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Catching Up With: Head of Jeep Design Mark Allen

A look at what its like to have to redesign an icon

Mark Allen, Fiat Chrysler’s Head of Jeep Design, would tell you he has the best job in the world. He also has the least enviable job in the world, because redesigning the iconic Jeep Wrangler is as rewarding as redesigning the Porsche 911. How do you completely redo an icon without angering the hardcore enthusiasts that have made the model what it is?

To find out, we spoke with Allen at the Fiat Chrysler Design Dome in Auburn Hills, Michigan, following the unveiling of the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL.

 Automobile Magazine: The Unlimited four-door has made the Jeep Wrangler more mainstream. Wrangler is one of Jeep’s most popular models now.

Mark Allen: Before we had the Unlimited, we sold Wranglers in the spring and the summer. When we got the Unlimited it became a daily use car, and it surprised even us. It’s like, “Hey, I want to get a Wrangler. I can bring the kids now.” So, the old Wranglers used to number-one shop against a speedboat. I think probably the G-Wagen probably had a bit to do with the Unlimited, because it was under Daimler and they did a two door and a four-door G-Wagen. You only see the four doors on the road. It got our numbers up and it got to be a year round vehicle. The sales kept going up on it. Some of it’s probably a trend, but it’s used by people as a year round vehicle. My Wrangler, I drive it in the summer. That’s about it.

AM: The Unlimited allows you to spend more time and money on developing the types of things that keep the hardcore happy.

MA: It’s certainly helped. It’s gotta have updates. Simple things, like the door needs to shut itself. Right? And that’s customer feedback. “I hate the door handle. I hate how the door shuts. Give me creature comforts.”

AM: Will there be kickback from the hardcore who don’t like it to shut itself?

MA: I saw it happen when we did TJ. “Oh you put a regular dashboard in it, and you put coil springs on it. Oh, it’s ruined forever.” I had kind of an argument with a guy. He says, “The interior … It’s got too many buttons.” [I replied] You want a heated steering wheel and heated seat, and you want lockers and auxiliary switches and all of that. “Yeah, I do.” So we still sell a Sport. Roll up windows, and a basic radio, and HVAC, and the locker switches.

AM: And that’s probably where you sell the majority of whatever percentage of manuals you sell?

MA: Yeah. Probably. And I don’t know that a manual is really a cost issue. You know, manual versus automatic. But the basic cloth seats, it’s just a cheap convertible to buy.

AM: From a sports car guy to a Jeep guy, is a manual just kind of basically a non-starter even for the hardcore, because if you’re doing rock crawling who wants to operate a clutch?

MA: If you want to start an argument, go with that line. We didn’t put an automatic in a Jeep until probably the ‘70s. I drive a manual off-road, and I won’t drive an automatic. It’s a raging debate just like on-road. I can get out of my Jeep in first gear and out-walk it. Walk faster than it goes. I could park my Jeep on a pretty steep incline, just leave it in gear, no e-brake, and walk away from it. Key off. It will stay. The gears are that low.

AM: That kind of debate keeps the brand going, right?

MA: Two door. Four door. Hard top. Soft top. Rubicon. Sport. All of that. Bring it.

AM: How much harder or easier is it to work on this, compared with the other Jeep models?

MA: We wanted to get our teeth into it. There were a lot of things about it that had been bothering me and we were anxious to get to. The final answer on this was in the first vision, but of course we did a lot of other things before we got there again to prove we had the right answer. I’m scared of the pitchforks and torches, honestly. But I think we’ve done the vehicle proud for the appearance of it. When you see it on the road with current Wranglers, you’ll finally get to make all those subtle details. Like if you look down the side—small detail—but the door handles and hinges are aligned now. The hood now goes out straight rather than dropping. The sections are more generous on it. They’re more full. You can describe Wrangler as square, and it is in profile. But the section should be softer, like on a CJ. And I don’t know how they got to a square one on the current one. This car’s just more matured and relaxed than what we have today.

AM: And organic. I really like the scallop on the front fender.

