It’s a Jeep Thing, but by Now, You Probably Understand

After 80 years, the King of the Off-Road is vying to maintain its cult following while it charts its electric future.

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Born for the battlefield, the first Jeeps rolled off assembly lines in 1941 and headed straight to active duty for the United States Army. They would “forever be known for helping win a world war,” according to a history of the brand, which had bold plans early on, according to one imperial slogan: “The Sun Never Sets on the Mighty Jeep.”

After the war, Jeep came home to the farm with an off-roader available to the public. The Willys-Overland “jeep,” which had won the government contract for the Army vehicles, was converted into a civilian Jeep, or CJ, and hit showrooms in 1945. It was the world’s first light-duty four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Celebrating its 80th birthday on Thursday, Jeep has been held by a steady succession of owners over the years. It is now part of Stellantis, and has held a firm grip on the off-road market ever since. It has a fervent fan base, and with an electric focus for its future, is intent on maintaining its status as a king of the off-road.

The goal, according to Christian Meunier, the Jeep brand’s chief executive, is ambitious: “to make Jeep the greenest S.U.V. brand in the world.”

“We are bringing capability to the next level by combining sustainability, eco-friendliness and fun,” he added. “For 80 years, the Jeep brand has been indelibly linked to freedom, adventure, authenticity and passion,” he said. And Jeep’s latest release, he added, the Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybrid, “is just the beginning.”

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The new Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe is at home on any type of off-road trail.Credit…Mercedes Lilienthal

Jeep owners — who have grown to consider the “Go Anywhere, Do Anything” slogan as a way of life, not just words on paper — will be watching.

“It’s a Jeep thing, you wouldn’t understand,” said Rick Pewe, the brand’s longtime unofficial evangelist-critic, employing another slogan often used among the faithful. Mr. Pewe, a writer who spent 25 years in publishing, much of it covering Jeep, is retired and part of Gone-Gpn, an online outlet dedicated to Jeep and its cult following.

He has been true to the brand for many decades. “My dad was a field geologist, so we always had Jeeps,” said Mr. Pewe, 64. “I got my first Jeep in high school, which I still have.” It resides among two dozen other Jeeps at his Arizona home. “Of course, that’s my favorite.”

He has piloted many major Jeep excursions himself. Like a monthlong jaunt from Phoenix to Fairbanks, Alaska, and back driving his father’s restored 1943 World War II Jeep. Outfitted with a “soft top, open doors and lack of power,” he said, it provided a wonderful yet wild ride — including a rollover. The Jeep was rebuilt and made it home safely. That same Jeep went on to complete the famed Rubicon trail and has been driven from Los Angeles to Nova Scotia and back.

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Rick Pewe, Jeep’s longtime unofficial evangelist-critic.”My dad was a field geologist, so we always had Jeeps,” he said.Credit…Fred Williams

Jeep’s rugged abilities are a draw to fans, and the brand has cultivated that mystique over the years. In 1978, what was known as the Expedition of the Americas “took Jeep vehicles across North America, Central America and South America,” Mr. Meunier said. “These vehicles traversed the Darien Gap” — at the Panama-Colombia border — “floated rivers and cut through terrain that no vehicle before, or since, has even attempted.”

Over 22 million Jeep vehicles have been produced worldwide since 1941, the company said. Its top models now are the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee.

Shannon Ross, 33, grew up in small-town Dallas, Ore., wrenching on rigs — particularly the 1953-56 Ford pickup trucks her father and brothers fixed up.

“I learned a lot of skill sets from my dad, who was a mechanic on D7 Caterpillars in Vietnam,” Ms. Ross said. “I built my first car from the ground up with him.” The vehicle? A 1981 Mercury Capri.

