The Wrangler Chrysler didn’t think it should build
“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.