TOLEDO, Ohio — Sprinkled among the thousands of visitors watching Jeeps on parade or celebrating its long history during Toledo's second Jeep Fest Aug. 10-12 were scores of people for whom the Jeep Wrangler is more than just a hobby or an oddity. It's the lifeblood of their business.
The Wrangler, in addition to being a cash cow for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, is among the most accessorized vehicles in production today, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association, with an estimated $6 billion in annual accessory sales.
And it's that ability — to easily transform a mass-produced vehicle into an individualized showstopper — that helps make the Jeep Wrangler a modern marketing powerhouse.
"The Wrangler is one of the most iconic vehicles in the world. It's touchable, affordable, doable; it's all about life and experience," said Randall Speir, senior manager for performance aftermarket at Dana, which has supplied the axles for Wrangler and its predecessors for 77 years. "The individualism of the vehicle speaks to who we are as human beings."
From the simplest stickers to complex suspension lifts or axle replacements, the Wrangler seems to exist to look different. Companies use that to their advantage, whether selling accessories and upfits to Wrangler owners, or using a whacked-out Wrangler themselves to market their business.
"There's a couple different demographics of Jeep owners," says Nick Ellis, marketing director for ACE Engineering in suburban Detroit. "There are the hard-core owners who go off road a lot, and then there's a segment of owners that don't take their Jeep off-road, or if they do, it's only for a little bit. We generally market more toward the hard-core enthusiast, because, even for those not taking it off-road, it's still an aspirational idea."
ACE makes scores of Wrangler accessories, including replacement bumpers, "trail" doors, undercarriage armor and rock sliders designed to increase the Wrangler's performance off road or to protect it from when things go bad. Ellis and his crew attend Jeep events with a trailer of accessories. The company displays a Wrangler or two loaded with its wares, and puts price tags on each accessory. They run from five bucks to almost $1,000.
"It lets people see the parts, touch them," and know instantly which parts ACE makes and sells, Ellis said.
Wrangler sales through July were up 32 percent in the U.S. over last year, thanks largely to the introduction of the first redesigned Wrangler in a decade, known by the body code JL. The previous version, the JK, was introduced in 2006 and broadened the appeal of the off-roader by adding a second set of doors and a usable rear seat. Ellis said the refinements added to the JL have further widened the Wrangler's appeal and ushered in "a totally different customer: people who have never had a Jeep before."
While ACE has been around since 2008, Dana's association with the Wrangler and its predecessors goes back the full 77 years, to the first military Jeeps that rolled down assembly lines in Toledo. Dana's axles have driven Jeep's popularity, but only within the last decade or so has the Tier 1 supplier pushed its aftermarket offerings, with Wrangler being the key driver.
"We're averaging more than 20 events throughout the year," Speir said. "We don't sell direct to the end user, just to distributors, but we do these events for the marketing."
"As far as having consistent events throughout the year, weekend after weekend, I don't know of another vehicle that brings people together like the Wrangler," he said.
Indeed, Toledo's second-ever Jeep Fest, following the original in 2016, drew an estimated 60,000 people over three days.
"It's not just a vehicle, it's an identity for a lot of people," said Ellis. "It's a hobby, a social avenue. And like any hobby, once you get into it, you want to get more into it."