Article published February 15, 2010
Jeep rolls toward milestone
Off-roading 'playground' at old plant site proposed to mark Wrangler's 70th year
The old Jeep plant has been gone for several years, but the site could see new life as city leaders look to observe the 70th year of the Wrangler, which went into production at the plant during World War II.
( BLADE PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/ANDREA RODRIGUEZ-AHL )
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By LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE AUTOMOTIVE WRITER
Toledo's most famous ambassador turns 70 this summer, and city leaders - with its parents' blessing - want to throw a special party on the spot where it was born.
The Jeep Wrangler - the go-anywhere, do-anything vehicle that helped win a war as an infant and remains an icon of youth and vitality - will mark seven decades since designers first drew up plans for a lightweight four-wheel-drive vehicle to serve the U.S. armed forces in 1940.
Chrysler Group LLC plans to introduce what is known in the auto industry as a "major refresh" to the Wrangler's interior in the spring of this year, Chrysler Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne told The Blade last month.
In 2011, the automaker will mark the 70th anniversary of the Wrangler's production with a new powertrain and special anniversary models.
But while Jeeps may have started rolling off the assembly line of Toledo's former Willys plant in 1941, the first Jeep that ultimately became the Wrangler was born there in 1940.
In January, The Blade delivered an idea that has occurred to a number of Toledoans and to Chrysler's Jeep brand president, Michael Manley.
The idea was to mark the Wrangler milestone by building a four-wheel-drive "playground" on the now-vacant 70-acre site of Chrysler's former Toledo Jeep Assembly Plant on Jeep Parkway in West Toledo.
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The site, adjacent to I-75, still boasts the smokestack from the former Overland Company, along with more than enough land to create giant hills, mud bogs, and log and rock obstacles to demonstrate the Jeep's legendary ability.
To Toledo Mayor Mike Bell and other economic development officials, the site's rich history and the anniversary provide a direct opportunity to bring thousands of Jeep enthusiasts to the city this summer for relatively little cost.
"What we need to do is sit down and figure out how we make this event extremely significant to celebrate a product that's so important to the city of Toledo, and do it in a way that doesn't cost the taxpayers any money," Mr. Bell said.
Bruce Baumhower, president of United Auto Workers Local 12, whose members have assembled the vehicles in Toledo for several different automakers since the Jeep's birth, presented the idea to the membership and executive board last week.
"They loved it," Mr. Baumhower said. "Many of them have already stepped up to volunteer for a planning committee to make it happen."
The local's executive body passed a resolution pledging support for the effort.
Auto dealers in the area also approved of the idea as a way to celebrate the vehicle's Toledo roots and said they would participate.
Chrysler's Mr. Manley said he was enthusiastic about the idea of kicking off Jeep's 70th anniversary celebration in Toledo and assigned his top assistant to work with local officials to get it done.
"Anything that can help us sell Jeeps is a good plan," he said.
It doesn't hurt that Toledo is the largest city in the nation where Chrysler is the top-selling automaker (the company has a 22.4 percent market share here, meaning more than one of every five cars and trucks sold wear either a Chrysler, Dodge, or Jeep brand).
Chrysler's plant on the Jeep Parkway site was demolished several years ago after the company built its new factories a few miles to the north and east, off I-75 between Chrysler Drive and Stickney Avenue.
The current Toledo Jeep Assembly complex makes all the Jeep Wrangler and Liberty vehicles worldwide, as well as the Dodge Nitro.
So what needs to be done?
It breaks down into a few categories:
•The land: Currently, the land on which the former Jeep plant site sits is owned by the remnants of the former Chrysler, now called OldCarCo. The automaker shed this firm when it emerged from bankruptcy last year to dispose of the assets that Chrysler no longer wanted or needed.
The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority has been in discussions with OldCarCo. to buy the site, but so far the two sides have been unable to finalize a deal. If the land were deeded to the port authority, the plan could proceed, or the land could be temporarily leased.
•The track: Building the "park" for four-wheel-drive vehicles would involve bringing in large amounts of dirt, excavating several pits for mud bogs, and bringing in logs and other obstacles for the vehicles to traverse.
Engineers at the Poggemeyer Design Group in Bowling Green have designed a course for the site, according to port officials. Construction crews would be needed to build the design, with raw materials coming from local sources. Temporary improvements, including stadium seating, restrooms, and vending, would be needed as well.
•The promotion: Once the track is built, local officials probably would require assistance from Chrysler to alert Jeep enthusiasts of its existence. If Chrysler would agree to unveil the Wrangler's new interior in Toledo, it could help draw Jeep enthusiasts to the event.
Special efforts could be made to bring World War II-era Jeeps and other historic models in from across the county for the celebration.
•The money: It is unclear what building and staging the track and any related events might cost, but given the city's $48 million deficit, it likely would need to come from the private sector or from donations.
Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:firstname.lastname@example.org