wheel drive vehicles and its underpinnings of macho, military muscle. The company struggled on, even making covered wagon models that can lay a good claim to being amongst the earliest ever SUVs.

Jeep became part of American Motors Corporation in 1970, about the time that its CJ (‘civilian jeep’) models had come to epitomise the Californian ideal of open-air, devil-may-care, go-anywhere motoring, better suited to beaches than battlefronts. The CJ-5 made Jeep fashionable, and it stayed in production for nearly three decades. 

Jeep on road in countryside

The Jeep Wrangler replaced the venerable CJ series in 1986, sharing the rough and ready mechanical layout of the original vehicle (like a separate body and frame, as opposed to conventional modern ‘monocoque’ construction) with a touch more refinement and better road manners. The Wrangler was still recognisably a ‘Jeep’, with the familiar seven slot grille and round headlights flanked by exposed wheel arches, and the rear-mounted spare tyre.

In 1987, the company name passed next to Chrysler, then into what was then Fiat Chrysler, before becoming part of Stellantis, where it is now an unlikely stablemate to brands like Citroën, Maserati, and Vauxhall.

Close-up of rear of Jeep

This model is the JL, the fourth generation Wrangler. It’s sold alongside the compact Renegade model (also available as a hybrid) and the more conventionally SUV-like Compass. The US market also gets the Gladiator, a pick-up truck version of the Wrangler, and the substantially larger Grand Cherokee. 

Detail of Jeep interior

Jeep Wrangler 80th Anniversary edition

The Wrangler debuted back in 2018, but for 2021 a special edition has been created to celebrate 80 years since the original military Jeep. In this era of parametric design and sophisticated simulation, there is no earthly reason for a mobility product to look anything like the Jeep does. It’s a deeply contrived design, with exposed door hinges, big plastic fenders, big grippy tyres, an exposed roll bar and other cod-utilitarian details (the cross pattern on the rear lights is meant to evoke the jerry cans that used to be strapped to the army originals, for example). 

And yet it works. Despite being every bit as big and brash as more lifestyle-orientated SUVs, the Wrangler feels friendlier and far less aggressive. It might be overkill for any urban situation, but it’s no more so than countless other makes, and with its electrically operated retractable canvas roof, the Wrangler is also much more fun and far less po-faced. Sure, it’s a statement piece, but the point being made is that you don’t necessarily take yourself too seriously. 

Jeep interior

Stray away from city roads and you’ll find the Jeep is a supremely competent off-road machine, complete with things like a low ratio gearbox and locking differentials, as well as impressive ground clearance. All this means you can take the Wrangler pretty much anywhere, as well as tow whatever you like.

The practical four-door model might not be massively spacious, but the interior is well appointed, with lots of storage cubby holes and power outputs, and even a proper touchscreen entertainment and info system. It feels a bit unrefined on the road, and those big tyres have a habit of wandering, but the flat windscreen, excellent visibility and comfortable seats make it a great place to be. 

Jeep on open road
Coming soon: the Jeep Wrangler 4xe Rubicon plug-in hybrid

Stellantis still has a bit of a mountain to climb to demonstrate its aptitude at brand stewardship. In comparison to a stablemate like Maserati, Jeep might not seem terrifically sophisticated, yet it’s all the better for it. The newly launched Wrangler 4xe hybrid model hasn’t arrived in Europe yet, but when it does it will represent the first step on Jeep’s path to electrification. Admiration for electric off-road vehicles is growing fast, even amongst the notoriously traditional 4x4 community (even the infamous Hummer brand is being relaunched as a pure electric vehicle by General Motors).

Will an electric Jeep change the icon’s character? There aren’t many octogenarian automobiles out there. But if Jeep can keep a grip on the chunky sincerity the Wrangler does so well, it will survive into the electric era. It might even become the first car model to celebrate its century. §