‘Some say the name Jeep came from a slurring of the abbreviation GP, American army-speak for General Purpose. Others say it was derived from ‘Eugene the Jeep’, a character in the Popeye cartoon strip… Richard Wiley shines the spotlight on Mark Allen, Head of Jeep Design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
In the automotive world, ‘economies of scale’ has been the buzz phrase for a long time, and to realise that idyllic state, some very unexpected marriages have taken place. None was quite as unexpected as that of Daimler and Chrysler. So it came as no surprise to some when the union floundered and divorce proceedings ensued. The fact that Fiat stepped into Daimler’s discarded shoes to create FCA also produced shockwaves, but look beyond the name Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and you’ll find that the genuine jewel in the union is Jeep.
The appointment of Mike Manley to succeed the late Sergio Marchionne as head of FCA is no coincidence as he is a Jeep man, having occupied the throne there since 2009. But there’s one person whose service record at Jeep stands out for its longevity and for its importance, and that is Mark Allen.
For two decades, Allen has been part of a design team responsible for ensuring that the pillars of Jeep DNA – freedom, adventure, authenticity and passion – remain firmly entrenched in terms of design execution and detail touches. The latter finds expression in the trapezoidal shape of wheel arches and in the revered 7-slat grille without which its authenticity would cease to exist.
Legend has it that the distinctive trapezoidal Jeep wheel arch, designed to allow adequate wheel travel in tough off-road situations, first saw the light of day when a US soldier in WW2, fed up with being showered in mud from the uncovered rear wheels, welded two sheets of hand-formed metal onto the bodywork.
As for that grille, initially, it was derived from the Ford parts bin but later acquired its own distinctive shape when bigger headlamps, demanded by government regulations, required the incorporation of half-round cut-outs.
Enough of generalities and back to the specific contribution made by Mike Allen. Since joining in 1994 – he was made Head of Jeep Design at Fiat Chrysler in 2009 – in perpetuating and nurturing Jeep DNA through all those years. 55-year-old Allen is first and foremost a Jeep enthusiast and is a regular and active participant in off-road events, which means he has regular close contact with people who think alike and who also have the Jeep DNA in their blood.
This market microcosm in itself may well be indirectly influential in terms of design direction but to look forward at Jeep, there is first a need to look back and Allen will tell you that when he started out, the Jeep brand was not the absolute focus of attention in the Chrysler empire and lacked the branding focus that Fiat has since imparted.
Indeed, cars and MPVs took precedence in a range also occupied by the Wrangler, the XJ (Cherokee) and the Grand Cherokee which was earmarked to replace its smaller sibling anyway. Allen has joked that his favourite Jeep model, the immortal CJ-5 that started life as a Willy’s and became the Jeep CJ-5 in 1964, is his favourite design.
Design per-se was never an element of the classic original according to Allen who says that most of the bodywork existed just to cover mechanical components, to provide a platform for mounting headlights and to protect the occupants from flying mud! The afore-mentioned flat fender shape ‘just happened’ but by his own admission, it has become the template for everything that followed. And he does willingly admit that later iterations of the CJ-5 did acquire a more muscular disposition thanks to deliberate but cautious design inputs.
Of the more recent designs, Allen says that the Renegade and Compass presented problems in that the designers were given a platform to work with that was more car-orientated than SUV-orientated. Retaining Jeep character was a challenge as was the need to provide usable ground clearance, but he was happy with the outcome that was only realised after considering innumerable alternatives.
On the subject of ground clearance, Allen says there’s a need to maintain a balance between macho looks and on-road practicality. The biggest problem is to achieve an acceptable approach angle without crucifying aerodynamics but given Jeep’s image is founded in off-road prowess, there’s always a need to ensure design elements telegraph that ability.
Another matter Allen mentions with regard to current and future direction is the conflict between projecting a utilitarian image associated with Jeeps of yesteryear and nurturing a more premium image which customers value in modern SUV applications.
It’s the premium side that’s winning the day as the Grand Cherokee has telegraphed for some years but the task of the designers under Allen is to integrate premium surfacing such as soft-touch mouldings while still paying homage to established design cues. Anyone familiar with modern Jeeps will quickly discover a multitude of design touches that do just that.
It should be readily apparent by now that Allen’s primary task is to keep the brand relevant in a changing environment while paying homage to the past, something that is inherent in the recently-announced 2018 Jeep Wrangler. Reports indicate that the newcomer does indeed succeed in staying true to its legacy but is improved in a multitude of ways.
Given that the recent FCA 5-year plan calls for a doubling of Jeep sales by 2022, Mark Allen is going to be a busy man massaging the technical changes inherent in electrification while raising the Jeep profile in China, a market that’s all-important when it comes to volumes.