It’s time for Jeep to make a van. In fact it’s beyond time for Jeep to make a van.
The van scene is booming. Whether it’s a spin-off of the COVID work-from-anywhere mentality, or the roller coaster housing market, or just the ingrained nomadic desire of a couple hundred thousand years of wandering aimlessly looking for the perfect river bank to call home, it’s definitely trending to live in a van down by the river. (RIP C. Farley)
[Editor’s Note: Everyone please welcome my friend Fred Williams! He’s an incredible entertainer/journalist, a true off-road expert, and among the best people to ever out of the great manufacturing plant in the sky (or is it Toledo?). Follow him on his YouTube channel 4xFredWilliams to hang out (virtually) with one of the world’s foremost off-road masters.
In this article, I’ve paired him up with The Bishop (our zany in-house artist/designer of dream cars) so that we can have some images to go along with a “take” Fred has been telling me about in-person for years. That take being: Jeep needs to build an off-road van. -DT].
But the options for those looking to outfit a van are slim on the new vehicle front. Mercedes of course has its Sprinter lineup, which starts at $50k+ and climbs quickly to five times that when built out with AWD. Ford is right there with Mercedes with the Transit at maybe a little less expensive to buy in, but on par when outfitted. GM doesn’t offer the high-top euro style vans, but thankfully still offers body on frame and healthy V8 options (400 horsepower 6.6L gas Power!), but you can only option them new with 4×4 if run through an upfitter such as Quigley 4×4 for a final price on par with the prior two brands. Oh, and if you think the RAM Promaster has anything to offer to the van-lifer, well, it’s basically the worst option with horrible ergonomics and front wheel drive; meh!
A Jeep Van
So why Jeep and why now? The truth is that the brand should have pushed this to the front of the To-Do list 10 years back because the Van-Life trend may have already peaked. Luckily the key to a successful van offering is on par with how Jeep offers Wrangler (or how you can get it equipped from the vast aftermarket options).
Offer it fully built with tires, lift, lockers and winch, or in this case fold down bed, water tanks, solar panels, ground clearance and various Mopar mounts for every outdoor toy imaginable, or offer it as a stripped down Sport, in this case a 4×4 box with a two speed transfer case, and let the new Jeep Wrangler-Van owners build them out as they please.
The van lifestyle is similar to the Jeep buyer lifestyle: outdoorsy, adventurous, maybe they have kids, maybe they’re retired, they might need room for mountain bikes, they might need room for a dog or three. But where a Wrangler has to pump the brakes on sleeping inside the vehicle or locking up the bikes (or fido) the Wrangler-Van will have room for it all. Three row seating for grown up kids? Yes. Lots of windows or solid panel sides? Yes. Long wheelbase frame with various engine options? Yes (think Gladiator frame with a house on top).
The fact is that most of the vans available now were designed and engineered for commercial use, hauling plumbers, electricians, or packages. But wouldn’t it be better if a van were designed with Jeep off road prowess to start, and live-in-ability from the initial sketch? The 4xe Diesel Hybrid Wrangler Van with solar roof panel integration has a nice ring to it. Jeep isn’t afraid of cool colors, so the Jeep Wrangler-Van meetups won’t be all grey, white and black. I’ll take one in green, or orange.
Jeep actually has built a van in the past, so you could say there is history to do so again. In the early 60’s Jeep modified their Forward Control truck into a military van and ambulance variant. These didn’t make it to the civilian market, and rare surviving versions fetch top dollar if they ever come up for sale.
Even before the military M678 and M679 variants there was a prototype Jeep Commuter van based on the FC chassis and built by Reutter Karosserie in Stuttgart, Germany (they also built some German sports car bodies I think) based on drawings by renowned designer Brooks Stevens, also designer of the Wienermobile (sorry but I refuse to call it the Frankmobile, some things don’t need to change). However this glorious six door executive hauler never made it past the early prototype phase.
Then a few years back Jeep made a Mighty FC concept for its annual Moab pilgrimage and it was quickly photoshopped into a van-like variant for ultimate camping, exploring, and sleeping in your Jeep under the stars. When that pops up online it resonates with a chorus of “Jeep should build that!”
The Autopian’s Daydreaming-Designer Tries To Create The Jeep Van Of My Dreams
So what would a Jeep van look like? As much as I want a solid axle Wrangler based variant, I actually think a new Wagoneer chassis would be a good starting point. It’s robust from its Ram truck underpinnings, the new Hurricane I6 would be a great powerplant for an often overloaded overlanding machine, the air independent suspension would help with varying loads, plus I want to tow my other trail Jeep with my Wrangler-Van since 4wheeling is my outdoor hobby. So let’s shoot for 8,000 or 10,000 pound towing numbers. I personally would loved to see van-lifers bolting on 40’s, but I know most will be content with a 33-inch mud tire, side bars that both protect and help kiddos climb in the back, roof racks and ladders, and a younger hipper off-road styling than other minivans in the Stellantis line up (I’m not saying the Pacifica is boring, but it is).
