PARIS -- My hometown completely freaked out Thursday.
Lost its mind, flipped its lid, blew a gasket -- pick any phrase you like, because they all apply.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne revealed here in Paris that the next-generation Jeep Wrangler might have to be manufactured somewhere else other than in its historic home in Toledo, Ohio.
Nobody would lose their jobs if it happened, Marchionne was quick to add. The problem was that the next Wrangler would likely be made of aluminum and -- more importantly -- not be a body-on-frame vehicle, so as to put it on a crash diet, improve its rolling, brick-like aerodynamics and boost overall fuel economy.
Those are simple economics and product development calls, the kinds of logic-based decisions automakers have to make every day.
Yet, for Toledo, the issue wasn’t just the question of jobs, though that’s never far away in the Rust Belt.
Instead, it is an emotion-laced question of identity.
You see, so engrained is Jeep in the DNA of my hometown that its proper full name is best spelled “Toledo OIIIIIIIO.”
Toledo is the largest U.S. city where Chrysler Group ranks No. 1 among all automakers in annual new-vehicle sales. That’s not completely surprising, given the number of Chrysler plants in and around the city. Jeeps started rolling off the line at the old Willys-Overland plant in 1941. And for the most part -- aside from holiday shutdowns, the occasional strike, a bankruptcy -- they’ve never stopped.
In the mid-1990s, when former Chrysler CEO Bob Eaton considered building a modern replacement plant outside the city limits, the city and its residents participated in an all-out campaign not to keep Chrysler, but to Keep Jeep.
That was almost 20 years ago, and yet every once in a while, I still spot one of those old cardboard Keep Jeep signs in a residential window in the city.
Toledoans can travel across the world and, if they see a Wrangler or an old Cherokee XJ parked on a street in Moscow or Sydney or Paris, they invariably know where it came from. Like them, that 4x4 is far away, but it is a little piece of Toledo parked right there on the street, no doubt assembled by people they know.
See what I mean? It’s emotional. Jeep is as much a part of Toledo’s identity as the leaning tower is to Pisa, Italy, or Champagne is to a verdant slice of France.
But if I have learned anything from covering Chrysler and Marchionne, it is this: The man and the company are both smart enough not to repeat the same mistake twice.
Chrysler had to shut down the other half of the Toledo plant -- the unibody side -- in August 2012 to retool for the launch of the 2014 Cherokee.
Because of a delay, the first Cherokees weren’t sold until October 2013, an extremely expensive loss of saleable products from a long and costly changeover.
Marchionne said he’d never do it again, and on a profit-rich and high-volume product like the Wrangler, such a shutdown would be catastrophic to Chrysler.
That’s why I think Chrysler’s plan should be to let the old Wrangler live on -- in smaller numbers supplemented by sales of a unibody redesign -- as a kind of Wrangler Classic.
Such a plan would have a number of benefits, chief among them being a steady stream of income from Wranglers as the new version is brought online.
Over the long term, if the redesign proves popular, it would ease what is now tremendous manufacturing pressure on the classic, body-on-frame plant. That might even make room for an eventual and long-desired Wrangler-based pickup.
This is all conjecture on my part, of course.
But I do know one thing for certain: the road to ultimately selling ever more Wranglers grows considerably more bumpy for FCA if the off-roader becomes permanently separated from its historic home in Toledo.