MA: There was a desire to exit some of the air from under the doghouse. Of course, you can hide that behind the fender. We chose to just make a feature out of it. That was really brought on by the early, early flat-fender models … The hood never aligned with the fender. There was a big overlap there, and it was kind of an underneath thing.

AM: You’ve got a nice, cool, distinctive design element that still has a function.

MA: Seriously. No fake vents on it. And you see that kink in the grille? That profile? So the grille starts out very vertical, and then rakes back, instead of being laid back. That kink was actually on the square headlight YJ, and it was on the follow up. The TJ had that little kink in it, and I just think it puts a little air in the lungs, you know? That comment about how we got to the right windshield rake … Another degree, and it just goes weird.

AM: You spoke about how you spent the first part of the design process, going through all the far out ideas.

MA: We probably spent the first three to four months of sketching…we papered the walls in here. We filled this whole [Design] Dome with stuff. Mild to wild. But what we chose was based more on authenticity and long life. You can do something that’s more radical here, but it will look good for about a year. And then you grow tired of it. It’s a long life kind of a vehicle, ten years. And it is our icon. We pull a lot of stuff off this vehicle to sprinkle it onto everything else we have. I just had to be authentic and that is the word, really.

AM: What was your favorite bad idea? Or wrong idea?

MA: We had some where … the whole quarter was plastic. Maybe the fender crawled onto the hood a little bit. Even different grille shapes, and lamp shapes, and stuff like that, just to prove us right. We started looking at [bad] Wrangler copies from different countries. You can go there really quickly. So we dialed it back.

AM: Do you start with the two-door and then move to the Unlimited?

MA: The two-door is the one we really love to draw. Because really it is the off-road sports car. It’s where the brand began. We never work on Wrangler without getting out the first little Willys to think about. As much as I like the little Willys, I think it’s the CJ, that’s when I thought they got it right. The Willys was a little Army Jeep. It wasn’t a brand. It was an answer. The CJ, that’s obviously the [first] one where there were sketches done, there was clay work done, because there’s form into it. And I think that’s when they got it right. It still had the great little proportions of the early Jeep, but it finally had a face that had an intentional hood and shape.

AM: Any issues rendering a new Jeep Wrangler in, mostly, aluminum?

MA: We’ve been doing aluminum hoods on vehicles for a while. We never really ran into anything that was a problem. I’ll tell you what did bother me. You’ll see a little section in the door, right above the door handle. And a Wrangler’s never had a section like that. It’s always been a flat door. A Wrangler door is so thin, and that bump out is really only for packaging of the door handles. How it has a bodyline up under the mirror that’s reminiscent of old Jeeps. That was the one concession that we kind of had to work around, but the rest of it is so basic.

AM: I was going to ask you …

MA: What didn’t I get?

AM: What didn’t you get? Yeah.

MA: Rid of the metal antenna. We were certain we were going to go in and go, “Let’s get rid of the metal antenna, because no one has a metal antenna on anything.” And we were confident we could get rid of that. The fact that it’s a four door, convertible, station wagon, with a folding windshield, there’s just really nowhere to put it other than there. There was a way to do it, but it was quite expensive and of no value to our customer.

AM: What’s your favorite secret design element of the new Wrangler?

MA: No secret, but the face of it is a big deal. And the folding windshield. It was really going to get cut. That was gonna just not happen, and trust me. [Engineering said] “We’ve built our last Wrangler with folding windshield. We won’t do it any more.” Bullshit. We’re keeping it. It’s the key on the left of the 911. It’s the motor behind the axle. I’ll read online, the forums and [they say] “I never fold mine down.” Well, because we had made it so hard [which the JL fixes]. It’s wind the face. It’s great for navigating off-road. It’s just … The same reason I had to pull the doors off, right?

AM: Minimalism at it’s best. So, you’ve got maybe another 10 years before another Jeep Wrangler. Is that a relief, or any kind of let down?

MA: I don’t have any of those feelings yet, because I’ve got a third one coming right? [The Jeep Wrangler Scrambler, a four-door Unlimited, but with a pickup bed. – ed.] Which we’ll talk about at a later time, but that’s exciting as well, because that has been on my bucket list for a long time.

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