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Behind the Wrangler factory move

by David Zatz on

Some may have been puzzled as to why Jeep would have to pull the Wrangler from Toledo South, a nearly new plant, to build

Engineer Bob Sheaves pointed out that some other manufacturers actually have separate plants for building aluminum-bodied cars. He wrote that aluminum is easily contaminated by ferrous dust in the air, which can cause corrosion and other problems.

Aluminum bodies are built differently from steel ones, using different welding and forming methods, and often using adhesives as well. Switching to aluminum is no easy task, with costly machines having to be replaced, much tighter air filtration required, and new assembly and repair techniques developed.

While Ford is the first to use aluminum extensively in pickup bodies, Chrysler used a good deal of aluminum in the body panels for the 1976 Feather Duster, which had aluminum replacements for some body parts and the intake manifold, cutting weight by 180 lb and raising EPA ratings to 24 mpg city, 36 highway.

The Plymouth Prowler was an experiment in aluminum construction; Ford hired much of the Prowler team, including its leader, Chris Theodore, after the Daimler takeover of Chrysler. The roadster weighed just 2,780 pounds, and followed a “Neon Lite” experiment. It was made with rivet bonding rather than welding.

Setting up the Toledo South plant for aluminum could probably be done, but at ruinous cost, and with an extended downtime. Building a stockpile of Wranglers would be difficult given the high demand for the unique off-road vehicles.

With just two years to go, it is disingenuous to believe that Sergio Marchionne is only now making decisions as to the Wrangler’s design and manufacture. There are numerous possibilities for the future, including converting the Cherokee’s Toledo North plant to Wrangler production and pushing Cherokee somewhere else, converting Wrangler’s relatively small Toledo South plant to car or light truck production; building a new plant for Wranglers; and using aluminum in different ways, and not as extensively as Prowler, S8, or the next F-150 will.

Chrysler does have quite a bit of unused capacity at Sterling Heights, Belvidere, and Toluca, at the moment. With the Dart, Cherokee, 200, and probably the future Journey all sharing common key dimensions, and not facing great demand, it seems likely that those cars can be shuffled around to make room as needed.

Coming up soon: discussion on options for other Wrangler controversies — independent suspension and body-on-frame vs unit-body. Also see our recent Jeep Wrangler: aluminum and unit-body story, and discussion on our forums.

David Zatz founded Allpar in 1998 (based on a site he had begun in 1993-94), after years of writing reviews for retail trades. He has been quoted by the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Detroit News, and USA Today. Before making Allpar a full-time career, he was a consultant in organizational psychology. You can reach him by using our contact form (much preferred) or by calling (313) 766-2304

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