Trucks, Jeeps

Jeep Honcho: creating a unique high-mobility pickup truck

by Michael Dickens
based on the work of Bob Sheaves

Preface, from Bob Sheaves: This is a discussion intended to show how things work “inside.” I am not discussing a real program. All I have talked of was generalities ... with specifics only from after my confidentiality agreements ceased. 

Jeep Honcho

Imagine a light pickup truck with best-in-class mobility, but an affordable price and a good ride. Sound too good to be true? Maybe not.

During an Allpar Forums discussion about the future of the Dodge Dakota pickup, some suggested boosting sales by adding a Jeep variant. In 2009, veteran engineer Bob Sheaves wrote:

This was formally brought up four times (1989, 1995, 1999 and 2007) in the company, and rejected four times for the same reasons. The Dakota could not meet Jeep requirements for performance, offroad capability, and powertrain compatibility; and there was no place with the capacity to add a Jeep variant. Thank God for that!

It could not be modified, changed, or altered into meeting the requirements. Just remember: you can make a car do anything you want, but the more specialized and focused the ends desired, the less useful as a daily driver.

My comparisons are based on quite a few Dodge trucks of that period I’ve owned and/or driven, the Jeep pickup that I own, and one other that I’ve driven.  Every Dodge pickup I’ve been in has been fairly competent off the road and on. Even the D200s and 300s do surprisingly well — not CJ7 well, but well enough to create red faces among the bowtie and blue oval boys.

1989 jeep comanche

The weakest point: while driving a 1970s W Series, you’re not ever going to forget you’re in a truck. Hope your coffee cup has a lid; you’re going to need it if you come across a washboard road.

The Jeep J10 (Gladiator) I drove had incredible mobility. The QuadraTrac is capable of turning the bowtie and blue oval boys green and making them use vocabulary you aren’t going to hear at a church social. My J20, not so much. I tried a trail that lifted opposing wheels and had to get out the come-a-long; the springs were too stiff, and there was no limited slip in the axles. However, chain it to anything where all four are on the ground, and even with the bearings coming apart in the 401, when I put it in Drive and feed it some juice something always moved, unless the chain broke.

1972 dodge ram

The Jeep pickup ride is where it’s at! Even with its stiff springs, a J20 won’t dump your coffee, even on the roughest two-track trail you can find.

A lot of Jeep stuff found its way into the Ram, and it’s the better truck for it. But the Jeep stuff that found its way there was the things that Jeep was pioneering in the 1970s, and in some cases even before, some of that was making a pickup a bit more civilized without ruining it for its main purpose. Some of that was helping it do what a truck is designed to do.

My first point: The new Power Wagon had far more mobility (ride is also part of mobility) than any previous Dodge truck of yesterday or today.

My second point: Jeep interiors were cobbled together by using whatever they could get, but they held up better than the competition, even considering the absolutely abysmal switches, knobs, and miscellaneous stuff that self-destructed quickly. Kaiser and, then, AMC had the highest electrical system failure warranty rates in the industry.

Bob Sheaves went on to suggest that the only three production trucks sold in the U.S. that the Power Wagon could not outperform in mobility were the Wrangler Rubicon, MB Gelendewagon, and the AMG M998 (Hummer H1).

Zetsche and the Dodge Power Wagon off-road Ram pickup

When asked to comment about “the Honcho,” he noted work that “You could combine the following parts to make an exclusive, modern day Honcho for Jeep:”

  1. Standard cab with low-line commercial interior. This means no Club cab, no Quad Cab, no Crew Cab; and a bench seat with rubber floor mats (the electrical system is already water resistant) to be able to flush the inside out, like a Wrangler. No radio options (commercial buyers want to use Gamber Johnson in-dash mounts for their Motorolas), just a prewire kit.
  2. Ram Power Wagon suspension, wheels and tires. Optional dead front axle for a 4 x 2 driveline.
  3. A 6-foot box on short rear frame section (the frame is multiple pieces, so the only new part is the rear frame rails). Fuel tank comes directly from the light duty Dodge.
  4. Jeep specific front fenders, hood, headlamps, grille and core support.
  5. Rating as 3/4-ton only in both 4 x 2 and 4 x 4 combinations. This would allow the Cummins to also be a Jeep engine.
  6. Only transmission options would be HD Aisin auto or HD 6 speed manual with extra clutch plate (dual disc) ... shared HD upgrade with the HD Dodges.

1986 Jeep Comanche Land Speed Record

[Some rules will need to be:] 

1. Use the existing platforms to hold the line on manufacturing costs;

2. Minimize the new parts required to create a new niche that is not being serviced by anyone, and eliminate product overlap;

3. Remember the past’s strengths and think how to adapt the history to current markets;

4. Do not reinvent the wheel; roll it harder and faster than anyone else.

He also reemphasized that his ideas “won’t replace Dakota. It’s not intended to. It’s intended to fill a hole in Jeep with a fast (less than 18 months) program to production.” When asked why there should be no crew-cab version of the Jeep Honcho, he replied:

1. Dodge would get the crew cab for brand differentiation. Jeep as basic, hard-core work truck that can be outfitted with aftermarket stuff for play. Commercial users want a basic truck without any frills.

2. Too much manufacturing complexity. Result: increased costs, again.

3. Adding length to a vehicle changes its Ackermann effect on steering. By keeping one length, you can optimize turning circle and maneuverability which, in turn, affects mobility. That is part of the reason for a dead front on the Jeep 4x2.

The Dodge would still have an independent front suspension for the 4x2. The Jeep suspension setting would be similar and components (except for the carrier housing) would be exactly the same.

first generation dakota pickup

Asked why he would use a six-foot bed on a 3/4-1 ton truck,

1. Marketing. No one else has a heavy duty short bed. I spoke with people who do contract explosive mining. They hated the large turning circle of a standard wheelbase 3/4 ton Dodge and did not need the room of the longer bed. This would give Jeep an advantage over all other pretenders. This would be a “Jeep thing” that Dodge dealers should not have;

2. Mobility. The shorter wheelbase, plus the link coil dead axle on the 4x2 and a live axle on the 4x4, allows the suspension and steering to provide a tighter turning circle while the shorter wheelbase gives a higher breakover angle for increased mobility.

Because you only have one wheelbase to be connected with, I would attempt to modify the knuckles to allow a full 35° wheel cut on both, instead of 31°. The problem with going further is the wheel and knuckle U-joints and binding when in 4WD. I would probably look into a high travel Rzeppa or other high travel/high longevity joint to replace the existing joints. Any travel over 35° would be gravy and out turn anything else even close in the marketplace.

Remember, you cannot justify another “me too” product. You are adding only 30,000 trucks a year to the total plant capacity.

I would also have a minimum of 350,000 miles service life ... to stick my finger into Ford’s collective eye.  The problem is one of cost ... you are now looking at a base truck price of around $35,000 [2012 dollars] before any options are added.

For me and the average commercial truck buyer, it should be okay (return on investment rules the commercial industry).


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