Detroit may be the Motor City, but Toledo is the Jeep City. Next weekend, the only public celebration of Jeep’s 75th anniversary is planned by United Auto Workers and community officials in downtown Toledo.
Though the city can’t lay sole claim to being the birthplace of Jeep — the original military vehicle was developed by Ford Motor Co., the American Bantam Car Co., and Toledo-based Willys-Overland in conjunction with the military — Toledo is undoubtedly the most important city in the brand’s development over the last 75 years.
You don’t get in a World War II-era Willys MB so much as you climb on.
There are no doors and no safety belts, and the seats aren’t a whole lot more substantial than the lightly padded stadium chairs you might lug to your kid’s football game.
“You don’t want to make a quick turn, because you could roll it over,” offers Herb Huddle, a longtime Jeep collector who will soon fire up his 1942 model and take us for a spin.
Ready to ride?
■ VIEW: Jeeps Through The Years
It’s hard to imagine an automotive brand with a brighter future than Jeep.
After rocketing past 1 million worldwide sales in 2014, company officials have set their sights on reaching 2 million by 2018.
The United States accounts for almost 70 percent of all Jeep sales, but the company is working hard to get local production in more countries. Fiat Chrysler has started building Jeeps in Italy, Brazil, and China. The company hopes to have a plant in India running next year.
Even with all of Jeep’s accolades, the off-road capability, and the fact that every vehicle it sells fits nicely in the heart of the automotive industry’s hottest market, the brand’s biggest strength is likely its global recognition.
“I can go into any market that I’m not in right now, anywhere in the world, they know our name. They know what we do,” said Mark Allen, who heads up Jeep design for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. “Any other brand, you’ve gotta go in and establish who you are, what you do, what your name is. We don’t have to do that.”
Like Disney, Coca-Cola, or Google, Jeep has a larger-than-life cachet that few other brands can ever hope to attain.
Many have laid claim to the narrative that they created the iconic Jeep, the most American of vehicles, the all-purpose runabout that helped the Allies win World War II.
In truth, the Jeep was birthed by a collaboration of minds from industry and government. Its creation is perhaps one of history’s most interesting examples of multiple visions coming together for a common cause.
“In the end, everybody played a role and everybody played a part,” said Mark Gessler, president of the Maryland-based Historic Vehicle Association. “There was no father of the Jeep. When success happens, there are always many fathers and this is a case where that was absolutely what was happening.”
Delmar Roos isn’t usually mentioned along with Edward Drummond Libbey, R.A. Stranahan, or John North Willys when people talk about the men who shaped Toledo’s industrial legacy.
But maybe he should be.
Were it not for Mr. Roos, a Cornell-educated engineer known both for his brilliance and his temper, Toledo might never have become home of the Jeep.
There was no one better than Ernie Pyle at giving voice to the front-line soldiers serving in the Second World War. His keen observations and matter-of-fact descriptions of the realities of war put millions of Americans back home in the foxholes along with their boys.
So perhaps there’s no one better than Pyle, who was cut down by a Japanese machine gun at age 44 just four months before the war’s end, to describe how important the jeep was to the Allied victory.
The Jeep Wrangler’s classic looks haven’t changed much since Willys started making the MB model for World War II. There’s still a fold-down windshield, round headlights, and a removable top.
But that heritage isn’t just skin deep. Since the very beginning, Dana Inc. has supplied Jeep with crucial driveline parts that send power to the ground and help give the brand its famous go-anywhere capability.
Even as Jeep storms the worldwide market, one of the brand’s strongest footholds is still right here at home.
Jeep captured 8.6 percent of the new vehicle market in Toledo last year, according to figures from Edmunds.com. That’s Jeep’s highest showing among large cities nationwide, and sixth highest among all U.S. market areas.
“Toledo is still very much a Jeep town, producing hugely successful models for the brand,” said Jeremy Acevedo, a senior analyst with Edmunds.
s Robert Reef reflects on the half century he spent working at Toledo’s Jeep plant, he remembers a place that was demanding but fair, full of friendships, and crucial to the city’s economic growth.
