Mark Phelan: Chrysler gives owners a wink to history with hidden images

April 21, 2014


Chrysler wants to send its owners on an Easter egg hunt. The automakerís designers have taken to hiding amusing graphic images that pay tribute to its heritage on the latest vehicles from Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep.

Examples include a topographical map of a famous off-road course secreted on the 2014 Jeep Cherokee and an image of the Detroit skyline ó from a perspective where General Motors headquarters is not visible ó in the new Chrysler 200 sedan. The 2015 Dodge Challenger that debuted at the New York auto show this week features a tribute to the all-but-forgotten brothers who founded Dodge a century ago.

"We do it to put a smile on the customerís face," Chrysler interior design director Klaus Busse said. "Thereís no added cost. Zero. You can turn a cheap piece of plastic into a collectorís item."

In addition to evoking the Easter eggs countless kids will search for this weekend, the idea draws on the name video game designers have for surprise features they sometimes hide in their programming, said senior analyst Bill Visnic. The designers insert references to earlier games and characters in new games, a subtle gesture enthusiastic gamers recognize and appreciate.

"Itís inspired," Visnic said. "It brings a bit of levity to a business known for taking itself seriously, gives the owners something to enjoy and feel in-the-know about, and shows that the designers themselves understand the vehiclesí and brandsí heritage. It sets a brand or a vehicle apart. Owners appreciate it."

The idea began with a little image of the original 1941 Willys Jeep on the frame of the 2011 Wrangler windshield. The image simultaneously appealed to owners who noticed it, and gave them a reason to buy original Chrysler parts if they needed a replacement. Anybody can make a spare part, but only Chrysler has the right to reproduce the image of the í41 Willys for sale.

The Willysí unique styling led to more Easter eggs, Busse said. An image of its grille appeared on the 2011 Grand Cherokee ó find it yourself; the gameís too much fun to reveal all Chryslerís secrets here.

The new 2014 Jeep Cherokee SUV is an Easter egg hunt on wheels. Among other goodies, the parking-assist video display shows the Cherokee driving past a row of Willys.

"We had an image of a generic car" in the display for the automated parking system, Busse said. "We knew we could do better than that, and it took about 10 seconds to think of the í41 Willys."

The only problem was that Chrysler didnít have computer data to generate an accurate image of a Jeep built 71 years ago. The Internetís full of allies when youíre working on a legend, though. A Jeep enthusiast had created computer data for an exact model of the Willys. Chrysler downloaded a copy for a $10 donation to a website and used it to create the image.

"For $10, we created something unique that makes our owners smile," Busse said.

Thereís no official process for Easter eggs, no requirement that every vehicle have one. Each design team decides what, if any, Easter eggs to hide when theyíve finished most of their other work. As in the gaming industry, senior executives have no idea the features are there. Busse, for instance, hasnít a clue what, if any, Easter eggs the upcoming Jeep Renegade small SUV bears.

That spontaneity is key to the ideaís charm.

"Itís the designers saying, ĎThis is our little gift for you, the user, to discover. My boss didnít tell me to do it. Itís our little secret,í " Visnic said.

"Finding the Easter egg and figuring it out is half the fun. It makes owners feel like theyíre part of the club, but it doesnít exclude the not-in-the-know customer from finding it and figuring it out. Itís a canít-lose proposition."




  McClatchy-Tribune Information Services