Toledo nervously awaiting fate of beloved Jeep

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — The thought of losing the Jeep Wrangler — a direct descendant of the original
olive-drab vehicle that rolled off the assembly line in Toledo on its way to the battlefields of World
War II — feels a little bit like losing a family member to those who have spent generations on the
factory floor.
Word that Chrysler is considering moving production of the Wrangler elsewhere so that the famously rugged
vehicle can be constructed with an aluminum body to meet new government gas-mileage standards has
triggered feelings of anger, betrayal and despair in this Midwestern industrial city.
"It’s not an unsurmountable blow, but it’s a blow to our pride," said Ron Szymanski, who
retired after making Jeeps for 35 years and later was curator of a collection of Jeep memorabilia.
Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne surprised everyone last week when he said that reconfiguring the Wrangler
assembly line in Toledo to handle the new design coming out in about three years would be so
"outrageously expensive" as to be impossible.
Automakers are increasingly looking at lightweight aluminum as an alternative to steel to meet the
government’s goal of nearly doubling average fuel economy to 54 miles per gallon by 2025.
The assembly complex in Toledo, which employs about 6,000 workers, isn’t in danger of shutting down even
if the Wrangler goes away. It still makes the more-citified, more family-friendly Jeep Cherokee, and
Marchionne said the employment level would be kept steady, most likely by bringing in a new vehicle to
build.
But there’s a question of whether a new vehicle could match the Wrangler in sales. The plant — the only
one in the world building the Wrangler — is on pace to make 240,000 this year.
And many assembly-line workers, like many Wrangler owners, have deep affection for the Wrangler because
of the tough, utilitarian design that still closely resembles the military version and makes it ideal
for off-roading.
"To lose our Jeep, that’s almost like sacred. You can’t do that," said Jennifer Wherry, one of
nearly three dozen in her family who have built Jeeps over the years.
Jeep’s origins in Toledo go back to 1941, when Willys-Overland Motors began mass production of the
vehicle for the military. As the war neared its end, the company began making the Jeep CJ for the
public. It kept rolling off the line in Toledo until the Wrangler came along in 1987. Those first
Wranglers were built in Canada before production returned to Toledo in 1993.
The Jeep brand changed hands repeatedly over the years, with Chrysler buying it out from American Motors
Corp. in 1987.
What hurts Toledo’s chances of keeping the Wrangler is its popularity. Shutting down production for six
months to retool could cost $1 billion in sales, said Bruce Baumhower, president of the United Auto
Workers local.
"We understand the issue," he said. "Now we’re down to finding a solution. We can’t let
the Wrangler go."
Workers at the plant were seething last week because Marchionne had pledged in January that the Wrangler
would not be built outside Toledo as long as he was CEO. They felt betrayed, too, after agreeing to work
weekends and holiday shutdowns to keep up with demand while also making contract concessions that
included allowing parts suppliers to take over work once done by union members.
"There was not an inkling that this was coming," Baumhower said. "All of a sudden, it’s
leaving?"
A group that included Toledo’s mayor, the Ohio governor’s chief of staff and state economic development
leaders met with Chrysler officials Thursday in hopes of saving the Wrangler. The automaker’s position
was unchanged, but the two sides agreed to keep talking.
More than just a military or a sport-utility vehicle, the original Jeep and its offspring have been a
staple of pop culture. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Lyndon B. Johnson tooled around their ranches in
Jeeps. Now celebrities like Jay-Z have taken to driving Wranglers. No movie about war or the Army ever
seemed complete without a Jeep, from "White Christmas" to "Patton" to "Saving
Private Ryan."
The vehicle continues to show up in films, including "The Avengers" and "Cars."
"It still gives you a big sense of pride," said Diana Spalding, a Jeep retiree. "Maybe
that’s old-fashioned."
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