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The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Story - Nearly Cancelled

Crawling
Cole Quinnell | Writer
Posted July 1, 2009
Photographers: Courtesy Chrysler LLC

Wrangler Rubicon: The Jeep that Shouldn't Have Made it Through the System

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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