MOTOR MOUTH: A Classic is Morphed

MOTOR MOUTH: A Classic is Morphed - Brooks Stevens (1911-95) was one of the most interesting designers of them all. Like the Miller beer whose 'soft cross' logo he designed and the Harley Davidson ElectraGlide he styled, Stevens was one of the few things

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Brooks Stevens (1911-95) was one of the most interesting designers of them all. Like the Miller beer whose 'soft cross' logo he designed and the Harley Davidson ElectraGlide he styled, Stevens was one of the few things that made Milwaukee famous. He also had this boggling insight that you could translate laundry from a tiresome domestic chore into a pleasurable, if surreal, consumer activity by putting an observation window into the washing machine door.

Creative perceptions like these have made our world. And it was Stevens who in 1946 domesticated the rugged military Jeep into the 1946 Jeepster and the Station Wagon. These flat-sided vehicles could be made with even the primitive low-draw press tools available to a post-war fridge manufacturer.

Not until they started using Uzis in south London had military equipment become so familiar a part of the suburban landscape.

The original quarter-ton, four-wheel-drive reconnaissance vehicle, designed by the American Bantam Car Co for an Army requirement, became one of the great vehicles of all time. The myth is that 'Jeep' is a phonetic contraction of General Purpose, but this may be retrospective rationalisation. A more scholarly source suggests that in 1940 another experimental vehicle, made by the Minneapolis-Moline Power Implement Co, was being tested at Fort Ripley by the 109th US Army Ordnance. It so impressed with its manoeuvrability that one of the drivers compared it to Eugene the Jeep, a cartoon character created by Elzie Segar, creator of Popeye. This Jeep could travel in four dimensions; the name stuck for all compact military four-wheel drives and became an evocative and attractive consumer brand.

Nonetheless, Jeep has had an uneasy commercial history. The product has been successively mauled corporately by Willys-Overland, AMC, Renault and Chrysler, and now it has been fingered by the Germans. When Mercedes bought America's No. 3 manufacturer, Jeep was the valuable bit, a rival to Land-Rover as a globally credible proposition in the competitive four-wheel drive market.

Jeep's leading consumer product has always had a European character: the '84 Cherokee was introduced under Renault's tenure and it shows in the Euro-friendly scale and proportions. Styled with square corners and flat sides, Cherokee was the first Jeep to be systematically imported to Europe since those that came free with GIs. Despite the crude engineering, its neat package and neat looks made it very acceptable. It was fun, if uncomfortable, to drive and had an indestructible feel. But its rattling and banging coarseness, its throbby engine and clunky transmission gave Mercedes engineers cold sweats.

The new Cherokee is evidence of what sophisticated Germans want to do with a brawny American product. They've done a neat job on the styling: the new Cherokee is unambiguously a Jeep, but brightened and tightened and slimmed down. It is altogether better built, by which I mean it is no longer possible to put your forearm between the bonnet edge and the top of the radiator grille without releasing the catch. Inside it is exceptionally well done: lots of well-thought-out details, good seat, modish satin steel trim. I particularly enjoyed the '70s retroid sliders for bass and treble on the stereo. There is even a sunroof, a novelty for Cherokee owners.

They have, however, kept Cherokee tradition by making it poky inside and providing derisory luggage space.

It breaks from Jeep tradition in road manners. Although there have been reports from the US about an alarming tendency to capsize, the Cherokee handles like a car. Like a rather good car, in fact. And the 3.7 litre V-6 is a superb engine with the one big proviso that the 13.7 mpg averaged around town is close to being immoral, not to mention expensive.

I did not try it off-road. I doubt many will. Jeep Cherokee is not a military reconnaissance vehicle, it's a brand proposition. I enjoyed it, but don't quite see the point of turning an American classic into a European product. I suspect that DaimlerChrysler products are morphing. I'm sure the silly PT Cruiser is getting to look more like the serious M-Class.

When they eventually converge, there will be no room for the Cherokee. I suspect this new beginning is the end of Jeep.

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