The Toledo Jeep Fest is one of many events where Wrangler owners and vendors come together. Photo credit: LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
TOLEDO, Ohio — Sprinkled among the thousands of visitors watching Jeeps on parade or celebrating its long history during Toledo’s second Jeep Fest Aug. 10-12 were scores of people for whom the Jeep Wrangler is more than just a hobby or an oddity. It’s the lifeblood of their business.
The Wrangler, in addition to being a cash cow for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, is among the most accessorized vehicles in production today, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association, with an estimated $6 billion in annual accessory sales.
And it’s that ability — to easily transform a mass-produced vehicle into an individualized showstopper — that helps make the Jeep Wrangler a modern marketing powerhouse.
“The Wrangler is one of the most iconic vehicles in the world. It’s touchable, affordable, doable; it’s all about life and experience,” said Randall Speir, senior manager for performance aftermarket at Dana, which has supplied the axles for Wrangler and its predecessors for 77 years. “The individualism of the vehicle speaks to who we are as human beings.”
From the simplest stickers to complex suspension lifts or axle replacements, the Wrangler seems to exist to look different. Companies use that to their advantage, whether selling accessories and upfits to Wrangler owners, or using a whacked-out Wrangler themselves to market their business.
“There’s a couple different demographics of Jeep owners,” says Nick Ellis, marketing director for ACE Engineering in suburban Detroit. “There are the hard-core owners who go off road a lot, and then there’s a segment of owners that don’t take their Jeep off-road, or if they do, it’s only for a little bit. We generally market more toward the hard-core enthusiast, because, even for those not taking it off-road, it’s still an aspirational idea.”
ACE makes scores of Wrangler accessories, including replacement bumpers, “trail” doors, undercarriage armor and rock sliders designed to increase the Wrangler’s performance off road or to protect it from when things go bad. Ellis and his crew attend Jeep events with a trailer of accessories. The company displays a Wrangler or two loaded with its wares, and puts price tags on each accessory. They run from five bucks to almost $1,000.