Mark Allen is the head of Jeep design at Fiat-Chrysler. "Head crayon for Jeep" is how he describes himself. Appointed to his position in 2009, he's shaped every new Jeep to roll off the assembly lines since then.
Today, that includes the all-new 2018 JL-generation Wrangler. Only updated once a decade, redesigning the Wrangler presents an outsized challenge: It has to look new, but not so outrageous that it turns off Jeep aficionados. Recognizable, not radical.
During a drive of the new Wrangler in New Zealand, I spoke with Allen about the challenges involved in redesigning such an iconic and successful model—one with a huge following among hardcore enthusiasts.
"My personal favorite thing is the CJ-5," Allen says. "As much as I love the flat-fender CJ-2A, that styling was done by engineers." The M38 A1, and the civilian-spec CJ-5 that was derived from it, was the first Jeep styled by an actual design department. "The CJ got a little bit more muscle, feel," Allen explains. "That's really what we put into this vehicle."
"A Wrangler should have a trapezoidal grille," Allen says. "That is CJ derived. Look how the headlight invades into the outer grille slot. That's a minor detail—when they Federalized the war Jeeps, the seven-inch headlight didn't fit without cutting into the grille. What a great little detail," he said.
Despite the new Wrangler being slightly longer and wider than the outgoing, JK-generation model, the new JL looks trimmer. It's a trick of the eye: Allen explains that a larger grille and headlights, a wider track, and narrower bumpers and fender flares give the new Wrangler a tidier look. "That gets it to feel more like a modded vehicle already," he said.
The grille is more vertical, kinked halfway up to tilt back toward the hood. The hood is longer and flatter than before, with sculpted features reminiscent of the TJ and CJ. The windshield is angled further back, with aerodynamic improvements in the cowl and A-pillar, but unlike the JK-generation Wrangler the new model's windshield glass is flat.
And yes, the windshield folds down. "I was accosted in the hallway by an engineer," Allen told me. "He's like, we've gotta get rid of the folding windshield." For manufacturing, the flip-down windscreen is essentially another door to paint, align and weather-seal, adding complication. But every open-top Jeep has offered a flip-down windscreen, because the original Willys needed it to fit in the US Army's shipping crate.
"I drive my Jeep with the windshield down frequently," Allen tells me. He's got a 2001 TJ Rubicon at home, a car he bought new and never plans to sell. "I swear it drives different with the windshield down.
But why keep such a complicated feature if so few people use it? "For shipping," Allen says with a smile. "And sometimes there's a guy in the back with a Howitzer."
There are other traditional elements mixed in with the new. The fender vent is a Wrangler first, open to the engine compartment to reduce air pressure and alleviate hood flutter at high speeds. The Jeep badge behind the front wheel? Straight from the old-school playbook. "God told me that's where it needs to be," Allen says.
The new Wrangler's windows are bigger, for better outward visibility. "The current vehicle was done in the 2000s, when it was a race to see how high we could get the beltline," Allen says. "It makes such bad sense for off-roading. I'm a heretic for lowering the beltline."
It's easy to see the vintage inspiration in the new Wrangler. It's a traditional design, one refined over 75 years, but still faithful to the original recipe. "I never want to think of Wrangler as 'retro,' because it's never gone out of production" Allen tells me. "I'm okay with the real traditional styling. If we did not do that? It just wouldn't feel right.
"I'm okay with it if you can't tell from a half-mile away if that's the new car or the old car. My enthusiasts will know," he continues. "They're genuinely experts on this thing. They don't even call it the Wrangler, it's the JL or JK or TJ. They're fanatics."
Sitting next to Allen, observing the new Wrangler he and his team penned, you get the impression he's just as much a fanatic as anyone.
"There's just so much homogenization going on in the world," Allen says, gazing through the windshield at a JL Wrangler clawing across a rushing stream. "Wrangler stands out from that.