“All right, stop your bitching. Take out a piece of paper. If you could have what you wanted, write it down.”
That’s what the moment of conception was like for the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. As sexy as you’d expected?
Jim Repp was one of the guys behind that piece of paper. Dave Yegge was the other. It was a Friday afternoon staff meeting and Jim and Dave were the last two left in the room along with their manager at the time, Mike Gabriel. Jim was a Jeep vehicle development supervisor and Yegge was one of his development engineers. Both were serious Jeep guys, even outside the office.
Jim, now a Wrangler vehicle integration engineer, had always been hot for some kind of off-road package for the Wrangler. Mike would ask why a package was even needed—after all, the Wrangler was already capable. But Jim would tell him there was even more it could do.
Then came that Friday staff meeting in early 1999. Jim and Dave were once again venting about all the cool stuff they would do to the TJ if they had their way. That’s when Mike told them to stop complaining and start writing. “We sat down and brainstormed a list. We talked about all kinds of crazy stuff. At the end of the day we kind of formulated a basic list: 4-to-1 transfer case, rock-rail protection, a real off-road tire, and four-wheel discs.”
And then they laughed themselves silly.
“It was about 5:30,” said Jim, “and we looked at the list and Dave and I looked at each other and we literally got hysterical because we thought that about all we’d get at the end of the day might be an aggressive tire.”
In those days, the TJ was selling well, but not as great as Jeep wanted. The vehicle was getting a lot of attention internally in quality and improvements in order to try to pick up sales. Although the new Jeep was a revolutionary project following the YJ, the guys were still looking for new ways to make it better off-road. They got to work on some “off-the-record testing” on the weekend and after hours in their own garages with a few aftermarket parts added on the down low to an engineering vehicle.
Like? “Lockers. And we built a 4-to-1 T-case. We bought an aftermarket kit and put in the NV231 T-case.” In those days Jeep executives took an annual trip to the Rubicon trail. “Often they would hit us up for a car or two to take on the trail. So, we would just kind of sneak in a rear locker or a 4-to-1 T-case or some different tires. And it was interesting to watch as the executives would be like, ‘How come that car always makes it and this one doesn’t? What’s different about that car? Why is this car easier to drive with a 4-to-1?’ And it would start the slow, arduous sales pitch for our aftermarket equipment and what the enhancements could be and how the Jeep worked better.” By the way, at Chrysler all vehicles are called “cars.”
The skunksworks-style secrecy lasted for a year or two; by then, they’d built a couple vehicles that were pretty much full Rubicon mules. “But what was the first Rubicon mule?” Jim asked. “I’d say you could probably look to a lot of customers’ cars 10 years before we did this. Customers loved the aftermarket stuff, but they didn’t always know how to build it themselves, or they were disappointed and frustrated because they spent a bunch of money and time and it didn’t really work like they had wanted.”
Furthermore, based on customer engineering roundtables at Camp Jeep, there seemed to be some interest in a factory package that included off-road enhancements, body protection, and bigger tires. “We started to form a general picture based on their requests, which ironically was very similar to what we’d written down on that piece of paper,” he explained.
By this time, Jim and Dave were encouraged to go to the next level: corporate. They would have to make a business case for the Rubicon. And how exactly do you convince an OEM to spend a ton of money to develop parts and an entirely new test cycle, and also guarantee the effort would pay off in the long run? A hard sell, to say the least, especially when it came to the transfer case. We’re talking millions of dollars to tool a brand-new one with an all-new low-range ratio. “They looked at us and said, ‘Why would we do that? You already have the industry-leading low range and the best off-road vehicle in the world.’” But Jim and Dave argued that no OEM had done a 4-to-1 before, and none at that time had a true locking differential. They tried to sell corporate on the idea of benchmarks.
They also told corporate to think of it as, this Wrangler is to Jeep what the Viper is to Dodge. “The Viper is an image car. It sets a mystique for the brand. This is an off-road performance package, an image-setter for the Jeep brand. Except our performance isn’t a 180-mph Viper—it’s a 2-mph crawl up the side of a mountain.”
