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Auto Dealer's Crusade to Save the Jeep Shifts Into Overdrive

January 09, 1986|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

Bob's pompadoured Big Boy was sentenced and reprieved as a corporate stunt. The original Coca-Cola was saved by a more spontaneous public brouhaha. It should follow, John Walker reasons, that a merger of Madison Avenue and Middle America should be able to KEEP THE JEEP.

He's printed 10,000 bumper stickers proclaiming just that message. From his 60-year-old Los Angeles dealership--the venerable Walker Bros. at Olympic Boulevard and Western Avenue--he has sent 125 petitions to fellow Jeep dealers in California, Arizona, Hawaii, New Mexico and Nevada. Walker's sales team is wearing black armbands in symbolic mourning, his KABC and KMPC radio commercials have been re-scripted into campaign appeals, he has hired a publicist and is planning a massive gathering of the clannish Jeep owner. . . .

"The Jeep is an American institution," Walker maintains.

And although not exactly taken aback, American Motors Corp., which has announced plans to end production of its chunky CJ (Civilian Jeep) at the end of this month, certainly has taken notice of all the nostalgic wailing.

"I've told Detroit that there's a strong undercurrent of interest in keeping the CJ alive and in production for the indefinite future," said Robert Williams, western regional manager for AMC. "At first I thought this (Walker's protest) was a dealer promotion, a hype. But they (Walker and other dealers) are serious, it's no joke and there's lots of emotional support around the dealer network."

The winds of this particular war began stirring in AMC's board and show rooms early last year. The company's first-quarter losses were $29 million and climbing. Lawsuits stemming from roll-over accidents involving the company's CJ-5 and CJ-7 models of the '70s and '80s, both narrow track vehicles with high centers of gravity, could be counted by the dozens.

Without Lumps

At the same time, Williams said, the market seemed to be moving away from boondocks motoring and toward a look without the lumps (and certainly without the loops) of off-road travel.

"We considered all the options," he said. "We agonized, we fretted about it, we debated it."

Then, in November, the announcement was made: American Motors would discontinue production of its CJ line.

Exit . . . a 46-year-old classic and direct kin of the snub-snouted kidney crusher first built by Willys-Overland for the U.S. Army in World War II. Willie and Joe drove one from Pearl Harbor to Berlin and it was their mule, ambulance, altar, machine gun mount, grocery truck, tug and R&R runabout. By several variations and numerous additions, the CJ rose through the ranks of peacetime affections to become the freewheeling and four-wheeling love.

Enter . . . the brand new Wrangler YJ (a model code of no meaning) that was unveiled at this week's Greater Los Angeles Auto Show and promptly compared to its ancestor as a Justin boot might be stacked against a Gucci loafer. Technically it's similar, but wider and lower for improved stability, i.e. safety. Aesthetically, it retains the alfresco flair. But the grill is black and raked and those goggle eyes have been replaced by square headlights and the doors are no longer detachable and its instruments are a high-tech transformation from CJ-7 to DC-10.

Shift in Profile

Explained Williams: "The profile of our small sport utility vehicle buyer has changed dramatically in recent years. Ninety-five percent now use their vehicles for everyday transportation, compared to only 17% in 1978. Frequent off-roading is common with only 7% of our owners today, compared with 37% back then."

"Jeep Wrangler (the YJ) will offer the best of both worlds to the new sport utility buyer . . . highway ride combined with traditional Jeep off-road performance."

Endorsed Steve Center, AMC's marketing manager for California: "People don't want to be bounced and jostled around. They want off road vehicles that are more car like."

Snorted CJ inveterate Walker: "What really gripes me is that they're making an American Jeep in a foreign country. Brampton, Ontario."

Such patriotism, plus a lust for originals, runs deep within Walker. After all, his father, Elton, and uncle, Clarence, founded Walker Bros. in 1926 and it hasn't moved since. Walker took his first step there in 1938, started his first full-time job there in 1954, sold his first Jeep there in 1972 and considers the person who drives a CJ to be an original . . . "a person who wants the real thing, nothing makeshift and substitutions aren't acceptable.

"I do like nostalgia. I really appreciate old things. And I liked the original Coke better than the new Coke."

An American Institution

All of which, in Walker's book, places the CJ alongside Zippo lighters and Norman Rockwell as American monuments worthy of preservation.

So when discontinuance of the CJ came up at a pre-Christmas sales meeting and when one of Walker's sales persons suggested that someone should get up a petition. . . .

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