“I think Toledo prospered from the people that worked there,” Mr. Reef, 88, said in a recent interview.
As Jeep celebrates its 75th anniversary this summer, Mr. Reef and other retirees of the Toledo factory that made those vehicles many years ago generally speak fondly of the work and their co-workers.
Like music and art, summer barbecues, or college football, Jeeps seem to have a way of bringing people together.
It’s a strange community, but we have common interests. It takes in all different walks of life, of people who are executives to mechanics,” said Walt Szczesny, vice president of the Toledo-based Glass City Crawlers, which is a club of Jeep enthusiasts. “That’s the fun thing about the Jeep community.”
Many celebrities have the Toledo Assembly Complex to thank for their prized Jeep Wranglers, a vehicle made locally for nearly all of its 75 years.
Jeep recently launched My Jeep Story website, jeep.com/en/my-jeep-story, a campaign highlighting Jeep families across America as the brand turns 75. On the site, hip-hop artist Ciara showcased her two-door black Jeep Wrangler and her family history with the company.
ADDITIONAL JEEP FEST CONTENT
No one has done more over the past six months to ensure the success of the upcoming Toledo Jeep Fest than Jerry Huber.
But were it not for Mr. Huber’s work as a plant executive three decades ago, Toledo might not still have Jeep to celebrate.
When Bob Christy takes the wheel of his old emerald green Jeep, it hints of simpler times.
“I just like driving down country roads in it. I like feeling the wind. It’s like riding a motorcycle,” he said. “You smell the smells out there when you go past a farm or a cornfield. It’s more of a pure driving experience. You don’t have your windows rolled up and the AC on. If it rains, you’re getting wet. It’s just kind of pure.”
Like many vehicle collectors, Mr. Christy’s passion for old Jeeps goes back to childhood. All it took was one surprise trip with his dad to a local Jeep rodeo. The vehicles. The mud. The obstacle courses. He was hooked.
As Jeep entered its 75th year, an anniversary sure to be marked with narratives from car lovers and history buffs, officials with the brand were working on how they wanted to tell their own story.
In the end, they decided the story wasn’t their own at all.
Organizers of the Toledo Jeep Fest are expecting visitors and attendees from across the country on Saturday, as thousands descend on the home of Jeep to honor the brand’s 75th anniversary and celebrate its contributions to the city.
“Everything’s coming together nicely, and thank God for all the volunteers we had who spent countless hours on this,” said Bruce Baumhower, president of United Auto Workers Local 12 and the key person in assembling the committee that made the event possible.
“We think we’ve got everything nailed down, and now we just need the weatherman to help us and it’ll be a great day,” he said.
At the time, Betty Kleinknecht didn’t think much about what her job at the Willys-Overland plant really meant.
The Great Depression was barely over, and Mrs. Kleinknecht, fresh out of Lambertville High School, was just happy to be drawing a paycheck.
“I didn’t think about if I was helping the war or anything, but I guess you are,” she said in an interview this week.
Mrs. Kleinknecht, now 90, was one of the thousands of women who filled in at America’s factories during World War II. Some worked on the assembly lines. Others ferried vehicles.
From 1943 to 1945 Mrs. Kleinknecht worked in the plant’s salvage department, keeping inventory of every nut, bolt, and radiator brought into the plant.
The United Auto Workers got the Toledo Jeep Fest started early Friday with a tailgate party to give volunteers a much-needed break and again thank the community for all its support.
With burgers on the grill, beer on ice, and live music in the background, a mix of elected officials, off-roaders, union leaders, and Jeep workers past and present celebrated eight months of planning that culminates with today’s Jeep downtown celebration.
“It’s been a fun ride,” UAW Local 12 president Bruce Baumhower said. “When you look at all the work we’ve done, it’s fun to watch it come together like this. And the thing that’s cool about this is the entire community circled the wagons ... everybody said we’re going to do this.”
Led by $25,000 donations from Dana Inc., Mercy Health, and the Lucas County Board of Commissioners, the effort raised $180,000. More than 200 volunteers also put in long hours to prepare for Saturday’s event.