Home » Why A Fancy European Car Designer Loves American Cars, Including The Most-Hated Jeep Wrangler

Why A Fancy European Car Designer Loves American Cars, Including The Most-Hated Jeep Wrangler

Jeep Yj Love Adrian
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I think by now my Amer-o-phile credentials are well established. I married an American once and almost married another one. I’ve been to a NASCAR race, seen my beloved Miami Dolphins (who I’ve supported for about thirty years – the definition of insanity) play twice, and fired a gun. Shit, on one visit another lifetime ago I was even approached by a recruiter for the Marines. Like I would wear blue pants with a red stripe on them. For better or worse, the bald eagle has its talons well and truly around what passes for my soul.

Without lying back on a couch for an hour once a week, my working theory is the genesis of all this can be traced back to cars. Well of course it can, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. By the time I finally got my license aged 22 in 1995 (I did it late because both my best friends could drive and I had discovered beer) hot hatchbacks were dead and uninsurable for anyone under the age of thirty. Moldy old wire wheeled classics were for flat cap geriatrics. American cars with their garish colorways, air conditioning and rumbling V8s felt like cars from another world. Because that’s exactly what they were.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Sometimes when I’ve been hit in the head I entertain the notion of buying another American car. Like an inappropriate crush, one I can’t get out of my mind is the Wrangler. Specifically the lamented YJ Wrangler. The one with the square headlights. I’ve talked before about the importance of a car’s face – the combination of grille and headlights that constitutes what is known as the Down the Road Graphic (DRG). As a designer, the visual epitome of a square peg in a round hole should be making my eye twitch, but I genuinely adore them. This isn’t my usual deliberately contrary for the sake of it stance either. Out of a long and illustrious history of Wranglers, why do the YJ’s square headlights shine right into my pleasure center?

The Heart Wants What It Wants

I would love to look up from today’s Le Monde, push my funky glasses up my nose and give you some intelligent car designer reason for this, but honestly it would be complete horseshit. There is a good car design/historical reason why the YJ has square headlights, which I’ll get to in a bit, but that can’t be why I started liking them, because back when I started seeing them on UK roads I was more concerned with drinking my own body weight in beer and deafening myself to Pantera every Friday night. I think it has more to do with what started my love affair with American cars in the first place – namely their inherent crappiness.

Yj6

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Ok that’s a bit unfair. What I mean is the simplicity of their engineering coupled with their half-assed attempts to be modern. Compared to European and Japanese stuff, American cars at the time were not exactly state of the art, but they always had a heart on the sleeve honesty about what they were.

Giving a four wheel drive system a pseudo-sophisticated name like Quadra Trac (not that the YJ has that, but other Jeeps do) is corny, but tells you exactly what it does. A flaming chicken tattoo elevated the metal flake exoticism of a Firebird into the stratosphere. Try to imagine in 1996 the inherent cool of rolling a red ’83 Trans Am through the mean streets of east London like my best friend did. It might have been crap but surrounded by grotty old Fords it looked and sounded like a jet fighter.

Sure, I had my first Capri but despite them being mechanically robust, body parts and trim were impossible to find back then because those cars were worthless. Anything exotic from the continent like a Fiat or a Citroen and the local parts place would be laughing in your face and pretending they were closed. If you wanted to stand out in McDonald’s car park on Saturday night American cars were the answer. I ended up owning a succession from a ’71 Plymouth Duster, to a Fox body Mustang, a ’79 Thunderbird and then a Z28 Camaro. There was even a specialist down the road from me who gladly emptied my bank account as I tried to give the Duster something resembling the ability to stop and steer.

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The Americans Are Coming! Maybe.

