‘Lunatic Fringe’: Jeep employees put up their own money to feed the Rubicon

The Rubicon is an important model in Jeep’s lineup and would not have happened if not for the “Lunatic Fringe.”

The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon model is about to celebrate 20 years to be the ultimate all-terrain vehicle from the factory. How the Rubicon model came to be is a story of passion and commitment from a group within the company (not so affectionately) known as the “Lunatic Fringe.”

In the video below, Jeep Head of Design Mark Allen sits down with Gone-GPN’s Chris Collard Jeep Rubicon 20th Anniversary Concept on the Easter Jeep Safari to talk about the history of the Rubicon. The two talk about the original Jeep Rubicon, the future of the vehicle and the history of the Rubicon Trail.

Allen describes the team that worked on the original as “hobbyist mountain bikers.” Adapting to trends in the off-road industry, they modified their Jeeps into more capable off-road beasts.

Jeep Rubicon catered to Rock-Crawlers

The team knew what rock-crawlers wanted, and they wanted to give it to them.

A 4:1 low-range gearbox would add torque multiplication at the wheels as well as low-speed finesse. Taller tires would help increase ground clearance and allow a vehicle to roll over obstacles instead of crashing into them. And undercarriage protection would help prevent track damage.

Allen said team members used their personal credit cards to help pay for their ideas — not something that would work in corporate America today. The name Lunatic Fringe (check the video for the team logo) was given to the team “because everyone thought they were crazy to even try to do it.”

Jeep thought no one wanted to go off-road for fun

2022 EJS Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 20th Concept; (photo/Jeep)

Allen admits it sounds strange today, but at the time, he said, the Jeep companies saw them as weird for wanting to go off-road for fun. The company knew buyers were into hardcore off-roading, but they thought it was a small segment.

But the group eventually got approval to make what would become the Jeep Rubicon, based on the 2003 Jeep TJ. It had Dana 44 axles with air actuated Tru-Lok differentials front and rear. It also had that 4:1 transmission, diamond-plate rock rails and 31-inch Goodyear MT/R all-terrain tires. (Remember when 31-inch tires were considered tall?)

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The brand’s marketing team predicted the Jeep would sell 3,000 in its first year, and then sales would fall off a cliff after that. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Ten years later, Jeep launched the 10th anniversary edition Rubicon. It got the same transmission, same Dana axles and now had 32-inch tires, plus special seats, interior trim and unique bumpers.

Rubicon now a third of Wrangler’s sales

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Today, more than 30% of Jeep Wrangler the sale is Rubicon trim. That’s more than 60,000 rubicons per year! That’s why Jeep is getting ready for the 20th anniversary of the Rubicon, which is next year.

Jeep won’t confirm exactly what the plans for next year’s 20th anniversary model Rubicon are, or even if it will officially offer a special model. But the Easter Jeep Safari concept is likely to be pretty close to the mark.

Last month we spent time behind the wheel of the concept. The basics are steel bumpers, an integrated winch and air compressor, and 37-inch tires. If that’s how you measure progress, that’s 6 inches in 20 years and would tie the Jeep for the tallest off-road tires—the Ford Raptor can also be obtained with 37s.

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Rubicon Trail: The route that borrowed its name

Of course, the Jeep Rubicon couldn’t exist without the Rubicon Trail. In the aforementioned video, Collard discusses the trail’s history, from the early days when it was a trade route to when it was drivable by early automobiles and had a hotel.

The 22-mile route, now primarily a 4×4 trail, is located between Lake Tahoe and Sacramento. It was where Jeepers came to play and has been home to a Jeep Jamboree since 1997. It has long been a testing ground for Jeep and for aftermarket suppliers working to make Jeeps more capable.

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