Design chief 'lost sleep' over wood-grain panels on new Jeep Grand Wagoneer

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Ralph Gilles, head of product design for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, says he "lost sleep" over the question of whether to include the wood-grain panels on the exterior of the new Grand Wagoneer that has become synonymous with the vehicles Jeep stopped producing almost 30 years ago.

Gilles' conclusion? No fake wood on the vehicle's sides, as the automaker showed Thursday with a concept model. Ultimately it came down to how the definition of luxury has changed over the past decades. The vehicle is meant to be the 2020 version of a premium SUV — the segment the original Grand Wagoneer invented in 1984.

The Grand Wagoneer is iconic for its exterior wood-grain panels.

"To be honest," Gilles told The Detroit News Thursday, "I've lost sleep over this question because it was asked internally a couple years ago. And philosophically, we looked at it for a hot second. We really did try, but the original was contact paper with a vinyl that was applied to the original car. It looked OK, and it made a statement, but they were desperately trying to establish a sense of luxury, which wood at the time was how you did it.

Ralph Gilles

"Today, we're using much different tools and design elements to stay luxury. Putting wood on this car would have just cheapened it actually."

The reveal that was live-streamed on YouTube was met with some initially disappointed comments over the vehicle's bare Arctic Ice white sides. Some enthusiasts also thought the vehicle lacked other important historic design cues.

"What you expect from a Wagoneer is that it's boxy, it's got those lines across the body, and it's got that rugged stance," said Chuck Berringer, 57, of Mareno Valley, California, who drives a 1971 Wagoneer. "It's that little character stuff."

Although the Wagoneer, which eventually evolved into the grander version, launched for the 1963 model year, it was not until 1975 that the wood-grain exterior applique made its debut. But it soon became synonymous with the affectionately named "woody" classics.

What Jeep did not put on the outside of the new Grand Wagoneer, it did put in the inside, Gilles jokes. The concept vehicle's instrument panel and doors feature blackened heat-treated lacewood. There are teak elements in the headlights and on the roof rack.

Chuck Berringer, 57, of Marino Valley, California, and his wife with their 1971 Wagoneer.

"The modernity of the design was also a very important component," said Christian Meunier, global head of the Jeep brand. "We could have gone the retro route, but that is not what the company decided to do because the world is evolving quickly and because the technologies are evolving quickly. It's a blend of what the original was but in 2020, not in 1982. It brings the technology, the design, the craftsmanship, the artisanship all together."

But woody fans may not lose all hope, as Gilles teased: "That's what the aftermarket is for."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble