I remember, as a kid in the 70’s, looking at pictures of concept cars and feeling a sense of exhilaration at the oddly obvious wedge-shaped styling that seemed to dominate that era. While I’m not a fan of driving a car that so closely resembles a doorstop, I think these styling trends transferred into some really beautiful designs like the DeTomaso Pantera and the Lamborghini Countach, both of which had large images that adorned the walls of my bedroom for the better part of my youth.
I then remember, as an adult in the mid-90’s, when an odd little Jeep concept vehicle made its inaugural appearance at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and the strong sense of disdain I felt for what was being presented to the masses as a possible design path for the Wrangler. We had just survived a generation of Jeeps that donned rectangular headlights in the Wrangler YJ and were inversely giddy with enthusiasm over the return of the iconic round headlights in the new Wrangler TJ. How had we come to this? Chrysler is going to boldly present this new concept to us and even be so daring as to name it “Icon”? As if having ‘Melrose Place’ on your TV at every turn was not punishment enough. We had somehow come to this…
The Jeep Icon was, from the outside and at a long distance, not far-removed from the venerable Wrangler and CJ’s of the past, with its federally-mandated 7-slot grill, round headlights and open roof design. It’s what lurked just beyond that first glance that seemed to cause the uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Chrysler Senior Designer Robert Lester declared that the inspiration for the ‘Icon’ was drawn from elements found in high-end mountain bikes. These words were not completely wasted on me as I was likely to be shopping for such a mountain bike in the near future, as an alternative to driving the new Icon. While the designers felt that adorning the vehicles body with gratuitous Jeep logos at every turn would be a reasonable penance for the rest of the Icon, it felt more like an attempt to remind you that this was an actual Jeep, a mission made even more important by the misplaced independent front suspension, industrialized car-like interior and wheels that were clearly repurposed from a Camaro RS. Maybe this could be a baby Grand Cherokee, but definitely NOT a Jeep.
Despite the tepid response from the press and media, the Icon was still being heralded as the next generation in Jeep styling but with the added corporate spin of its intended purpose not-so-much-being a replacement for the Wrangler, but more a smaller platform to serve as direct competition for the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. As of 1998, there were patents filed for the Icon under the Jeep JJ platform and the likelihood of its making it to actual production seemed imminent. The Icon would feature four cylinder drivetrain borrowed from Chrysler cars and would find its segway into the American market as a Jeep for beginners and would be utilized, to a greater extent, in Third World markets. Approximately 60 vehicles were built as prototypes and were able to meet all of the quality and durability standards as mandated by Chrysler. The problem with the JJ Icon came when the vehicle was being tested for its “Trail Rated’ badge.
In order to proclaim the Jeep name, a certain amount of off-road prowess must be displayed. The JJ was limited to a fairly small diameter of tire due to its independent front suspension and limited body clearance. Although the Icon easily outperformed its small off-road market counterparts, it was unable to successfully negotiate the famed Rubicon Trail without the assistance of a tow rope which fostered serious concern over whether the JJ was a TRUE Jeep, a blemish that seemed to match the sentiment of the mass majority and the project was subsequently scrubbed. The 60 some-odd prototypes never left the confines of the assembly plant and were likely destroyed. Senior Designer of the Jeep Icon, Robert Laster, moved on to a lengthy stint at Ford Motor Company in 1998, where he aided in both interior and exterior design making significant contributions to the automotive realm with cars like the fabled Ford Figo and the Ford Ka (You can’t make stuff like this up) that are each icons in their own intended market places of China and South America. I can’t help but think that the original objective of the Jeep Icon may have been to lend Jeeps legendary off-road persona to a smaller fuel-efficient mode of transport that would largely appeal to an overseas market with the benefit of its greater capability, while not completely alienating the grass-roots customer base, who were likely left hoping for something more; many of the Jeep faithful would likely have been left with a dazed look, scratching their heads and wondering what just happened. The Icons compromising of its core values in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience was at the core of its undoing, which left me with a renewed faith in humanity and a reassurance that Jeep may have some reluctance to ever try and market a Jeep blessed with the spirit of a mountain bike. I’ll carry my ‘spirit of a mountain bike’ on a bike carrier on the back of my Jeep where it belongs, Thanks!
Despite its demise, it’s easy to see that many of the design characteristics of the Icon concept have undoubtedly made it to production in platforms such as the Jeep Liberty and Compass/Patriot, and I, for one, feel much more excited about the future of Jeep based on the upcoming Wrangler JL and the handful of current concepts we’ve seen recently, like the Shortcut concept that made the rounds last year- Maybe even enough to hang some posters on my wall! OlllllllO