Tag Archives: Jeep

Exiting the Chrysler Expressway

It's the long goodbye for the Dodge Dart as the model heads into the sunset.

It’s the long goodbye for the Dodge Dart as the model heads off into the sunset. (Image: FCA US LLC)

Just as General Motors is looking for a midsize sedan turnaround with its new Chevy Malibu, Fiat-Chrysler is looking to take its sole midsizer behind the barn.

FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne created waves last week when he announced the slow-selling Dodge Dart compact and Chrysler 200 midsize would have their futures cut short, as the company pursues a new truck-intensive sales strategy.

Apparently, the RAM and Jeep divisions are working overtime to get SUVs and trucks to a hungry public, while the Chrysler and Dodge divisions aren’t seeing anywhere near that demand. Pulling the plug on these two models will open up assembly line capacity that can be dedicated to more popular vehicles.

The curtains will close on the Chrysler 200 as parent FCA focuses on the Jeep and RAM brands.

The curtains will close on the Chrysler 200 as parent FCA focuses on the Jeep and RAM brands. (Image: FCA US LLC)

It seems the pragmatic thing for a company to do. I mean, buyers are increasingly choosing crossovers and SUVs over sedans, and you gotta go where the money is, but I can’t help but think…. huh?

The great, expansive (former) Chrysler Corporation – the creator of the (original) Dart, Valiant, Reliant, Aries and Neon – won’t have a compact car anywhere in its lineup? Or even a midsize?

The bottom end of Chrysler’s lineup has thinned in the past, but not to this degree.

After the death of the Dodge/Chrysler Neon (Dodge SX 2.0 in Canada) in 2005, the company’s compact shelf was left bare until the Fiat-based Dart appeared in 2013. The small and forgettable 5-door Dodge Caliber wagon/crossover entered the scene in 2007, so this gap could theoretically be narrowed to a single model year.

Following the end of the Dodge Stratus in 2006, the brand went the next two years without a midsize car before the Avenger name was resurrected in 2008. During that time, however, the midsize Chrysler Sebring was also being sold, along with the compact PT Cruiser retro wagon.

Weren’t the mid-to-late 2000s great?!

When the Dart and 200 stop rolling off the line, the only true passenger cars made by Chrysler will be the venerable 300, Charger and Challenger.

The compact and midsize slots might be filled again - if someone else builds 'em, (Image: FCA US LLC)

The compact and midsize slots might be filled again – if someone else builds ’em. (Image: FCA US LLC)

It’s hard to compete in the compact and midsize sedan categories, but GM and Ford manage reasonably well with models like the Cruze and Fushion. Sure, the Dart and 200 set few hearts on fire, but is the answer to pull out of the market altogether? Does anyone really expect gas prices to stay low forever?

According to the Detroit Free Press, the vanishing act might not be permanent – assuming FCA can line up a deal to have another automaker provide the vehicles. Yup, we could eventually see rebadged models filling in those gaps, not unlike the Mitsubishi-based Dodge Colt of the 1970s and 80s, or more recently, the Mazda 2-based Scion iM/Toyota Yaris.

The current Dart doesn’t hide its Fiat architecture very well, so it already feels like a rebadged import, albeit one that’s all in the family. If it returns with a different parent, things could get interesting. I never expected Mazda and Toyota to pair up for a swap job, so who knows what partner FCA might bring to the dance.

The big positive I’ve failed to mention is that we get a Jeep Wrangler pickup out of FCA’s new plan. I’ve been drooling over the possibility ever since the concept was shown a few years back, and now it’s a go.

Not only will the Wrangler get a pickup, but along with it will come a host of new drivetrains – diesel and hybrid included. A range-topping Grand Wagoneer is also part of the short-term plan.

Clearly it’s a great time to be Jeep. Not so much Chrysler or Dodge.




The Greatest Generation… of vehicles

Canada marked the 70th anniversary of VE Day last week, and here in the capital the streets quickly filled up with vintage military rolling stock. Here’s a taste of what showed up for the celebration:

World War 2 era GMC CCKW-353 (aka 'Deuce-and-a-half')

World War 2 era GMC CCKW-353 (aka ‘Deuce-and-a-half’)

GMC CCKW-353 2.5 tonne

Tanks and aircraft get the lion’s share of the limelight when it comes to warfare, but troops couldn’t advance en masse without a convoy of study, rugged trucks.

