One and a half decades ago, the Jeep Wrangler was firmly anchored as a player in the new car game. It was undeniably cool and had a great pedigree, but it was hardly a top seller.
It all changed in 2006 when Jeep released a brand new Wrangler internally named the JK. It was a bit bigger, a bit more modern and had a little more power. Above all, the choice of a four-door model was possible – a novelty for the Wrangler.
In 2007, the first full year of availability for the JK, Wrangler sales increased nearly 50 percent to 119,000 units. The Wrangler was no longer a curiosity. It was a force.
"There was no competition when the four-door came, it opened to another population, another market," said Chuck Padden, the operations manager of the Fiat Chrysler Toledo Assembly Complex. "It not only became a great off-road vehicle, it also became a family vehicle."
VIDEO: The last Wrangler JK rolls in front of Toledo Plant Line
On Friday, the Toledo plant built its 2,165,678th – and last – Wrangler JK.
After a 12-year production series in which the Wrangler JK became one of Fiat Chrysler's top-selling and most profitable vehicles, the new model was completely replaced by the new Wrangler JL, which was released at the end of last year Toledo Assembly Complex went into production.
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Workers applaud when JK Assembly Center Manager James Gholston Jr. takes the last Jeep Wrangler JK off the line at 15:36. Friday at the Toledo Assembly Complex. More than 2.1 million JK Wranglers were produced during the 12-year production that began in 2016. The last Wrangler JK was a 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited.
The Blade / Katie Rausch
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"It's bittersweet," said Brian Sims, Senior Vice Chairman of Jeep Unit United Auto Workers Local 12. "Some people hate to see it, but they're looking forward to working on the new truck, so they have mixed feelings . "
The truck Mr. Sims referred to will take the place of JK in Toledo. In preparation for the conversion, contractors have already staged outside of the factory. The jeep enthusiasts are already looking forward to this vehicle – the first Jeep pickup in more than 25 years.
Company spokespeople have said production should begin by the end of the year, with the truck being sold in 2019.
But Friday was all about the model that brought the Wrangler into the stratosphere.
"It was a real pleasure to build an iconic vehicle of this kind and see that the last one comes from the final assembly line – I know we have a new Wrangler there, but that was our bread and butter," said Lyle Sizemore, who has been working for Jeep in Toledo for the last 35 years.
The last Wrangler JK was a white Rubicon Recon Unlimited, a top-off road-ready special edition. As they walked through the factory, the workers all smiled, snapped photos, and followed the setup as they finished their individual jobs.
"I think morale has risen because everybody was looking forward to this day," Mr. Sims said. "You can see how everyone pushed."
Jeep officials said the vehicle will remain in the company's ownership.
The end of JK's production means a temporary layoff for some 850 FCA employees and another 900 employees working for Kuka and Hyundai Mobis, a pair of on-site suppliers.
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Workers take photos and video footage while JK Assembly Center Manager James Gholston Jr. takes the last Jeep Wrangler JK off at 15:36. Friday at the Toledo Assembly Complex.
The Blade / Katie Rausch
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Also on Friday, company representatives confirmed for the first time that they will continue their relationship with Kuka and Mobis for the new truck. Kuka will build the bodies while Mobis will assemble the truck's chassis.
One of the most notable features of JK production was the ability of the plant to continuously increase its production rate.
"We are building twice the number of units it was originally planned for almost twice, and this is a tribute to the workforce who get everything they can get out of this facility," said Padden.
These limitations should be removed in the future. In a telephone conference with Wall Street analysts on Thursday, Fiat Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne said between the new Wrangler JL and the upcoming Jeep truck that the plant could build around 340,000 vehicles a year.
The plant last built around 244,000 Wrangler years
Both the outgoing Wrangler and the all-new are on dealer lots. Fiat Chrysler officials have not given a breakdown of how many of each generation they sold that year, but overall Wrangler sales were very good. By March, Jeep has sold 55,504 Wrangler, an increase of 34 percent over the same period last year.
To show how far the Wrangler has come, remember: In 2005, the year before the JK, Jeep sold 79,017 Wrangler total.
"It was the right workforce with the right product at the right time, and it was a home for the entire construction period," said Padden.