The Bishop here. It’s one thing when the disturbed founder of this car-site asks you to, say, design a car for a country with five foot diameter coins; the sillier the idea the better with THAT guy. However, when a less-disturbed founder comes to you and requests a serious design for a van built by Jeep-the most storied name in off road motoring- it’s an entirely different situation. It gets worse when I’m told that the overlanding van concept is requested by a man named Fred Williams. I wasn’t familiar, but a Google search lights up like The Strip on a Saturday night. This guy is a highly regarded legend in the four wheel drive community; you might know him as technical editor of Peterson’s 4 Wheel & Off Road or from his online presence in places like Motor Trend’s former show Dirt Every Day. Damn, this one is gonna be tough. Fred did have some more specific requests, which helps a great deal:
Shoot for a 120 inch wheelbase for optimal short stubby off-road look. This would be the same as a RAM regular cab 6’4” bed platform. I really like the idea of a cab over because of the heritage, but I understand that being hard to integrate. I think keeping in mind forward visibility for off roading and ease of parking is important to consider. The Jeep Van should be best in class in both approach angle and forward visibility to both the horizon and the ground close in front of the van.
Fred, I LOVE cabovers as well, and I even designed what I thought a 1985 Jeep FC family might look like. However, I know that safety and ride comfort concerns mean that such a machine isn’t going to fly as a mass production passenger vehicle today. Of course, Sprinter-type vans put the driver pretty far forward, and new concepts like the VW ID Buzz and Canoo vans do a pretty good impersonation of cabovers. I’m also pleased that Fred wants to go between the size of Transit Connect-sized compact vans and giant Sprinter-sized behemoths, which should create a nice compromise of interior space and manageable size. As Fred says, they should have done this ten years ago, so I’m imagining this thing being introduced around 2013 or so; why not? Let’s start with a side view of the old 2009 RAM that they sell as the ‘Classic’ today. We can use that to get a rough idea of what this van might be like:
I know that production reality will make ’em longer, lower, lamer, but my dream Jeep van wouldn’t have that stuff. The idea to get people talking about what could be. I think remove all side steps; yes, they’ll be added later but God they ruin the off road look of any vehicle. David mentioned a sliding side door; I actually prefer a pair of hinged side doors, with exposed hinges to keep the wrangler theme. If they get sliding doors it would need a style that kicks or slants out to clear bigger tires that might bulge outside the tire flares. Also, I’m not sure about a driver’s side rear door. I think it should be an option in case the van is a kid hauler, but it should be easily replaced with a bolt-in door in case the van is being built out as camper.
Indeed, Fred, if we start with the hard core off-road version and work backwards, we’ll have a machine with true credibility. As Fred requested, the production one will be available in many flavors; options that range from under-seven-foot-tall fit-in-a-garage soccer mom vehicles to extended, tall box models and even camper chassis. To that end, for example, I’ve added an obvious seam behind the driver and front passenger since we’re going to offer a wide variety of different back body modules (and wheelbases). You could have a standard height body or tall body, either long or short wheelbase, windows or no windows, with options for a stripped out interior or three (or even four) rows of seats. Another aftermarket option would be to offer just the cab chassis to allow for a complete camper that would sit aft the front cabin with a sleeper area extending over it. Again, some rough layouts:
Here’s a view of what I call the Sport body rear section in place, with factory-offered off-road steel bumpers incorporating a winch:
The below is very rough, but it’s a sketch of what a “street” plastic lower bumper might look like for the mom-and-the-kids versions that might benefit most from better aerodynamics:
This mid-height Sport rear body has giant windows and a roof rack over the standard height front passenger compartment. I was inspired by the late seventies Matra Rancho, a very cool looking early “crossover’ that’s actually just a front wheel drive Simca car front attached to that custom rear cabin (oddly enough, it was a Chrysler product at the time!). I’ve always wanted to see that shape with some REAL off-road capabilities (the early Nissa Xterra tried but it’s a pretty watered-down attempt). I also looked at, of all things, the funky-looking Sherpa van made in the seventies by British Leyland. Like our Jeep, it was built as a smaller competitor to the concurrent Ford Transit and preferred by the Royal Mail for its easier maneuverability (one makes an appearance in The Spy Who Loved Me).
The rearmost doors and liftgate from a Ford Excursion are still one of the best designs, but a liftgate on a tall van might be hard, so it would need a power close option. Lots of van users mount stuff to the inside of the rear doors. I want the Jeep van to be the easiest van for people to work on. Vans are notorious for engine work, so maybe the entire front panel is quick and easy to lift off, or has exposed hinges and clamshells open to each side so the engine is accessible?