In the European theatre of WW2, that truck was (more often not) the three-axle, 6×6 GMC CCKW-353, affectionately known as the Deuce-and-a-half due to its 2.5 tonne payload rating.

A few hundred thousand of these came in handy in the mid-1940s.

A few hundred thousand of these came in handy in the mid-1940s.

Powered by a smooth and reliable 270 c.i.d. inline six (making 91 hp and 216 lb-ft), this GMC saw the U.S. and Canada through WW2 and Korea.

Given the massive numbers of Allied troops pouring into Europe in the wake of D-Day, huge numbers of transports were required.

Between GM and GM of Canada, 800,000 examples were cranked out in every possible configuration.

The GMC provided a stable platform for carrying and towing, and besides its most common role as a troop carrier, saw use as a water and fuel tanker, surgical van, and mobile anti-aircraft gun installation.

Though replaced in official service in the early 1950s, CCKW-353s were a common sight on military bases well into the 1960s.

Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen ('floating car')

Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen (‘floating car’)

Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen

Count on the crafty Germans to come up with something as innovative as this.

After the Axis power decided that expansionism was the way to go, the German armed forces found themselves needing more than just tanks, trucks, and staff cars to get around. After all, there’s a lot of narrow roads and water in Holland.

"Faster? But Sir, we're already doing 5 knots!"

“Faster? But Sir, we’re already doing 5 knots!”

Enter the lowly People’s Car, which offered up its underpinnings and drivetrain for the VW Type 166 Schwimmwagen, a light, agile car that could double as a motorboat (thanks to a watertight body and a propeller mounted on a driveshaft extension).

And so, the most mass-produced amphibious car in history was born out of wartime necessity. Powered by a 1.1-litre flat four, a total of 14,265 of the bathtub-like vehicles rolled, then swam, off the assembly lines.

Yes, that paddle is there for a reason. The Schwimmwagen could make steady (but slow) forward progress in the water, but backing up required  basic canoe training. If lost, the shovel would suffice for maneuvering the tiny ship.

On dry land, a four-speed transmission and two-speed transfer case (with 4WD in 1st) helped the Schwimmwagen navigate roadways and mixed terrain.

While it provided next to no protection to occupants and was puny compared to other road-going machines of the era, a passenger-side 8-millimetre machine gun helped sooth the driver’s ego.

1941-45 Willys MB, aka 'Jeep'

1941-45 Ford GPW, aka ‘Jeep’ (note: nine grille slots, instead of seven for the Willys)

Jeep (Willys MB and Ford GPW)

We can all thank Hitler for unwittingly introducing the world to the Jeep – an iconic vehicle whose lineage continues to this day in the Wrangler.

With entry into WW2 seeming like a sure thing, the U.S. Army appealed to the auto industry for designs of a small, durable four-wheel-drive scout or reconnaissance car of light weight and adequate power.

A startan interior was just what the Army ordered. Not custom sheepskin shift boots on this restored example.

A startan interior was just what the Army ordered. Not custom sheepskin shift boots on this restored example.

Tiny, failing car company American Bantam submitted blueprints five days later, which impressed the military so much that they sent the designs to Ford and Willys-Overland for refinement, and ultimately production.

Powered by a Willys-sourced ‘Go Devil’ 2.2-litre four cylinder making 60 hp and 105 lb-ft of torque, the vehicle went into extensive production starting in 1945.

Because production was split between two companies, Willys designated their model the MB, while Ford called theirs the GPW. The only tell-tale difference between the two was the nine-slot grille on the Ford, versus the quintessential seven-slot grille on the Willys.

The Willys 'Go Devil' engine was chosen for the Jeep due to its small size and robust power.

The Willys ‘Go Devil’ engine was chosen for the Jeep due to its small size and robust power.

In all, Willys assembled over 359,000 of the do-anything runabouts before the end of the war, while Ford produced over 277,000.

Nowhere in official documents was the word ‘Jeep’ mentioned. There’s much speculation about how the car – and eventually the company – came to adopt the name; most of it centres around slang used by servicemen and a high-profile 1941 media event in Washington, DC.

