Motoring: New Jeep returns to old battlefields: 'The American Legend' is coming back to Britain. Phil Llewellin speaks to the man responsible

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Indy Lifestyle Online
MOTORING legends don't come much bigger than Jeep. Built by Willys and Ford, the original Forties model became a synonym for indomitable versatility, winning its spurs in every theatre of war from Finland to France to North Africa to the Pacific.

Jeeps carried just about everything from generals and heavy machine guns to fuel tanks, medical supplies and rubble for filling in bomb craters. Jeep lore includes a story from Burma, where a transport unit's sergeant used four-wheel-drive and a rope to extract an elephant's aching tooth.

The anecdote is appropriate. Richard Mackay, the 45-year-old managing director of Chrysler Jeep UK, likens himself to an elephant that has just given birth after a two-year gestation: it has been a long hard slog to bring Jeep back to Britain after more than a decade's absence.

His realistic sales target for 1993 is 1,500 Cherokees and 500 Wranglers. Prices range from pounds 12,495 for the basic 2.5-litre Wrangler to pounds 20,995 for the range's Cherokee Limited SE.

The Wrangler rides on old-fashioned leaf springs and has quite a lot in common with the original military Jeep, that was more thrills than frills. The Cherokee is a well equipped and surprisingly agile vehicle.

Mr Mackay has no qualms about launching his campaign at a time when most of the motor industry is battling to survive the recession. His confidence is supported by the fact that four-wheel-drive sales are bucking the trend.

Land-Rover's Discovery and Vauxhall's Frontera were expected to lure customers from the likes of the Isuzu Trooper and Nissan Patrol; in fact, they have expanded the market by generating new interest in this type of vehicle.

'No more than 25 per cent of our initial forward orders involved a part-exchange deal,' Mr Mackay says. 'These were split just about 50:50 between four-wheel-drive vehicles and conventional cars that ranged from a Porsche 911 to a very old Mercedes.

'Market research indicates that we will pull customers in from saloons, coupes, estate cars and, to a certain extent, from hot hatchbacks. One reason is that a Jeep provides something individual, something with character, something that makes a statement. We also expect to attract people who already have a small, trendy four-wheel-drive vehicle, but now need to take the step from fun to family transport.

'Price, specification and size are among the Cherokee's main assets. We believe it will appeal to people who regard other well equipped four-wheel-drive vehicles as being a bit too big, a bit too thirsty and a bit too expensive.'

Mr Mackay is determined to avoid a head-on battle with Land-Rover. Jeep must create its own image, he asserts. The marque's unique heritage, emphasised by 'The American Legend' stickers, is supported by Britain's interest in and awareness of America.

But there is also something of an educational task to perform, he says. 'We are breaking new ground in the sense that American products are recognised in Britain, but tend to be at opposite ends of the market. For instance, we fly in Boeings and know about IBM. We drink Coca-Cola and eat Big Macs. But most of us know next to nothing about what there is in the middle ground.

'Bridging that awareness gap is important, because the aim is to be selling between 15,000 and 20,000 vehicles a year by the end of the decade. We expect to bring the turbo-diesel Cherokee to Britain early next year, then launch the Grand Cherokee in 1995. The big step after that will be the introduction of the Chrysler Voyager, the world's top-selling multi-purpose vehicle.

'Jeep is deeply entrenched as a generic term over here, rather to the surprise of our American colleagues. The average 25-year-old will probably tell you that a Jeep is a compact, four-wheel-drive Suzuki. Although that's something of a compliment, we have to educate people about Jeep being a registered trademark.'

The confident and professional return to Britain under the Chrysler Jeep banner - Chrysler has owned the company since 1987 - is the latest chapter in one of motoring's most remarkable stories.

It started in the US on 27 June 1940, when the army's Ordnance Technical Committee invited 135 potential suppliers to submit designs and tenders for a small, rugged, maid-of-all-work vehicle, capable of 'relatively high speeds . . . over all types of roads, trails, across open and rolling country, under all conditions of weather and terrain'.

Only two manufacturers accepted the challenge, because Uncle Sam insisted that the prototype be ready for testing within seven weeks. (Modern designers, supported by all manner of time-saving technology, need at least three years to take a vehicle from concept to reality.)

Karl Probst, a freelance engineer hired by the short-lived American Bantam Car Company of Pennsylvania, is credited with completing the design in five days. The first prototype was delivered on time to the Quartermaster Corps base in Maryland.

The Longest Day was on television a few hours after I interviewed Richard Mackay. The last scene in the epic, true-to-life account of the D-Day landings on the Normandy coast in 1944 features Robert Mitchum as Brigadier General Norman 'Dutch' Cota. After his men have finally punched a hole in the German defences on the high ground above Omaha Beach, the cigar-chomping veteran calls to a driver, 'Run me up the hill, son,' and heads inland. There are no prizes for guessing the vehicle's identity.

(Photograph omitted)

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