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The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Story - Nearly Cancelled

Posted in Project Vehicles on July 1, 2009 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Courtesy Chrysler LLC

Sometimes the simplest decisions are the hardest to make. Like whether or not tomanufacture what will be remembered as the most capable production Jeep ever: the Wrangler Rubicon. For us, this is a no brainer. Since the introduction of the '97 TJ with its multi-link, coil spring front and rear suspension, thousands of people have bought a brand new Wrangler and spent $6,000 or more installing wheels and tires, lockers, low range T-case gears and a lift kit. So why wouldn't Jeep get in on the action and offer this package themselves? Let us count the ways for you, as we tell you about the Jeep that shouldn't have made it through the system.

Why It Couldn't Be Done
The first headwind a brilliant idea like the Rubicon runs into is shear lack of understanding within a huge bureaucratic system. Of the roughly 10,000 engineers that worked at Chrysler in the mid 1990s, less than 100 could or would call themselves off-road enthusiasts. And much fewer could claim to own a modified Jeep that was actually useful off-road. So that leaves only a handful of people who could intuitively know that there was a significant number of people willing to pay thousands of dollars more for the ultimate off-road Wrangler. That's a pretty small cheerleading section against bean counters and marketing folks who come up with things like a Laura Croft Tomb Raider package.

Anyone who was a credible off-roader, was tagged as part of the Lunatic Fringe-extreme-sports type of off-roaders that were biased-and their opinion was discounted. Clearly, being part of this fanatical group fogged a person's thinking beyond what mattered to customers and what was beneficial to the company. Ironically, the Lunatic Fringe would become a coveted group within Jeep engineering that people would later want to be a part of. They even made their own shirts.

Additionally, almost everyone in Jeep marketing considered people who go to Camp Jeep as the serious off-roading community of Jeep owners. Starting to get the picture of just how hard a package like this would be to get through the system?

The next challenge was funding. With so few people outside of the Lunatic Fringe believing it was viable, and with potential sales volumes a complete guess, figuring out the business case was a huge battle. Chrysler doesn't like to share information about how much programs cost, but let's say that tooling for things like a production-quality 4:1 transfer case, rocker panel protection, selectable lockers and a few unique components like wheels and shocks adds up to a big number. That number divided by 30,000 sales per year looks good to a finance guy. Divide the number by only a 1,000, though, and people get fired.

Then add another hurdle that was one of the toughest...larger wheels and tires are almost always directly opposed to good ride and handling. So every time someone mentioned a bigger tire on a Wrangler-a vehicle that already was the least favorite of the ride and handling team-they prepared for a beating.

The Key Was to Do It Backwards
So instead of using words and PowerPoint presentations to try to convince management, a small group of engineers decided to take a backwards approach to the vehicle program. They decided to build a vehicle and let the experience of driving a well-equipped Jeep persuade people.

It was the summer of 1999. Dave Yegge and Mike Gabriel were two of many engineers on the TJ team. They knew what needed to happen, so they started the process of creating believers in hardcore hardware. Yegge tossed an aftermarket 4:1 transfer case into a TJ. At that time, there was an annual trip to the Rubicon Trail for executives and senior managers. Half get-away and half initiation for people new to the Jeep brand within Chrysler. Yegge and Gabriel made sure this TJ was among the stockers on the trail. People kept commenting that the trail was much easier to drive in that one; what was different about it?

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The least favorite locker on paper turned out to be the most reliable and durable. The TFS air-actuated units were later changed to electrically actuated units in 2007, but the locker itself has remained essentially unchanged.

The next year, Yegge and Gabriel upped the ante, adding ARB Air Lockers front and rear to the one special Jeep in the Rubicon Trail executive fleet. Now they had to pry people out of the upgraded TJ. These had stock tires and wheels, and nothing else changed. Just a demonstration of off-road technology without putting a completely built Wrangler in the mix, which would have been easy for the executives to dismiss. Yegge and Gabriel now had the attention of the decision makers...there might be a better Jeep yet.

The sell job was getting the vehicle in its element and showing how well it worked. This approach of building what was essentially the first prototype before presenting the business case was unheard of. And Yegge actually paid for some of the components on his credit card and worked on components or vehicles at home to make it happen. But it was the only way to get something like the Rubicon package through the system. Once people experienced the hardware, there was no further convincing needed.

The Original Rubicon Plan
With two years of executive Rubicon trips under their belts and a growing fan club for the capabilities that these mildly modified Wranglers provided, Yegge and Gabriel sat down with another Jeep enthusiast within engineering, Jim Repp, and scribbled out the parts list. They knew the right thing to do, but kept coming back to what they thought would be allowed.

The original rear disc brakes were one of the very few parts borrowed from another platform. They were originally used on the ZJ.

