Mark Allen has a lot of weight on his shoulders. As the design boss of Jeep, the American holds the heritage of the brand and everything it represents at the tip of his Copic markers.
Jeep enthusiasts are a loyal bunch, revering the brand not only for its storied history, but for the ideals of freedom and adventure Jeep exudes with its range of SUVs and off-roaders.
Nothing exemplifies this more than the Jeep Wrangler, the halo car for the brand and the one model people think of as soon as you say the word ‘Jeep’. Yes, there are other vehicles in the brand’s line up, but Jeep is the Wrangler, and the Wrangler is Jeep.
It’s an ethos not lost on Allen.
“Honestly, I probably over index on the loving the heritage part of Jeep too much,” he says. “I'm in a career where the future is everything, the future, the future, the future, and I really love heritage when it comes to automobiles. So I kind of hold the line a little bit on, Jeep, especially Wrangler.
“The rest of them can go forward, I'm fine with that. But Wrangler, I have kind of strict guidelines that I put on myself just because I fear the torches and pitchforks and that kind of thing. So getting that wrong would be a real problem.”
That’s an acknowledgement of the importance of the Wrangler to Jeep and of the strongly-held opinions of the nameplate’s vociferous fans: “Some are aggressive,” Allen laughs, adding that he does receive feedback from fans of the brand.
“… usually it's words of encouragement, which is good to hear,” he continues. “Especially when it comes to Wrangler, because there's a lot of interest in that vehicle.
“The issue with it is, Wrangler fan base has gone from something very, very small to something really, really big. But it's sort of a club, if you will. It's the Jeep owners that wave at each other and stuff. It stops at Wrangler. The Renegade people don't, the Compass people don't. They're enthusiasts first before they’re consumers. I guess to me, they walked into our dealership for a reason, that they were after something and it's just a bit different than ordinary transportation.
“And we really cater to those people. It's been my long-held belief that if we keep the enthusiasts, we get everybody else. If we just cater to everybody else, we'll lose the enthusiasts.”
Ask Allen what he thinks those ‘enthusiasts’ love about the Wrangler and his answer is decisive.
“Simplicity,” he states. “That and the ability to kind of make it anything you want it to be.
“We fight hard to keep being able to pull the roof off of the car. All Wranglers are convertibles of course, pull the roof off, put the windshield down and take the doors off.
“Somehow that resonates with people regardless if they go off road or not, right?
“The vehicle is a very capable off-road vehicle. But take that aside for the moment, the ability to, especially in 2020, take the doors off the car for God's sake, and the roof and stuff like that. People really respond to that for some reason.”
Back to the Copic markers, the responsibility of keeping the Wrangler fresh while also maintaining its core principles is no easy task. To an outside observer, it might seem a simple exercise, designing a new Wrangler. After all, from generation to generation, visually little seems to change. So how does Allen treat every new generation of Wrangler from a design point of view? Carefully, is the answer.
“Fanatical paying attention,” he says. “I think about these things all the time, and I've got a great group of guys that do the same thing.
“We're very focused on Wrangler, and we get the weight of that vehicle to our brand, how important it is. When we think about the Jeep brand, all of the vehicles – Grand Cherokee, Compass, Renegade, doesn't matter what – they all have a piece of Wrangler in them.
“And that's so important to us. Where on a Grand Cherokee it's less so, on a Renegade it's more so. But we know if we don't do that, we kind of lose the plot.
“Wrangler, we think about that a lot. In fact, when we did the refresh on it, the renewal, the JL, we put a lot of historical pieces into the vehicle, but try to keep it very fresh.”
It’s not always gone to plan though, as Allen reveals when asked if he felt there had been any major mis-steps in the Wranglers lineage.
“Well, the square headlight Wrangler comes up all the time,” he admits of the first Jeep to bear the nameplate.
Released in 1986, the first Wrangler was intended to keep the heritage of the Jeep CJ-7 alive. However, as Allen reveals, the decision to make it look subtly different to its forebears was a calculated and deliberate decision.
“I think that's the most important Wrangler ever,” he says. “And I'll give you my reasoning why.
“At that point, when that car came out there was an exposé being done on the old CJ, they were rolling over, et cetera. When they did the YJ, they lowered the vehicle, they made the track wider.
“I was told it had to look different than - it was before my time but I was told it had to look different – [to] the CJ. And in fact, it picked up the name Wrangler. That was the first time it was called Wrangler, to make a marked difference between that and the earlier car.”
As Allen reveals, the first Wrangler, designation YJ, is arguably the most important Wrangler of all, the Jeep that saved the company.
“Had that exercise failed, we wouldn't be talking about Wrangler here at all,” he admits. “The lineage would have stopped. So when they did that, the square headlight car, it looked different. It drove different. It was more stable. It was still capable, but that was such an important exercise to do.
“It would have killed the whole thing. And I can't imagine Jeep as a brand would have the strength that it has today without that core vehicle… Yeah, I think that's a very important car.”
Taking an established formula and deviating from its core is an exercise in danger, sometimes. It’s easy to draw parallels between Jeep Wrangler and Land Rover Defender, both ultimately utilitarian off-roaders with a DNA that doesn’t seem to change. The Defender, for its part, stayed true to its roots through successive generations, much like the Wrangler. But, as we now know, the all-new Land Rover Defender has been totally rethought, redesigned and re-engineered. Allen, for his part, is a fan.
“I'm intrigued by it,” he says. “I think they did a fantastic job on it. I'm a big fan of their design work that they do. And that was a tricky thing to do, to recreate the Defender.
“That's their Wrangler, honestly. They did a great job with it I think, design-wise.
“I haven't been next to one and I struggle with trying to figure out exactly how big it is. I know what it's made from, et cetera. I can pretty much guess. Really a cohesive design in my opinion. And they picked up a lot of historical cues from the Defender. So good job, I think.”
Allen has been in the top job at Jeep since 2009. As head of design, the responsibility of maintaining the company’s unquestionable heritage, certainly in terms of aesthetic, rests with him. Allen revels and relishes the future.
“I always wanted to be a car designer,” he says. “I sat around and I sketched cars all the time. At some point they kept shifting me around and I stayed in Jeep for so long, I said, ‘Screw it. I'm just going to wear this.’ It would be hard to change lanes now.”