European interest in American cars has ebbed and flowed over the years on the vagaries of things like exchange rates and gas prices. According to the March 1988 issue of Car magazine, American exports to the continent reached a height of 50,320 in – get this – 1979. Small beer, but by the late eighties the big three thought conditions were favorable for a proper invasion. The domestic industry was recovering after being knocked on its ass. Key decision makers in Detroit had done their time in Europe and gotten a taste for it. Chrysler’s Bob Lutz had been chairman of Ford of Europe, GMs Bob Stempel ran Opel and Don Petersen of Ford had also been an executive on the continent. The engineering and perceived quality gap between American and European cars was closing because American designers had been posted overseas – GM’s Chuck Jordan and Ford’s Jack Telnack being two notable examples. Detroit had the money, had the knowledge and it thought it had the products. That issue of Car magazine also listed what they thought were the top ten best American cars at the time. Here’s what they said about the Wrangler:

To off-road addicts, The Jeep is what the Beetle used to be to high-school kids. The Wolfsburg Bug died a couple of years ago, but the Jeep is still going strong. Having moved from Willys-Overland (1941) to American Motors (1970) to Chrysler (1987), the Jeep nameplate is currently among the most successful in the US auto business. Our choice, the Wrangler, is not a denim-trimmed special, but the latest variation of the MASH staff car. It now features rectangular instead of round headlamps, plus a new 4.2 litre, six-cylinder engine which provides more poke than the leaf-sprung suspension can handle. We therefore suggest you forget about the silly option packs and go for the canvas top base model fitted with the 123bhp 2.5 litre four, which can still be had for under $10,000 (£5800). It best represents the old-school Jeep concept of a go anywhere utilitarian vehicle.

Despite all this coverage, the full on assault by Detroit never really amounted to much. USDM cars dripped into shark infested Euro waters mostly through specialist importers and never really found much footing. Apart from Jeep. Chrysler was doing things properly, Jeep being helped by AMC getting into the sack with Renault a few years earlier. By 1993 it was possible to walk into a UK Jeep dealer and drive out with a prime slice of genuine star-spangled, square head lamp, off-road cool.

You could also get an XJ Cherokee (oh god, now the model codes are imprinted in my brain, THANKS DAVID) and later a Chrysler Voyager (the export version of the NS minivan) or a Neon. All properly warrantied, keenly priced thanks to the exchange rate and most importantly for snobby Brits, with the steering wheel on the correct side. Apart from the YJ none of those really interested me beyond curiosity. The Neon and Caravan were American versions of something I was already familiar with, but they weren’t what I wanted from an American car. I wanted rubbish ergonomics, interior features and fittings screwed wherever there was space, big decals and a honking motor in a chassis barely able to handle it, which is how the YJ ended up with square headlights.

Square Good. Round Rollover Bad.

Previous versions of the Wrangler – then known as the CJ – had big problems keeping it shiny side up. CJs were increasingly being used as on-road pose-mobiles by people who drove them like cars with little regard to important things like a high center of gravity. NHTSA was aware of the tendency of off-road vehicles to flip over as early as 1973 and wanted to introduce a rollover standard, but automakers pushed back. In 1980 a 60 Minutes piece highlighted a report by the IIHS demonstrating the CJ’s turtle turning tendencies and AMC were well on their way to getting their asses sued to oblivion. By 1981 UPI estimated they had paid out $9 million in settlements with more pending. Lots more.

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Legend has it that part of giving the YJ square headlights was to convince the buying public it was a different vehicle to the previous wobbly CJ versions. Along with the bent grille and the name change, according to Hemmings CJ fans were so offended they christened the new model ‘Wrongler’ which considering hardcore fans are a pretty humorless bunch is extremely funny. It wasn’t an entire rethink of the Jeep undercarriage – the YJ stole its axles from the XJ for a slightly wider track and it was half an inch lower. But along with the square headlights this was enough because the rest of the classic look was still present and correct – the exposed front fenders, tapered hood, cut down doors and flat windscreen. It still was unmistakably a Jeep.

Think about any iconic car – I’m talking about the coffee table book classics that stuck around for donkey’s years. The Beetle, Mini, 911, Model T and Defender. All these cars had small detail changes year on year – things like lights, trim, glazing, without breaking the continuity of their original design – the very thing that made them what they are. The YJ is the same, and allowed the Wrangler to continue its unbroken production run (OK, minus 1996) to this day without being killed by lawsuits. Is it too much of a stretch to say if it hadn’t been for the YJ’s square headlights we wouldn’t have the JL Wrangler today? I don’t think so, and thirty years later I still desperately want one. Because they’ve mostly disappeared from the UK, I’ll to make a phone call to 1996 to tell myself to get my financial shit in order and get down the local Jeep dealership to order a 4.0 Sport manual in black.

Alternatively, maybe there’s one in the US in that spec with my name on it. I just need to emigrate after finding another American girl to marry.