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Shannon Ross during an off-road snow run in Oregon’s Tillamook State Forest off-highway vehicle trail area.Credit…Shannon Ross

She recently became a member of the Salem, Ore., Jeepers club and started customizing her 2014 Jeep JKU, which she bought after her parents’ deaths in 2017 and 2018. Ms. Ross, who is going through a difficult divorce after a 14-year marriage, as well, has made “amazing friendships and started to pull out of a deep depression I hadn’t realized I was in until I found happiness in the off-roading world,” she said.

She was drawn to Jeep “because of the simplicity of being able to modify them fairly simply and the availability of parts.”

For Mr. Pewe, the Jeep Life goes deeper than a hobby.

He graduated from college in 1980 with a degree in geography and worked at four-wheel-drive shops to support “the habit,” he said. In 1984 he bought a Jeep parts distribution company and turned it into Republic Off-Road, a Jeep-centric four-wheel-drive shop in Tempe, Ariz. After 10 years of growth and successful Jeep builds, he worked his way into auto writing, with a particular focus on Jeep.

He has substantial insights into the brand, and opinions, too. “Jeep has gone through so many owners,” Mr. Pewe said, “which leads to challenging bureaucratic type of messiness that none of the engineers want to give into.”

However, he described a core group of brand stalwarts who do understand Jeep. “Without those top-notch ‘lunatic fringe’ Jeep people down in the trenches, the Wrangler would have failed as an icon years ago,” he said. “It’s the core people, the true Jeepers of the group, that kept it successful.”

Jeep recently recognized Mr. Pewe’s dedication and advocacy throughout the decades by placing an “Easter egg” of sandals on the Jeep Wrangler JL windshield cowling — in honor of his favorite footwear.

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A 1944 Willys-Overland MB, the standard vehicle selected by the U.S. Army for mass production during World War II.Credit…FCA US

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A 1945 CJ-2A, the first civilian Jeep, marketed as a farm and utility vehicle by Willys-Overland.Credit…FCA US

To the enthusiasts, owning a Jeep gives them freedom, confidence and a sense of adventure. Ms. Ross conquered a fear of heights by traversing off-road obstacles in Moab, Utah. “I felt confident enough in my Jeep to get me where I was going and to get me home.” She says the Jeep community is helping her heal and become more self-assured.

“My Jeep has helped me reconnect to the girl I am,” Ms. Ross said. “Knowing how my Jeep works helps me help others on the trails, particularly the ladies of the Jeeping world.” She helps empower other women as they learn how to wrench on their Jeeps. “It’s important we build a strong group of educated women wheelers,” she said.

Jeep has supported events such as Jeep Jamborees, the Jeep Adventure Academy and the all-women’s Rebelle Rally. “For more than 50 years, thousands of passionate Jeep enthusiasts have trekked to the annual Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah,” Mr. Meunier said.

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Jeep’s line over the years, from the 1944 Overland MB to the 1993 Grand Cherokee.Credit…FCA US

Jeep has an impressive history, beyond its battlefield success. Its 1963 Wagoneer was the first S.U.V. to combine four-wheel-drive with an automatic transmission, and the 1984 Cherokee XJ was the first compact S.U.V. with a car-like unibody construction and shift-on-the-fly Command-Trac four-wheel-drive system.

The 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybrid is the first production Jeep with E.V. features, available now. It sports 21 miles of all-electric range, and packs 375 horsepower overall.

“All Jeep models will carry an electrified option in the next few years,” Mr. Meunier said, “and will take green and 4×4 technology to the next level.”

The hot-ticket item during this year’s Easter Jeep Safari was the 2021 all-electric Magneto BEV concept. The Magneto was tuned to emulate the vehicle’s original 3.6-liter V6, going from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 6.8 seconds.

The Magneto, unexpectedly, featured a stick shift, and its electric “whine” was boisterous, unlike the near-silent sound of other E.V.s. Its hum matched its throttle response and effort over obstacles, increasing in pitch and effort as it traversed its testing ground.

Off road, the electrified Magneto felt sure-footed and capable, just like its combustion-engine forebears.

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