Catching Up With …
JEEP DESIGN CHIEF
As the head of Jeep design, Mark Allen has an important but challenging position.
AS FIAT CHRYSLER’S head of Jeep design, some would say Mark Allen has the best job in the world. Some would also say he has the least enviable job in the world because redesigning the iconic Jeep Wrangler is like redesigning the Porsche 911. How do you completely redo an icon without angering the hardcore enthusiasts who have made the model what it is? To find out, we spoke with Allen following the unveiling of the all-new 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL.
How much has the four-door Wrangler changed Jeep?
MA: Before the Unlimited, we sold Wranglers in the spring and summer. The Unlimited became a car for daily use, and it surprised even us.
Sort of like going from a sports car to family car.
MA: It’s like, “Hey, I want to get a Wrangler. I can bring the kids now.” The old Wranglers used to be cross-shopped against a speedboat. My Wrangler, I drive it in the summer. That’s about it.
So the Unlimited allows you to spend more time and money on developing things that keep the hardcore set happy?
MA: It certainly helped. It’s gotta have updates. Simple things, like the door needs to shut itself. Right? And that’s customer feedback. “I hate the door handle. I hate how the door shuts. Give me creature comforts.”
Will there be blowback from the hardcore Jeep fans who don’t like the door to shut itself ?
MA: I saw it happen when we did TJ. “Oh, you put a regular dashboard in it, and you put coil springs on it. Oh, it’s ruined forever.” And then I saw it on JK, and it’s like, “Oh, you’ve ruined it with four doors.” We still sell a Sport, and it’s very popular. Roll-up windows, a basic radio, HVAC, and the locker switches. No matter what, it’s a cheap convertible. Right?
Is a manual transmission a nonstarter for the serious off-roader? Who wants to operate a clutch when you’re rock crawling?
MA: If you want to start an argument, go with that line. We didn’t put an automatic in a Jeep until probably the ’70s. I drive a manual off-road, and I won’t drive an automatic. I can get out of my Jeep in first gear and walk faster than it goes.
That kind of debate keeps the brand going, right?
MA: Two doors. Four doors. Hard top. Soft top. Rubicon. Sport. All of that. Bring it.
How much harder or easier was it to redesign the Wrangler compared with other Jeep models?
MA: We were wanting to get our teeth into it. There were a lot of things about it that had been bothering me that we were anxious to get to. If you look down the side, the door handles and hinges are aligned now. The hood now goes out straight rather than dropping. The sections are more generous. This car’s just more matured and relaxed than the JK.
So you spent the first part of the design process going through all the far-out ideas?
MA: We probably spent the rst three to four months sketching. ... We papered the walls in here. Mild to wild. But what we chose was based more on authenticity and long life. You can do something that’s more radical here, but it will look good for about a year.
MA: We had some [where] the whole quarter was plastic. Maybe the fender crawled onto the hood a little bit. Even different grille shapes and lamp shapes, stuff like that, just to put us right where we were. I’ve got a lot of young designers in the room, and I had to be the voice of reason to come back, even with my boss, who’s always pushing, like he rightly should.
Do you start with the two-door and then move to the Unlimited?
MA: The two-door is the one we really love to draw because really it’s the off-road sports car. I don’t know who gets credit for the CJ, but it’s obvious to me there were sketches done, there was clay work done, because there’s form in it. And I think that’s when they got it right.
What didn’t you get?
MA: Rid of the metal antenna.
What’s your favorite secret design element?
MA: No secret, the face is a big deal. And championing the folding windshield [and making it easier to fold down]. Manufacturing hated it just for painting the car and handling that windshield. We’re keeping it. It’s the key on the left of the 911. It’s the motor behind the axle.
I’ll read in online forums, “I never fold mine down.” Well, because we made it so hard. It’s wind in the face. It’s great for navigating off-road. It’s just ... the same reason I had to pull the doors off, right?