Whatever the origin, the word ‘jeep’ became synonymous with small, rugged 4×4, sparking a worldwide movement that led to the creation of the Land Rover and Toyota Land Cruiser.

After the war, the popular civilian Jeep (CJ) found itself on quite a wild ownership ride, changing hands several times.

This 1947 Willys, found on a farm in the Yukon, was painstakingly restored to 1944 specs (including the installation of a WW2 Ford grille).

This 1947 Willys, found on a farm in the Yukon, was painstakingly restored to 1944 specs (including the installation of a WW2 Ford grille).

After Willys-Overland, the CJ was built by Kaiser-Jeep from 1953 onwards, followed by a long stint at American Motors Corporation (AMC), before being purchased by Chrysler Corporation in 1987.

The ride didn’t stop there, as Chrysler then embarked on its own ownership roller-coaster. From DaimlerChrysler AG, though the dismal Chrysler Group LLC years (which was followed by bankruptcy) and eventually to its current home in Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), the Jeep division clearly has nine lives, and many new dads.

The fact that the division has remained in such demand over the decades – and created such a lifestyle around its products – should make the original designers of the Jeep proud.

Running mate

1961 (AMC) Rambler Classic, spotted in Gatineau (Hull sector) Quebec.

1961 (AMC) Rambler Classic, spotted in Gatineau (Hull sector) Quebec.

Sometimes, the underdog wins, if only for a brief, shining moment.

That was the situation at American Motors at the dawn of the tumultuous 1960s.

The years 1958 to 1961 don’t take up much space in history books (unless you’re focusing on the Space Race), as there existed relatively little conflict in a world now used to global battles. The Baby Boom was in full swing, the Camelot years of the JFK presidency was poised to begin, and hippies, women’s lib, and the incendiary final years of the civil rights struggle were still years away.

Only the pesky matter of The Bomb kept people up at night, though a solution (Diazepam, aka Valium) was imminent.

In the auto industry, however, things weren’t so Leave It To Beaver placid. Competition was fierce between the Big Three automakers, and by the late ’50s the smaller companies had either thrown in the towel or were struggling to stay afloat.

After a merger with Studebaker, Packard’s last year was 1958 (and what a grotesque thing it had become by then). Studebaker brainstormed to find a way to overcome the massive financial hit it took following the merger a few years earlier, and managed to pull off a modest recovery that lasted until the mid-60s.

Nash and Hudson, whose best years were marked in the ’30s and ’40s, ceased to exist after 1957, the result of a mighty 1954 merger between Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson Motor Car Company – at the time, the largest in history. That merger saw the birth of a new automotive entity – American Motors Corporation (AMC).

Leading the new company was president and CEO George W. Romney, a former VP at Nash-Kelvinator who took on the top role after the death of George W. Mason a few months after the merger. Romney (father of 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney) had the old makes soldier on in an increasingly competitive marketplace while planning a new strategy for success (or at least survival).

Official portrait of George W. Romney, taken while he was U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. (Public domain image)

Official portrait of George W. Romney, taken while he was U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. (Public domain image)

Luckily for the company, Romney had brought binders full of ideas to his new role, and quickly decided that in order to compete with the Big Three, AMC had to offer something the big guys weren’t. That meant compacts.

Romney viewed the competition’s offerings as “gas-guzzling dinosaurs”, ripe for slaying, and set out to do just that.

With the remaining Nash and Hudson models killed off at the end of 1957, AMC poised its new lineup for a 1958 debut, led by the compact Rambler brand – a make AMC had poured all of its efforts into.

Engine size, vehicle size, tailfin height and sticker prices were all reaching for the stars in the late ’50s, but luck was in AMC’s corner.

As 1958 dawned on the gaudiest, most excessive and expensive vehicles Americans had ever seen (especially those offered by Buick, Cadillac and Lincoln), a sudden, sharp recession – by far the worst of the post-war boom – hit the United States. Consumer prices rose across the board and vehicle sales dropped 31% industry-wide.

The only American car company to turn a profit that year? American Motors.

Helped by favourable reviews that emphasized the Rambler’s price and fuel economy, as well as a widespread television and product placement marketing campaign (which included Disney!) orchestrated by Romney himself, Rambler – and AMC – was off to a roaring start.

