Jeep, a French-American Love Story

The ancestor of the 4x4, Jeep was a World War II icon and a symbol of the liberation of Paris in August 1944. The brand, which was born in the U.S. and was acquired by the French group Renault, has become a strategic asset in the automobile industry.
Two American soldiers in their Jeep during the liberation of Paris, August 26, 1944. © AFP/Getty Images

When asked about the instruments of America’s victory in World War II, President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower listed the Douglas C-47 transport plane, the atomic bomb, the bazooka, and the Jeep. This latter vehicle was usually equipped with a machine gun turret and a radio, accompanying soldiers on all missions and indifferently transporting (very uncomfortably) troops and generals alike. On the battlefront, military chaplains even used its hood as an improvised altar!

At the time, Jeep was not a brand but rather a generic name – probably the contraction of “general purpose” – and was long written all in lowercase letters. In France, Jeep symbolizes the Allied invasion. Images of Parisian women applauding in August 1944 as U.S. soldiers in Jeeps rolled along the Champs-Elysées still inspire emotion and nostalgia today. As a result, Jeep has retained a more positive image in France than in the United States. In September 1944, a French journalist even described the Jeep as the “eighth wonder of the world.”

If Jeep is once again a talking point (it was originally released in June 1940 on the orders of the U.S. Department of War, which was looking for an all-terrain vehicle), it is because it has become a major industrial asset in the international automobile sector. The brand has passed successively from American to French hands, confirming its status as a global star.

Equipped with Renault diesel engines, the Jeep Cherokee became the most popular model in the United States and was massively exported to Europe in the 1980s. © FCA US LLC

In 1979, Renault acquired American Motors (AMC), the fourth-largest U.S. auto manufacturer, which was in disarray but owned the Jeep brand. Perhaps they had missed its potential? Lo and behold, in 1984, the Renault creative teams released the Cherokee, a compact 4×4 that went on to become the most popular model in the United States, alongside the rough-and-ready Wrangler. Equipped with Renault diesel engines, Cherokees were exported to Europe and launched the brand’s international career.

The Jeep Wrangler is the closest in style and spirit to the all-terrain military Willys vehicle that launched the Jeep legacy in 1941. For a period during the 1980s, it was equipped with Renault engines. © FCA US LLC

In 1987, Renault was floundering and its CEO Raymond Lévy sold AMC to Chrysler for 1.5 billion dollars just as the group was bouncing back. As part of the transaction, the Jeep brand was valued at just one dollar! A furious François Castaing, the Frenchman behind the reboot, packed up and moved to Chrysler. The late Lee Iacocca, the CEO at the time, scrambled to patent the Jeep brand – no one had thought to! – as well as the iconic radiator grill with its round headlights and seven vertical vents. These features were worth their weight in gold — a potential that was maximized by another Frenchman, Christian Meunier, the brand’s current director, who left Nissan to make Jeep a global name just five months after being hired!

Today, “Chrysler would not exist without Jeep, and Fiat would be worthless without Chrysler,” says a Renault executive, who was skeptical of the failed merger with FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobile), believing the group to be overvalued. But the idea of reclaiming Jeep, ancestor of the 4×4 and former Renault subsidiary, makes his eyes light up. This is hardly surprising; with a 17% hike in sales in 2018 (compared to 2% for FCA overall), Jeep is leading growth. Meanwhile, Chrysler makes up just 1% of the U.S. market and Fiat dropped under the one-million-vehicle mark ten years ago and has continued to see sales fall ever since.

Buyers should now be aware that with 1.6 million vehicles sold last year, the icon of the Liberation may well become one of the world’s most powerful automobile brands.

Article published in the August 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.