Part 2: 1977-1996
Our continuing look at the Jeep mystique starts with the disco era this month. Prior to the ’70s, Jeep’s corporate marketing efforts centered primarily on stock vehicles. Aftermarket performance was left to dealers such as Brian Chuchua, whose Orange County, California, Jeep dealership performed V-8 conversions and installed rollbars years before the 304ci was offered in the CJ-5. Chuchua also developed the pickup-bedded CJ-8, which inspired Toledo to build the Scrambler.
Score-ing a Higher Profile
Jeep’s acquisition by AMC in 1969 brought marketing resources that Kaiser lacked. The new ownership realized the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” halo effect offered by motorsports. The mid-’70s saw the transition from grassroots efforts to national promotions. Jeep print ads weren’t limited to fresh-off-the-assembly-line vehicles posed next to well-groomed models. Lifestyle magazines obviously targeted the Levi’s trim level with outdoorsy girls in flannel midriffs, but the enthusiast market got exposed to professional drivers “beating the Baja” in factory-backed Jeeps.
While exhuming photos from the magazine archives, we realized that nearly every hall-of-fame-caliber off-road racer spend at least a season in a Jeep. Ivan Stewart is possibly the only high-profile exception: Rod Hall, Walker Evans, Roger Mears, Rob MacCachren, Scott Douglas, Dave Ashley, and others who’re better-remembered for driving non-Toledo-based iron all cut their racing teeth in Jeeps. SCORE/HDRA combatants were forced to respect the Honchos, Gladiators, and even Comanches.
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Looking for Adventure
Although Jeep was slow to embrace off-road racing on the corporate level, it did support adventure travel as a way to connect with its customers. Mark A. Smith landed Willys-Overland sponsorship for his first Jeep Jamboree in 1954.
Nurturing an ensuing 20-plus-year relationship with Jeep, Smith convinced the company to back his Expedición de las Americas: a 20,000-mile trip from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Smith’s “Everest” was the Darién Gap, a 250-mile break in the Trans-American Highway between Columbia and Panama. GM attempted to cross the Darién Gap in the 1960s with two Corvairs. The British Army completed the first documented vehicular traverse in 1972. A team of 250 men took 100 days to get two vehicles through.
Mark A. Smith made several logistical trips prior to shipping five basically stock CJ-7s to South America in 1978. His group completed the tip-to-tip trip in 120 days, 30 of which were spent in the Darién Gap. This trip and Smith’s other Jeep adventures are documented in his “journal,” Driven by a Dream (Mark A. Smith Publishing, 2004, www.jeepjamboreeusa.com).
The purpose of this series is to recognize influential Jeepers, events, and inspirational vehicles. We started with the Jeep Super 70th! special section in the January issue. We’ll wrap it up next time with the Toledo-based evolutionary links to moon buggies and how certain modified vehicles influenced the Jeeps that currently sit on dealer lots.