In this, the 70th year of the Jeep product (if not the actual nomenclature), Moab's scenic backdrop is the perfect stage to review all that Jeep is - and has been - on the American landscape. From its development immediately prior to the U.S. entry into World War II, to the launch of the original "civilian Jeep" (CJ) in 1945 and a Willys Wagon in 1946, the military Jeep and its prolific civilian offspring have forever changed how America feels about automobiles and - to a significant degree - how America feels about itself.
To commemorate its seven full decades of production, Jeep brought together a couple of dozen journalists from Europe, a handful of writers from the U.S., and a great many Jeeps - new and historic -to the Sorrel River Ranch near Moab, Utah. And before we saddled up in an Anniversary edition of Jeep's Grand Cherokee, Wrangler or Compass, Brandt Rosenbusch, Jeep's Manager of Historical Services, provided an overview of all (or, at least, most) that's old within the Jeep timeline.
First up, of course, was the Willys MB, the first derivative of the original MA. Willys-Overland was one of three competing companies (Ford and Bantam were the other) for the original Army "light reconnaissance vehicle" contract. After evaluation, the Army chose the Willys Quad as the winning design, and Willys-Overland as the primary manufacturer. Over the course of the U.S. involvement in World War II Willys would build some 368,000 vehicles. What strikes you most immediately about the MB (and its retail successor, the CJ-2A) is its diminutive stance, looking more like Suzuki's Samurai (introduced in the U.S. in 1985) than the ancestral root of today's Wrangler.
The "that was then/this is now" contrast is every bit as stark between the 1949 Willys Wagon and today's Grand Cherokee. Introduced in 1946 as a 4X2, the '49 Willys on display represented the first model year in which 4-wheel drive was introduced to the wagon lineup. And beyond the advanced - for the time - technology of all four wheels distributing power, the Willys Wagon was also the first all-steel wagon on the market; its predecessors - and, for that matter, contemporaries - all featured at least some wood as a structural element. In short, you could have a Woody, or you could have a Willys - but you couldn't have a wood Willys.
With a relatively generous glass area, the Willys Wagon suffers none of the high beltline/low roof claustrophobia prevalent in today's automotive profile. And if the view over the hood isn't sufficiently nostalgic, try holding the pencil-thin grip of the steering wheel, or taking in the minimalistic attempt at monitoring speed and engine functions by what is almost laughably dubbed an "instrument panel." On the paved road in and around the Sorrel River Ranch the wagon is vintage motoring at both its best and worst; the architecture is absolutely classic, while "driving" and "dynamic" would never be joined in the same descriptive sentence. The steering is, at best, only semi-connected to the front wheels, while the wagon's flathead Go-Devil four struggles with its low-output demons. On ranch roads with a posted speed limit of 15 miles-per-hour, fifteen seems just about right.
There were, of course, other Jeeps representing Jeep history. An '84 Cherokee (has it been that long?) continues to look contemporary, although its tire/wheel package seemed comparatively small. And an early-'60s Grand Wagoneer looked to be just the thing to park in front of the country club, with - perhaps - a Goldwater sticker attached to its rear bumper or window.
There's talk of the Grand Wagoneer making a comeback. If the rumors are true (it would be built on a stretched version of the Grand Cherokee platform), its intro is almost guaranteed to get your "Willy" wonkin'...as if a half-dozen history-making Jeeps won't.