Thank you very mud: Our Carwash with Daniele Calonaci, Head of Jeep Design

A heads-up on International Mud Day: it's going to get dirty. Very dirty. And Daniele Calonaci from Jeep shows what it means when a designer takes the ramp carwash literally.
Text Matthias Mederer
Photo Matthias Mederer ·

Turin, in the middle of the city, a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon rolls around the bend. Color? Hmmm, good question. Is “authentic” a color? With a little black maybe? At the wheel is Daniele Calonaci, chief designer at Jeep EMEA region of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. He drives into the specially prepared carwash and grins: “Is this alright?” With a leap he hops out of the driver’s seat. “We’re washing the car, right? You need a dirty vehicle for that.” There’s nothing to object to, and a Jeep Wrangler is probably supposed to look exactly like that anyway. Which brings us to the first question:

In the design process, do you actually picture the Jeep clean or dirty?
Normally, you think of a vehicle with all of the surfaces and edges and the proportions in a clean condition. But with a Jeep, of course, you always keep in mind that it will get dirty, and that has a direct impact on the design, particularly as everything has to be easy and uncomplicated to get clean again.

He drives into the specially prepared carwash and grins: “Is this alright?” With a leap he hops out of the driver’s seat. “We’re washing the car, right? You need a dirty vehicle for that.”

How, specifically, does this manifest itself?
We don’t style anything, or at least very little. The Jeep Wrangler is an evolutionary vehicle; it’s not a trend-setting retro design, as is often produced today. Basically, the Wrangler is a Darwinian presentation in automotive engineering. With it, I’m as well-equipped as possible to face any natural obstacle and any challenge. Everything on the Wrangler has been evolutionarily derived from its functionality for off-road use and developed further step by step. The origin of it is the Willys MB, which had been developed for the military. A simple vehicle. Let’s take the radiator grille: for me the most iconic feature, purely optical. With its seven slits, this element is designed to protect the radiator off road. And that’s exactly what it looks like. It’s a pure and simple derivation of its functionality. We could walk around the vehicle and say that about almost all of its features.

What role does material play in this? Can you say: When in doubt, let’s go with steel?
Material plays a highly critical role, but I wouldn’t generalize that it always has to be as robust as possible. Let’s take the fenders. If we were to use metal here, it would be more expensive and less flexible. Plastic works better and it is more economical. We make sure that the fenders are easy to replace. If the part breaks when you’re off-road – shit happens – just replace it.

Daniele Calonaci reaches for the high-pressure cleaner. Our carwash is about breaking up incrustations and blasting away dirt and pebbles in the truest sense of the word. But before Calonaci fires the water jet at the Rubicon with maximum force, he takes a closer look under the vehicle, checking the muffler, tie rod and suspension. “That’s always part of it for me. Of course, a Jeep is subject to considerable wear and tear with the relevant use. Something gets damaged, and it’s got to be checked. Every time I wash my Jeep, I also give it a thorough check-up.” And Calonaci does that once a week. Today everything looks good. Nothing damaged or broken. Thanks in part to the massive skid plates. Before Calonaci aims the pistol and pulls the trigger, we quickly inquire:

How does a designer feel about scratches in the paint?
These are the marks of life. They’re an absolute part of it. They’re like scars, memories of an exciting life. The more memories, or the more scratches my Jeep has, the more it’s my vehicle. This is my form of individualization. It’s like a good leather jacket. I haven’t owned this jeep that long yet, so it has hardly any marks. The Jeep I had before looked really good in the end. I even had a hole in the side window. Some kids in Morocco threw a stone at me.

A stone?
Yeah. It’s a funny story.

What’s so funny about having a stone thrown at you?
Those kids were just having fun. That’s how they signal their appreciation. When you pass them, they throw a stone at you. So keep the windows closed. A little tip on the side.

Does a Jeep designer actually have to be an off-road driver?
Absolutely. Many of the design elements can only be understood when you drive off-road. For example, the shoulder line of an ordinary car is higher – for safety reasons. For an off-roader, you need a lower shoulder line so you can lean out the window and see what’s happening directly under the vehicle. This is also why you can easily remove the doors with two hand movements and have the maximum all-round view.

"The Jeep I had before looked really good in the end. I even had a hole in the side window. Some kids in Morocco threw a stone at me."
Daniele Calonaci

How do you feel about technical features such as camera systems that provide the perfect all-round view on a display?
Hmmm. It’s true, a camera that gives me a direct view in front of and behind the vehicle might be helpful, but when I drive off-road, the camera is one of the first things to get dirty or destroyed by a stone.

It was a stupid question . . .
I wouldn’t say that. A Jeep is always about functions in all aspects of life. And in Jeep’s interpretation, all aspects of life is a very wide field. A Jeep is made to solve problems. That is simply a very high demand on every part. That demand inevitably means that the things that fail to meet the standards are not installed, they’re omitted, which in turn leads to a fairly pure idea of a vehicle.

A reduction to the essentials?
You could say that. But perhaps it’s more a reduction to the absolutely functional. So it’s less an ascetic renunciation of everything that’s not absolutely necessary, but rather a concentration on the things you can rely on under all circumstances – or, if necessary, the things that can be repaired under all circumstances, even by simple means. This can be perfectly combined with a certain level of comfort. I bought the Rubicon because I recently became a father and needed a family vehicle that is above all safe. I like to go off road with my family, and the Rubicon offers everything we need for a more extended adventure in nature.

An off-roader as the perfect family car?
Sure! We have everything we need on board. We can go anywhere, sleep and cook with maximum safety.

"Many of the design elements can only be understood when you drive off-road. For example, the shoulder line of an ordinary car is higher – for safety reasons."

Daniele Calonaci

For a lot of people, that’s a pretty modern understanding of luxury.
Absolutely. Just spending time alone with my family is a big part of my understanding of luxury. I can also have that luxury in the garden of my house. If I can combine that time with an off-road adventure, something that creates unforgettable memories, that is the highest form of luxury for me.

The Jeep is now standing there dripping wet. On the ground beneath it is a brown and yellow ring of sand and stone. Everything before that was matte and dirty on the Rubicon now glistens and gleams. And there are also a couple of noticeable scratches. Daniele Calonaci discovers them with a childlike pride. He rubs them as if he is just remembering the situation that got him these scars. It does seem a bit absurd. Imagine that with a Ferrari driver . . .*

To wrap things up, can you give a final tip on where to experience the best off-road adventures?
Tough question. It always depends a bit on your own preferences. Personally, in the winter I like to drive here in the mountains behind Turin. Most of the roads are closed then and you have the terrain to yourself. Tunisia is also exciting. The French call it “the sea of sand”. It’s pretty demanding; technically speaking, you have to drive very clean. Or the red cliffs of Utah’s Moab Desert. The stone there is like sandpaper – with unbelievable grip. There you can drive on gradients that are almost unimaginable.

In the end, Calonaci reaches for the towel and dries his Rubicon. Almost like every family man washing his car on a Saturday afternoon. But only almost.

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