With the success of the Rambler American and Rambler Classic line of vehicles, the traditional big players in the industry soon took notice and immediately began designing their own small cars, which were introduced in the early ’60s.

In 1960 and 1961, Rambler ranked third in domestic auto sales, with the latter year seeing the company enter into the industry’s first profit-sharing plan for its United Auto Workers-represented employees. Innovations followed that were later picked up by the Big Three, including standard reclining front bucket seats, optional front disc brakes, and the ‘PRND21’ automatic transmission sequence.

Research work was even done in support of a fully-electric car powered by a self-charging battery, though that effort clearly went nowhere.

The company took a shift away from the ‘think small’ strategy in 1962, after Romney resigned in order to run (successfully) for Governor of Michigan, where he grew the civil service and imposed the first income tax in the state’s history. Later, he went on to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Nixon, where his ideas – including ambitious social housing and de-segregation proposals – fell mostly on deaf ears.

For an interesting look at Romney’s policies (contrasted with those of his son), enjoy this somewhat long article in a liberal-perspective magazine:


(Romney was also a strong civil rights supporter who expanded state social programs and championed anti-discrimination laws. For more on that… http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/08/how-george-romney-championed-civil-rights-and-challenged-his-church/261073/)


Trouble at the ranch

Anyhoo, back at the AMC camp, Romney’s departure meant there was a new captain at the helm – Roy Abernathy – who shifted the company towards a more diverse lineup. This meant a newfound focus on large cars, with the thinking that people weaned on Rambler’s compacts would one day want to move up to something bigger.

This strategy didn’t pan out and Rambler floundered in the marketplace, with overall sales slashed in half by 1967. Bleeding money at an alarming rate, AMC’s end looked near until new CEO Roy D. Chapin, Jr. arrived with famed designer Dick Teague in tow.

Chapin brought on a new executive, cut costs where possible, and made the compact Rambler American the company’s short-term focus, chopping down the sticker price to lure in buyers. In the background, Teague and his fellow designers worked to create new, youth-oriented vehicles from existing parts and vehicle stampings.

Once again, all of this work was backed up by aggressive advertising.

The intermediate-sized Rambler Classic, introduced on an existing chassis in 1961, was renamed the Rambler Rebel in 1967, before the Rambler name was dropped in favour of AMC badging in 1968.

This '61 Rambler ad shows sensible people enjoying a sensible car.

This ’61 Rambler ad shows sensible people enjoying a sensible car.

The Classic had long been the bread and butter of the Rambler lineup, first offered with a 195 cubic inch straight-six or 250 cubic inch V-8.  Covering three trim levels and multiple body styles, the Classic’s engine choice was fleshed out to three sixes and two larger V-8s as the ’60s progressed.

The renaming of both Rambler and the Classic had the goal of shaking up the brand’s image and moving buyer’s minds away from negative connotations of the recent past.

Under the new strategy, AMC entered the 1970s in good shape and with lots of buzz, purchasing Jeep’s vehicle operation in 1970 before things started to get really weird (Pacer, Gremlin, Matador coupe) in the mid-to-late ’70s. Obviously, at some point the company’s water supply had become tainted with hallucinogens.

After introducing the renowned and innovative AMC Eagle 4-wheel-drive wagon in 1979, the company entered into an ill-fated partnership with Renault in 1980, and immediately began a fast slide into oblivion. Renault left the American market in 1987, dropping its majority stake in AMC, at which point Chrysler Corporation purchased those remaining shares.

The formerly AMC-owned Jeep was folded into the Chrysler stable, while Renault-designed AMC products that had been in the works were marketed under a new brand, Eagle, starting in 1988. Eagle soon became just another make selling badge-engineered Chrysler products, like Plymouth and Dodge, though with some sporting pretentions in the form of the Talon coupe.

Eagle was unceremoniously dropped in 1999.

And so ended the rocky, confusing lineage of American Motors – the quirky car company that was once part of a refrigerator company and was once run by Mitt Romney’s unusually progressive yet devoutly Mormon/Republican dad.

If this tale has taught us anything, it’s to not go all-in on identity politics, and to be very wary of mergers.