Eventually, they came up with three different lists of what a Wrangler off-road package might include:

1. A sticker and different colored shocks2. Larger tires, limited-slip differentials in the axles, a sticker and different colored shocks3. Dana 44 axles (high-pinion front), selectable lockers, 31-inch mud-terrain tires, 1-inch suspension lift, fixed rear output shaft, rock rails, rear disc brakes, a 4:1 transfer case, larger tires, a sticker and different colored shocks

The first two choices had been done by the Dodge team on the Ram, so the trio thought they could probably get these through the system if nothing else. But option number three was the one they knew should be built. Ultimately, it was the only option presented.

You'll notice they got everything on the list except the 1-inch suspension lift and the high-pinion front axle-nothing short of a miracle! And the high-pinion axle wasn't axed by management, but wouldn't physically fit when the first official prototype was built. It was unheard of for such radical equipment to be approved for a production vehicle program.

The original Rubicon came on 245/75R16 (31-inch) Goodyear MT/R tires. Getting a mud-terrain tire to pass internal standards for quietness and ride and handling was impossible, so the team ignored the rules. Starting with the JK, 255/75R17 (32-inch) BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/As are the only tires available on Rubicons.

Signed Off, but Far From Done
Now the project had executive blessing, funding and people to work on it. But developing the Rubicon was anything from an easy, downhill ride. The engineering team couldn't borrow from existing Chrysler Group vehicles for components because the parts just didn't exist. And very few aftermarket parts are made under the type of constraints required by a major vehicle manufacturer.

Everything was unique, and everything required a different approach. For example, the team looked at four different selectable lockers. Remember, this was nine years ago - how many selectable lockers were you aware of then? Ironically, TFS was the one design that the team didn't want because it was air-actuated and it was made in Japan. To do the initial testing, the team outfitted Wranglers with all four types and beat on them until they broke. Well almost all - the TFS lockers were the only ones they couldn't break.

Speaking of testing, neither the typical "drive it on a test track for 150,000 equivalent miles" nor any amount of virtual testing was going to cut it. The team spent months dragging prototypes to various off-road locations in the U.S. and treating them like red-headed step children. Sometimes the goal was to beat on the vehicle until something broke to find out what the weak link was.

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Dealerships made up their own stories about why they didn't have a customer's Rubicon yet. One lady from Las Vegas, Nevada, said the Rubicon sticker was delaying her Jeep, according to her dealer.

A huge sticking point in the program was that marketing estimated they could sell 2,500 units each year while the engineers behind the program thought 10,000 was more realistic. Nearly everything that made up the Rubicon package except the tires and decal would be hidden, so marketing had a very hard time believing that more people would pony up the roughly $6,000 that the package would cost. The initial tooling was set up to build between 4,000 and 5,000 vehicles the first year. The company ended up taking orders for that many before the fist one went down the assembly line, which sent the team scrambling to increase the supply of transfer cases, axles and tires.

It was a constant sell job to keep the program from getting sanitized. Every time someone asked the team if you really needed (fill in the blank), they would take the person out to a course set up at the company's proving grounds called the Little Rubicon. They would put the person in a manual-trans equipped Rubicon prototype, tell them not to touch the pedals and just steer. They would pilot up and over huge rocks and emerge at the top of the trail with huge smiles on their faces.

One of the biggest hurdles was the argument to keep the 4:1 transfer case. The tooling cost for this particular piece was very large and it was pretty clear that it wouldn't have any other application.

The mud-terrain tires were another battle. To make this worse, some of the Lunatic Fringe thought that a respected all-terrain, like the BFG, might be OK and it might be best not to fight this battle. The mud-terrain tires wouldn't pass noise, ride and handling or any other internal test. Ultimately, Mike Smith and Bill Smith in Jeep engineering made it happen by varying from the internal standards and just making it as good as could be without compromising the off-road capability. And, ironically, marketing grabbed onto the mud-terrain tire because of the off-road statement it made, and the fact that it was actually a visual component in the package.

Once the vehicle was in production, one component after another became the limiting factor for volume. They'd catch up on transfer cases and then run short on axles. Then it would be tires and back to transfer cases.

And the Rest Is History
Three years after the first unofficial prototype was snuck into an executive ride and drive, and 12 months after the official start of the program, the first Jeep Wrangler Rubicon rolled off the assembly line in Toledo, Ohio - the same plant that had produced CJ-2As, 3As, 3Bs, 5s, 6s, 7s and 8s. As of December 2008, more than 100,000 Rubicons have been built and sold. Just over 10,000 were made the first model year, and the 2008 model was the best selling to date, with a total of 22,742.

The key to the vehicle's success was that there was an existing customer base that already understood. This wasn't an all-new technology that would require a huge education process. The customer already got it...all they needed was to be able to come to the dealership and buy it!

A few people dreamed this up, but hundreds put it into production. The project relied on people who cared and would look at this project in a different light. It didn't fit into any normal program guidelines. Anywhere along the lines, any one of the several teams required to bring a vehicle to production could have stopped it just by being closed minded.

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