Brooks Stevens and His Creations That Refuse to Become Obsolete as Planned.
On a recent visit to the Arizona Military Vehicle show in Tempe, AZ, beyond the multiple WW2 Jeeps of both GPW and MB ilk, I spotted some brand new American Expedition Vehicles Brute Double Cab Trucks. Mopar has offered a pick up conversion kit for the Wrangler Unlimited since 2011 albeit with only two doors. AEV’s version sports four, making it exactly what fans have been crowing for since the J-10 (formerly Gladiator) and the Comanche went out in 1987 and 1992 respectively.
Unfortunately the Brute is worth around $80,000, including the price of a standard Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and far beyond the scope of most Jeep buyers. However FCA is coming to the rescue as a standard Jeep pickup has been announced for the end of 2017.
As I admired the beautifully built AEV Brutes, my mind wandered to the designer of the original Willy’s Truck, Brooks Stevens. It was he who in 1947 penned the US market’s first ever quarter ton pickup featuring four-wheel drive. Dodge’s PowerWagon emerged the year before but was more similar to what we call heavy-duty trucks today. The little pickup with its trademark Jeep fascia, and stepside bed had been preceded a year earlier by the Willy’s Wagon, which would go on to become the progenitor of all SUV’s.
Stevens went on to design the successors to the aforementioned models, the Gladiator and Wagoneer which would define the Jeep brand for decades, allowing it to survive multiple near death experiences at the hands of Kaiser, American Motors Corporation and Chrysler, finally emerging as the main profit center within FCA.
Both Wagon and Truck were available for sale from 1946 to 1965. Their successors emerged in 1963 and soldiered on until they was replaced by the Comanche in 1986 and the sad day in 1991 that the last Grand Wagoneer rolled off the line in Toledo. This combined product life of forty years for the trucks and forty-five years for the Wagons was remarkable but not unique in the auto industry. Icons such as the Citroen 2CV at 42 years, the VW Beetle hitting the ripe old age of 65, and the Toyota Corolla at 68 could be regarded as the wise elders of the auto industry. What makes the Jeep models stand out is that such longevity went in the face of a phrase Stevens himself had made popular.
Born in Milwaukee in 1911, Brooks Stevens was stricken with polio as a child and his father encouraged him to draw while bedridden. His talent led to a degree in design at Cornell University in 1933. In his long career spanning from the depression when, as he later said, "I had to fight my way in to talk to anybody in the 30's. I had to not only justify myself, but justify my profession," to the time when he handed the reigns of his eponymous design firm over to his son Kipp, Mr. Stevens touched every corner of industrial design. From cars, trains (Skytop Lounge Observation Cars), outboard boat motors (Evinrude Lark and Johnson Javelin) via various household appliances, the Wienermobile and the 1949 Harley - Davidson Hydra Glide, his flair and design vision had an immense impact on postwar America.
In a speech at an advertising conference in 1954 titled “Planned Obsolescence”, he explained the concept as "instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary." He saw the concept as something positive while detractors saw it as the wasteful downside of post –war consumer society. With most of his designs the desired trade-up effect was achieved but in the case of Jeep the production runs mentioned above show the opposite effect.
Demand for the 1963-91 Jeep Wagoneer especially, has remained strong well into the after life of restored classics. For Chip Miller, founder of Wagonmaster of Kerrville, Texas, Brooks Stevens spawned a family business of restoring Wagoneers that is doing better than ever, 22 years after the first “Woody” was given a new lease on life. Values of the restored classics are also rising, presently reaching levels similar to Jeep’s top current offerings.
Just as the faithful have been clamoring for a Wrangler Pickup, so too have they been stomping their boots for a new Grand Wagoneer as a weapon to go up against Range Rovers and such. Mr. Marchionne heard their call a few years ago and sent a team of engineers to Wagonmaster to be steeped in “Woody” lore and legend. The new model has been announced for 2018. It will come at the expense of the Dodge Durango which, like quite a few other Dodge and Chrysler products, will ride off into the sunset.
The last time Jeep tried to launch a successor to the Wagoneer it was misnamed Commander and turner out to be one of the worst selling products in Jeep history. Mr. Marchionne himself, said, “That car was unfit for human consumption. We sold some, But I don't know why people bought them.” Apart from having the range of an Abrams Tank it wasn’t that bad, but a worthy successor to the fabled Wagoneer, it was not.
Considering his strong feelings, it is likely that Mr. Marchionne has put his best people on the case and not the short-bus-riders who designed the rear door for the recently euthanized Chrysler 200. Hopefully the SUV that rolls off the assembly line in Toledo in 2018 lives up to the legend of its namesake and makes Mr. Stevens proud that his progeny is about to be reincarnated.