In the five years of Chrysler’s Mopar skunkworks program, where designers are given carte blanche with existing production vehicles, the biggest idea to make it into mainstream production is the Sky Slider full-length retractable canvas roof on the new 2008 Jeep Liberty. It hailed from the Liberator skunkworks project from almost three years ago.
But the informal group of volunteers at the skunkworks could gain major credibility if the automaker decides to go ahead with the Jeep JT (Jeep truck) concept—a pickup version of the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.
Like all skunkworks projects, the designers were just playing, says Ralph Gilles, vice-president of Jeep and truck design and ringleader for the program. Essentially, the team took an Unlimited, lopped off the second row. and sealed the hole to create a short bed, creating “cool” proportions.
This would be the easiest way to get a pickup back into the Jeep lineup, Gilles admits. Jeep’s pickup history dates back about seven decades and includes such nameplates as Honcho and Jeepster. The last pickup, the Comanche, went out of production in 1992, and the automaker has found it difficult to get a Jeep with a bed back into the lineup ever since.
A Scrambler concept at the 2002 SEMA show got fans riled again, followed by the Gladiator concept pickup at the 2005 Detroit auto show, which was a variant of the Liberty and truly a concept only, Gilles says.
But talk of a production Jeep pickup has ebbed and flowed over the years. And Gilles agrees the JT is a more practical approach. A Jeep pickup is for fun and doesn’t need the size and length of a real pickup such as the Dodge Dakota, Gilles says of the Jeep concept with only a five-foot bed.
The JT exists “because it was so easy to do it,” Gilles says, adding the skunkworks team often builds things to test out an idea, to essentially cash out on a dare. In exploring possibilities, sometimes things emerge as feasible.
Gilles won’t say if Chrysler is doing a business study on the JT as a production model, but he says the concept got a “lotta love” from purists when it made a surprise debut in April at a Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah.
Putting the Jeep JT concept into production would be the first time a customized project has become a real-world vehicle, but Gilles says he expects more of that as projects are considered for the future.
At the skunkworks, Chrysler’s designers, most of whom are enthusiasts, have competitions with sketches. The winning drawings are produced, with all work done in-house, and the winning designer becomes the project leader. It is up to the leader to become a networking genius as well, to wheel and deal with other departments, to talk to people in the metal, paint, plastic, and wood shops to supply what the car needs. Everything is on a volunteer basis, and the reward is to take the creation to SEMA in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, another Jeep concept, the Trailhawk, shows the kinds of extremes—and lengths—to which a Wrangler can go design-wise. The concept was not designed to replace an existing vehicle in the Jeep lineup, but its visuals could influence future Jeeps, according to Gilles.
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