The suits seemed to warm up to that. Except they had one big question: How much do you charge for a Jeep like this?
The engineers hit the pavement and got street prices for axles, transfer-case upgrades, the price for putting in a locker, building the discs, adding wheels, tires, and protection, and what labor would cost for installation. It ran around $8,000 to $10,000 for a post-factory TJ. They knew they could do it a lot more cost-effectively as a factory-engineered package that included a warranty. The suits were listening. However, the transfer case nearly got cut. Jim and Dave had to prioritize what their first choices were in modifications, and they went with rear locker, then front locker, followed by tires, T-case, and protection. “But all that fell off the first Rubicon was the automatic sway bar disconnect. And that wasn’t a big deal to us; we just wanted to get the basics into production.”
Part of the development process was to do real-world testing. The mules were taken to Telluride, Alabama, the Rubicon, Moab, Louisiana, and Canada—they wanted to go where four-wheeling was happening, on hardcore trails and in gnarly mud. For the most part, people were clueless that this was a special Jeep, although the sharp-eyed did notice the Dana 44 front axle. The engineers would tell them it was from an XJ in Venezuela.
Probably what was one of the last trips before it kicked off as an official vehicle program in 2001 was on the Rubicon, appropriately enough. “I can remember one of the VPs would not get out of one of my mule cars. He said, ‘No, I never get stuck in this car,’ and I had to say, ‘I know, but I need to show the other people. Get out,’ and he said ‘No,’ and I said, ‘I’m sorry, but you need to get out,’ and he told me, ‘No, I’m not getting out.’ I about had to physically remove him. Everyone wants to be in a vehicle that doesn’t get stuck.”
Next thing they knew, the Off-Road Package, as the Rubicon was called back then, had made it through the corporate process with a thumbs-up. Next stop? Financial approval. “Let’s just say they weren’t quite as enthusiastic about the project as we were. ‘Why should we spend all this money? What are you trying to prove?’” Jim could understand their side. “Engineers would put every cool doodad gadget on a car forever and then the company would go out of business in a week because we spent too much money to make any profit.” As you might guess, the engineers thought there’d be more sales than the product planning and financial folks believed would be reality. In fact, initial projections were maybe 2,500 to 3,000 units for a year or two.
Although Chrysler wasn’t sure how customers would respond to this Jeep, the tooling, testing, and production began anyway. So did the naming process. As we said, the internal name for years was Off-Road Package, but the marketing department suggested Rubicon because it was a trail long run by Jeeps, and it was a trail with a good image. They also had to name the parts. For example, the T-case became Rock-Trac since it was made to be a rockcrawler. Jim suggested Tru-Lok because it was a true locking axle.
By now, there were a lot of rumors in magazines and on the Internet about Jeep doing some kind of special package. The Jeep crew decided to take Rubicon mules to Moab to give in to the buzz and to convince serious four-wheelers that the package was not only real, but tough and durable. Upon arriving, they hid the mules behind their hotel. Within seconds, 10 people were on their backs crawling underneath the Jeeps. “Holy sh*t, that’s not a NV231 T-case.” “Holy crap, it’s got a Dana 44 front axle.” As Jim recalled, “Right then, I knew we were OK.”
And remember those initial projections of around 3,000 sold? There ended up being 8,700 orders in the system before pricing was even announced. Better than OK.
Jim and Dave had spent probably close to $5,000 out of their own pockets buying parts and building mules “because it’s what we had to do to get it into production. But thank goodness, customers and Jeep people actually bought the vehicle because they understood what it was. They made it a success, not us.”
Four-wheeling existed long before lockers, 4-to-1, body protection, and other beefy components, and people then and now continue to have a blast ‘wheeling without those and even when stock. But to Jim, Dave, and the rest of the Jeep and Chrysler teams’ credit, they ultimately knew enhancements would only make the best of the best even better. “Reality is, vehicles are very capable out of the box, which is a message we lose sometimes for people who think, ‘Oh, you have to have a Rubicon if you’re going off road.’ If you’ve got a Wrangler, you’re already off-road-capable.”
