Jeep evolution

Jeep Design – the Pillars of Form and Functionality

Looking at the signature Jeep design elements that have remained true to their roots for 75 years.

The Jeep brand has come a long way since the first Willys made its appearance in 1941. Then a spartan, go-anywhere vehicle intended for the US military (though Great Britain and the Soviet Red Army were also given some to help in the war effort), the original MB model was able to venture to places that were not normally accessible by conventional four-wheeled cars.

The highly capable Jeep was not only praised by soldiers and medics for its service in World War II, it also won a number of industrial design accolades and has been periodically exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, which describes it as a masterpiece of functionalist design. It was so well received that Willys began selling the car to civilians as the CJ (Civilian Jeep) in 1945.

Jeep design evolution

The Jeep brand changed hands many times in subsequent decades. Having been sold four times between 1953 and 1987 due to financial hardships, the brand continued to develop rugged yet simple designs and pioneered the SUV format with the Wagoneer in 1963, long before any other manufacturer had even considered the vehicle typology.

Throughout its long history, the Jeep brand has retained many of the immediately identifiable and well-defined design elements of the original function-honed vehicles. The now iconic round headlights, seven-slot grille, trapezoidal wheelarches and vertical windshield all come together to define a simple, honest aesthetic that forms the Jeep DNA.

Jeep design evolution

The vertical-slotted grille and the trapezoidal wheelarches, in particular, are design elements dating back 75 years that can be seen in almost every Jeep vehicle today. The traditional ventilation slots were introduced in the first Willys-Overland MA in 1940 when Willys together with American Bantam and Ford answered the call of the US Army and designed the first prototypes of off-road vehicles.

In this milestone vehicle, forefather to all Jeep models that came afterward, the grille was made up of vertical bars. The familiar stamped steel Jeep grille was actually a Ford design feature incorporated in the final design by the Army, though Ford’s prototype models had nine slots instead of seven.

Jeep design evolution

There are many legends regarding the seven slots in the Jeep grille. Some say it represents the seven wonders of the natural world, others claim it’s because a Jeep vehicle was the first to uphold seven continents. Still others proclaim it’s symbolic of the seven seas, the seven summits, the seven pillars of wisdom, the colors of the rainbow – maybe it’s the fact there are seven directions: up, down, right, left, forward, back and center.

The truth is, when Willys-Overland introduced the now-iconic seven-slot grille on the CJ-2A after the war in 1945, it was never intended to become one of the brand’s defining features. Licensing requirements for the civilian Jeep required larger headlights than the military-spec vehicle so two slots were removed from the grille. This also enabled them to trademark the design. There was no board meeting, no marketing pow-wow, and no branding hoopla. It just happened.

Jeep design evolution

Since then, all CJ models have featured the seven-slot grille while many other classic Jeep models, including the Willys Wagon, the Jeep pick-up, the Wagoneer and the Cherokee used vertical slots, which varied in number from 8 to 13. The only exceptions were the FC series and the 1966 – 1973 Jeepster models featuring seven slots. Realizing the importance of consistency in brand identity, in 1998 Jeep decided to employ the seven-slot grille across the entire range. A very smart move.

Another hallmark of Jeep design are the trapezoidal wheelarches, which enabled greater suspension travel and wheel articulation when venturing off-road. The trapezoidal wheelarches were necessary to prevent mud from accumulating in the wheel wells and allowed Jeep drivers to climb over rocks and other large obstacles, but it’s said Willys didn’t originally conceive them.

Jeep design evolution

The story on how the trapezoidal wheelarches were devised is rather amusing. As a matter of function over form, the first Jeep models had no protection sheets over the wheels, which meant that rear seat passengers were often exposed to a fountain of mud and sand or bombarded with stones when the vehicle ventured off-road. An American soldier with a natural tendency for problem-solving, decided therefore to weld a pair of hand-folded metal sheets to the bodywork over the wheels, giving birth to the trapezoidal arches.

I’m not sure how true that account is, but the philosophy behind this anecdote is symbolic in the overall Jeep story, especially where the Wrangler is concerned. Many details of the iconic Jeep express this problem-solving philosophy clearly, such as the fabric straps that define the opening angle of the doors. In other vehicles these are metal hinges, but because the Wrangler’s doors are removable engineers had to find a different clever and unique solution.

Jeep design evolution

The hood hinges are also a distinctive Jeep design element. The Wrangler still features them today and their presence is not merely an ornament or a decoration: they are a technical element with a precise function and work exactly the same way they did 75 years ago. They’re simple and they get the job done. Function over form…

Together these now characteristic Jeep elements create brand appeal, product authenticity, and design consistency. Designers like to say they can define a product in three lines. By combining the seven-slot grille and the trapezoidal arches, designers don’t need to add much more to their sketches. Considering that these iconic design cues have been faithfully retained for the last 75 years, they continue to underscore the very essence of Jeep design and express the mindset and lifestyle of the brand.


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