All Jeep images courtesy of Stellantis Media

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Cyko9
Cyko9
2 months ago

I’m a Jeep fan and can find something to like about pretty much every vehicle. And I’ve got to come clean: I like the YJ because of Jurassic Park. I think MacGuyver drove a YJ, but it was dark colored and mostly just got him around town. Those tan & red JP YJs are iconic! That out of the way, would I have the guts to daily drive a tribute? Probably not. But a black Sport Wrangler would be pretty slick, indeed.

DMill
DMill
2 months ago

The acronym JEEP =”Just Empty Every Pocket” came to me during my YJ ownership tenure. Every paycheck it was either an aftermarket part I just HAD to have, or it was broken.

LarriveeC05
LarriveeC05
2 months ago

I always preferred small, sporty cars but seeing the white CJ7 Golden Eagle in The Dukes of Hazard was the start of my interest in jeeps (and girls, thanks Daisy) but young me seeing the new Wrangler on MacGuyver cemented my love. Finally realized my dream of owning one when I bought a ‘95 Rio Grande back in 2011, and it’s been my daily ever since.

It’s Miata-like dimensions make it maneuverable around town and it’s a mountain goat off road; but It’s slow, guzzles gas, crashy, and noisy on the freeway, I absolutely love it.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
2 months ago

I’ve always liked the YJ as well. And the YJ was a huge improvement over the ancient CJ.

I actually learned how to drive stick in a 4 cylinder YJ.

The CJ enthusiasts were all wrong about the YJ and the sales numbers proved it.

Last edited 2 months ago by Manwich Sandwich
Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
2 months ago

Alternatively, maybe there’s one in the US in that spec with my name on it. I just need to emigrate after finding another American girl to marry.”

Sometimes the obvious answer, really is obvious 🙂

I never understood the hate for these. Maybe it’s because I was just a kid when they came out, so to me it was obvious why it had rectangular headlights … because EVERYTHING had rectangular headlights in the 80’s. I was too young to be jaded about it.

KennyB
KennyB
2 months ago

My aunt had a ’91 Wrangler Renegade – perhaps the most divisive of the Wrangler trim levels. Manual trans (Holy shit! Aunt Shereyl knows how to drive a stick?) with AC and a body colored hardtop. I was 15 when she got it new, and just shy of 20 (and just shy of being able to afford to buy it) when she got rid of it. I lusted after that Jeep, and would absolutely own one of those Renegades now given the chance.

Pneumatic Tool
Pneumatic Tool
2 months ago

I have a soft spot for these as well. My immediate post college roommate was a friend from HS who was a pharmacist (AKA – great job out of the gate). As such, he was able to do cool shit at that time that I wasn’t, like buying new cars. His first purchase was a new ’91 Gallant GSR which was a pretty cool car at the time. After about a year and a half, he decided that he wanted to trade it in for a new red Wrangler with a 4.0, hard & soft tops, and a soundbar. It was fun as hell wheeling around in that thing.

That story aside, I never truly understood the hate that this thing has garnered over time. It was absolutely of the time, and still had much of what everyone loved about the previous generation – it was just modernized. It seems like there’s only a specific subset of the Jeep community that appreciates them as the “jurassic park jeep”.

Maymar
Maymar
2 months ago

Rectangular sealed beams are simple, utilitarian things, so slapping a set on a simple, utilitarian Jeep fits just fine. Although, these are also the Wranglers of my childhood, so they’re also just a little bit the *definitive* Wrangler (just as the C4 is the definitive Corvette and the aero nose Fox bodies are the definitive Mustang).

No Kids, Just Bikes
No Kids, Just Bikes
2 months ago

Not Venom or Celtic Frost or Annihilator or Exodus, but Pantera?! I mean, same for me, but I thought you were cooler. Still are (996 Vs Ferrari and all), but I see our musical paths were at least similar in some regard.

No Kids, Just Bikes
No Kids, Just Bikes
2 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

I suppose it started with Nirvana and Alice in Chains and Soundgarden for me. Then once my group started to drive it was NOFX and Slayerrrrr. Slayer took me down a path.

Kurt Cobain died while I was at Space Camp (on scholarship) in seventh grade, the jerk.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
2 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Good answer

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
2 months ago

> I thought you were cooler

Wow

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