Jim said he laughs because he’ll sometimes look at Jeep forums online and will notice people perceive the Rubicon as elitist, as in it’s just for rich people.
“We found there are two very distinct customers for the Rubicon. There are the four-wheeling guys, who know what it is and are going to use it. Then there’s the affluent buyer, who’s going to buy it because it’s the coolest, most capable Jeep out there,” Jim explained. “Frankly, both are viable customers because I can’t afford to buy a Rubicon, and one day I’m going to buy a used one. But I want it off the guy who has never used it off road.”
The ’03 Rubicon arrived in the summer of 2002, but what about the other Wranglers? Here’s a fast rundown.
1987 Jeep Wrangler: YJ
The Wrangler YJ had the unfortunate task of following the much-beloved CJ-7 in the history books. It debuted as an ’87 model and lasted until 1995. Its original engine was a 2.5L as well as the CJ-familiar 4.2L. The five-speed manual was the Peugeot BA-10/5 with the six-cylinder, the Aisin AX5 with the 2.5L, while the 4.2L had the optional three-speed auto. There was a NP207 T-case. Dana axles were stuffed underneath (a 30 in front, a 35 at the rear) and an optional Trac-Lok rear differential was available. It had an overall length of 153 inches, a width of 66 inches, and a height of 72 inches; the wheelbase was 93.4 inches. Later years brought the PowerTech 4.0L as well as the AX15 in place of the Peugeot, and the T-case switched to the NV231. Despite some pretty solid components and a loyal fan club, square headlights will always be its legacy.
1997 Jeep Wrangler: TJ
When the TJ was unveiled, it was nearly just another YJ, but with round headlights. The Wrangler TJ, which spawned the Rubicon, started life as a ’97 model and lasted through ’06. The YJ’s 2.5L and 4.0L returned (albeit improved for torque and mpg) as did the Command-Trac NV231 T-case (although the NV241 Rock-Trac would eventually be offered in the Rubicon). However, there was also a groundbreaking new Quadra-Coil suspension that replaced the leaf setup. There were Dana 30/35 axles, but with an optional Dana 44 for the rear. The AX5 five-speed was also carried over, while a TorqueFlite 904 three-speed auto was optional; both were for the 2.5L. The 4.0L got an AX15 five-speed or the TorqueFlite 999 as the auto option. Specs included an overall length of 151.8 inches, a width of 66.7 inches, a height of 68.9 inches, and a wheelbase of 93.4 inches. The TJ was the Wrangler that also spawned a longer version called Unlimited, with a wheelbase of 103.4 inches. Later years brought the 2.4L inline-four as well as the NV3550 and NV1550 five-speed manuals, NSG370 six-speed manual, and optional auto 42RLE transmissions.
2007 Jeep Wrangler: JK
The standard engine was the 3.8L. All models had a standard NSG370 six-speed manual transmission, with an optional 42RLE four-speed auto. In the diff department, the Rubicon had the Tru-Lok diffs standard, while a Trac-Lok was optional for the other two models. The Rubi had heavy-duty Dana 44s front and rear, while a Dana 30 (which they called “enhanced”) was standard for the others. A Dana 35 was at the rear on some early models but was quickly phased out in favor of the Dana 44. Quadra-Coil was standard on all, and an electronic swaybar disconnect system was standard on the Rubi, but optional for the rest. There was the standard NV241 Command-Trac T-case, while the Rubicon had the NV241OR Rock-Trac as standard. Overall length of the JK was 152.8 inches, with a wheelbase of 95.4 inches (or 116 for the JK-L), a width of 73.7 inches, and a height with the hardtop of 70.9 inches. Later years brought the 3.6L, NSG370 six-speed manual, and W5A580 five-speed automatic as the optional tranny.