DETROIT — As the head of Jeep design since 2009, Mark Allen is charged with both moving the brand forward and keeping it tied to its historic roots.
Allen, 53, is a lifelong Jeep enthusiast and off-roader. Each spring, he and his co-workers design a stable of one-off Jeeps that they take out to the annual Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah, where they interact with Jeep enthusiasts from around the globe. Allen spoke to Staff Reporter Larry P. Vellequette.
Q: You started with Jeep as a designer in 1994. How have things changed?
A: When I started here, all the attention went to cars and minivans. Trucks were even kind of disregarded a little bit, and Jeeps were maintained; they weren’t really pushing it. They would get somebody that was working on whatever and put them in Jeep for a little while, and then move them out. We weren’t branded the way we are now under Fiat.
We had three products for a long, long time: We had Wrangler, which was something that we built and sold in the summer months. Honestly, without the four-door, we would have probably killed that car. It was never seen as a real big design challenge. The XJ, which was around forever and ever, was just updated, and the Grand Cherokee, which was still pretty new when I came on, was initially meant to be a replacement for the XJ.
What’s your favorite Jeep design?
That’s easy: the CJ-5 (which debuted in 1954). I have a real affection for the (1966) M-715 truck, but as far as design goes, the CJ-5. And I say that because, the flat fender, as lovely as it is and it’s the template for everything we do, was never designed. It just sort of happened. It was engineers putting things together; the body was really just there to cover the hood and hold the headlights up and keep mud off of people. But that created an image that is really ingrained in us: that classic Jeep shape that we use. The CJ-5 was really the first time that the people from my craft were really invited to the party. They got the clay out and they shaped the hood and cared about the fenders.
What was the craziest thing that Jeep ever did?
The craziest thing was the weird cart (the 1957 Mechanical Mule), where the guy sat in front of the front wheel. They made postal trucks. The Forward Control — what was cool about that was that it was really a tractor with doors, honestly. They re-used the underpinnings from the CJ, and it was all about space efficiency and size. That thing was actually pretty crazy, and no one else made a four-wheel-drive forward control vehicle like that, except maybe the Unimog.
As you sit with a blank sheet of paper to design a new Jeep, what’s the first thing that goes through your mind?
It’s really highly dependent on what the project is. A good example was probably the Renegade. The Renegade came out really well in my mind, but it was kind of a horror show to start because we were presented essentially an existing car package to design over. It makes sense now, but when we were doing the Renegade, we didn’t know which way to go, because nothing existed in that space for us. There were a lot of different proposals, but the Renegade was the one that kept speaking to us – it was the one that had the most charisma.
How defensive do you feel about Jeep’s heritage when you’re working on a design, or are you OK stretching it?
Obviously, I’m OK stretching it, but I always have the historical side of Jeep in my mind. That truly is in our soul; we think about that all the time. There’s a little bit of Wrangler heritage in everything that we do. We pick up design cues now, and in the future, from our very first car. Very few companies still do that: Porsche still does that, and Harley-Davidson. There’s always a direct link in the design that’s picked up in some of the details. But the Cherokee was a bit disruptive, and that worked out pretty good for us. The Renegade, too, was a bit disruptive.
And Wrangler that has been redesigned for 2018?
We’re neck-deep in that thing, but there’s no discussion: It’s going to look like a Wrangler. We had to do all the exercises [when designing Wrangler]. Although in our hearts, we knew what it would be, but we had to do all the wrong answers, too, visually. We did things that were Wrangler-like and the things that were disruptive to Wrangler styling, but in the end, we made the right call.
What attracts you to Jeep?
I like the weird engineering side of Jeep. It was never set up to be a car company. It was never set up to be a brand. They just put things together and somehow it worked. Look at the M715 truck. I love that thing to death. It’s not sexy. It’s not cool. It’s dorky. But I just think it looks so rugged and tough. Had we gotten involved in the styling department, we would have ruined it! But it gets by on all of its warty proportions. When they established Jeep as a brand and they were trying to scrap things together, they needed a station wagon, and they invented the SUV, for crying out loud, with the Willys Wagon. That lack of funding and lack of elasticity drove them into some really creative solutions, and I just think that’s so cool.