Yup, Fred, that whole nose pivots up or can be removed completely. In back, I don’t want taillights to take away valuable inches from the opening so the Jeep box-looking taillights are on the doors themselves, with repeater lights in the rear bumper. Obviously, we’d have a few door options with and without windows, including the “Dutch door” idea Fred mentions with a tailgate and then flip-open half door above. The lights and license plate can fold out to allow you to drive legally with the gate down.
As for the inside, the flooring would be easy to pull out for cleanup from kid messes, pet messes, spilled camping meals, or muddy mountain bikes. I think showing the bins, showing a bed, showing it full of bikes, and showing it full of seats of smiling children is the real picture. The goal is showing that Jeep Van would have the same customizability as Wrangler. In my view the aftermarket will do a much better job of offering accessories than the OEMs ever do.
I suggested a modular approach to Fred for the empty-shell “van life” versions (especially long wheelbase ones) that offered options for sleeping, food prep, and storage lockers. I was seeing rails on the side walls that different sized storage boxes could click onto. They could be padded inside or insulated ones for food, long ones for things like rifles or fishing/kayak gear. These could be removed from the van to load up with gear in your house or garage and then brought out to the van (with a roll around cart if too heavy). A big fold down mattress in the way back is an option. There’s also a sink, cooktop, refrigerator, and microwave modules. Of course, a fully upholstered car-like passenger van interior would be available as well.
The dashboard would be inspired by the old Jeep FC, which had an angled plane with instruments mounted in it. The same thing could be done here and it sort of reduces the visual depth of the dashboard. The face level vents become a flat part of the plane when closed, and a second ‘tier’ features the gear selectors.
A Different Idea
Here’s another idea: Put the engine in the back under a platform that could be a bed, think VW van or diesel pusher RV. What options would that open up? I like the idea of the diesel hybrid with the rear small diesel that can propel it like a diesel pusher, or charge batteries or act as a camp generator. I think the van platform could really integrate diesel, hybrid, solar, beyond other platforms. Allowing for unusual drivetrain layouts for optimal internal space and off road performance.
Ah, Fred, you’re KILLING ME! I thought I was done. How about this: we look at what a 2024 Jeep Van could possibly be? I mean, they could continue to make the RAM 1500 one that I’ve shown already as the “Jeep Van Classic” or something, but introduce an innovative next-generation van, the 4xe.
Wheelbase and length would be the same as the short bed RAM 1500-based “Classic” but the frame would allow for almost anything. It could be a plug-in all-EV Jeep but I think you’d want to have a diesel or gas engine in back to charge the batteries, even if it doesn’t directly power the wheels (if you want that, buy the “Classic”). I mean, if you go on, say, an Alaskan adventure with an EV it appears that there are some charging stations in downtown Anchorage but good luck going into the deep country without an ICE motor. Here’s a very rough drawing:
My idea starts with sort of an “exoskeleton” outside — an egg-shaped frame that might even act a bit like a roll cage. To this outside frame you could bolt on any kind of door, window, solid side or roof panel you wanted to for easy reconfigurability at the factory or even at home. I mean, it’s likely that it would be capable of driving around without doors or other body panels as I’ve shown in the bottom drawing. In fact, even the windshield could be a flip-down, hinged panel to open as on a Wrangler. I figured that was a dumb idea but Fred actually dug it. Talk about adding fun to your summertime Saturday Costco trip- full face helmets for the whole family!
Hopefully, with the “Classic” van and the ready-for-the-future EV model available, the Jeep Van duo could wipe the floor with the competition’s converted Home Depot rental box trucks.
Inside, as with most current electrified vehicles, the main display and controls will live dead center on the dash (with small displays for speed and such either on the windshield or just below as I am showing). There’s a large center screen with seven vertical bars to take you to the different screens (climate, entertainment, settings, 4WD, etc.). Flanking the screen are big, cartoonishly beefy rubber knobs for the ‘gear’ selector and another knob to allow you to scroll through menus without touching the screen with your hands all muddy and greasy from hooking up the winch. Below that are knobs for driver and passenger temperature control and the window switches (remember, the doors can be removed easily with quick-release catches).
Wait- does this center screen unit look like something familiar? I can’t place it.
How would it drive? I’m not sure, but you can build one yourself and try it out, on your desk at least:
Right click the above and print it on letter size, ignoring the glances of coworkers at the copier. Anyway, back to Fred, the man with the idea:
The Wrangler-Van will look cool at soccer practice, or much further down the trail than the other brand vans still parked at the trailhead. Contrary to popular news media there are still lots of families with 3+ kids out there and many parents don’t want the stigma of a boring minivan, but a Jeep van would look cool and be able to haul them all with ease and take them places where kids (or adults) can still be kids. Like the woods, or desert.
..or down by the river.