CarBuzz Editor-in-Chief Jay Traugott recalls his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, where Jeep has thrived for decades.
Growing up in a 'Rust Belt' American city is something you carry with you for the rest of your life - no matter where you end up living. I left my hometown of Toledo, Ohio when I was 18 and headed off to college. With the exception of holiday breaks and summers, I never moved back. Still, there are often things about one's hometown that never leave you and the nostalgic memories of your youth can come rushing back faster than you'd expect.
Toledo is known for several things, such as Tony Packo's Cafe and the Mud Hens minor league baseball team. It's also the hometown of actor Jamie Farr, who played the cross-dressing, Section 8-seeking lunatic Corporal Klinger on the classic TV show M*A*S*H. Though also known for glass and some other manufacturing industries (one of its nicknames is 'The Glass City'), Toledo is truly synonymous with Jeep. Since World War II, Toledo has been the home of the original general purpose vehicle (rumor has it the name Jeep came from 'GP'), replacing horses as a means of military transport.
Because of their popularity with returning soldiers, the first civilian Willys Jeep, the CJ, was rolling off the assembly line in 1945. In 1953 Jeep was sold to Kaiser Motors and became Kaiser-Jeep 10 years later. By 1970, American Motors Corporation took over the brand. When AMC shut its doors in 1988, current owner Chrysler came into the picture. And all along the way, Toledo kept right on building models such as the Wrangler, Grand Wagoneer, Cherokee, and Liberty. Despite the many troubles Chrysler endured in the past, they could always count on their Jeep brand as a consistent money maker.
Today, the Toledo North Assembly Plant simply can't build them fast enough. Why is that? It's not just Americans who are buying Jeeps in droves these days. Global Jeep sales for 2011 were up by 41 percent and increased by some 44 percent in the U.S. In Europe alone, Jeep is huge. Sales grew last year by 124 percent in Germany, 117.6 percent in Italy and 71.7 percent in France. Even economic stricken countries like the UK and Spain saw solid increases of 18 and 21.2 percent, respectively. On my occasional trips to Europe, I can't help but notice the number of heads that turn whenever a Jeep goes by.
Nods of admiration and finger pointing soon follow. Perhaps those are happy emotions left over from the Jeep-driving U.S. Army when they liberated Europe from the "lovely German occupiers" almost 70 years ago. Or maybe it's because Jeeps are simply cool and are tons of fun to drive off-road. Seeing those reactions made me think of Toledo. Being overshadowed by Chicago and Detroit, this other manufacturing city bordering a Great Lake is often forgotten. While I packed up and left 12 years ago, many of my high school classmates stayed put and found jobs at Jeep.
Two friends in particular have become proud Jeep employees, working alongside the plant's other 1,894 (soon to be over 2,800) employees in a facility with 3.64 million square feet of floor space that includes body, paint, and chassis operations. Now those are skilled professions that you don't need to pay over $40k for in-state tuition like I did (read: my parents did) in order to train for. Both of these guys and many of their co-workers drive Jeeps they helped build with their own hands. There's something special about that that only automaker assembly employees and individual restorers truly understand.
Watching Jeep making it big overseas, I not only think of my hometown, but also of those former classmates and their colleagues who are building one of the most desirable and recognizable automotive brands on the planet. And that's some true hometown pride.