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Jeepers Creepers: Off the beaten track at Camp Jeep

Arriving at Lyon’s Saint Exupery airport, it’s pleasing to find how compact the terminal is. Just a few minutes after stepping off the plane, I’m on board a waiting Jeep Grand Cherokee ready to be whisked in to the city centre. That set the tone for the weekend.

As it’s a Friday afternoon, this takes a little longer than anticipated, but the spacious and luxurious seats in the back of the Jeep, reclined and cooled, allow a little relaxation before the weekend’s events.

A delay out of Heathrow, and then a delay in traffic to Lyon, meant checking in to the Sofitel Bellecour hotel was a quick and frantic affair. Dashing to my room, getting changed in five minutes flat, then back to another Grand Cherokee for a lift to the dinner location, I arrived at the banks of the La Saone river and boarded a boat for a dinner cruise.

When journalists are placed in a room they can’t escape from (and escaping from a boat would lead to things getting very wet) it’s almost guaranteed that there’ll be a presentation. Fortunately the relaxed Jeep staff kept things short and sweet, explaining to the uninitiated just how big a deal Jeep is.

I’m here to immerse myself in Jeep culture and experience Camp Jeep. Every year since, ooh, last year, Jeep owners from around Europe and beyond have got together with official backing from Jeep to play with 4x4s, partake in a bit of adventuring and enjoy some good old American-style food, drink and music.

This year it took place this year in Montalieu-Vercieu, just outside Lyon, France’s third biggest city. Situated in the middle of Western Europe, it’s easy to get to with convoys of Jeep’s arriving throughout the days leading up to the event.

Entering the site through a giant Jeep grille – nothing is left unbranded – I’m presented with an area of tough terrain that will test even the hardiest of off-roaders. First, time to relax a little and take it all in.

With two-thousand Jeep fans expected over the weekend, it soon starts getting busy under the blazing summer sunshine. As temperatures rise towards 40°C, the chilled drinks stand beckons and thoughts turn to overheating engines and overheated drivers.

A fleet of new Jeep products has been laid on, and qualified instructors are available for those that need a little help out on the courses. There are four to choose from, coloured like ski slopes. Green won’t trouble much, blue requires some skill and a suitable vehicle, while red is for those that know what they’re doing. Forget black – those runs need modified vehicles and cojones I just don’t have.

Red seemed like the right colour, so I ventured out for the first run of the day in a Wrangler, the theory being that I had no idea what was coming so something with big tyres and plenty of ground clearance would be a good idea.

Steep gravel climbs, twisty axle articulating sections, what felt like near vertical drops and corners that no vehicle should be able to get round all presented no problem to the Wrangler, its four-wheel drive system and low ratio gearbox making mincemeat out of any obstacles.

Imagine my surprise to round one corner though and find a 15-year-old Cherokee tackling the same run. This was an owner’s car, the driver having made the trip from Germany to test his and his cars capabilities amongst like-minded people.

He wasn’t having quite such an easy time of it, with plenty of stopping, getting out and looking, discussions and then finally action slowing progress but, incredibly, the Cherokee made it round every section.

Impressive. Time to really push things then; I take the keys to the new Renegade, a small SUV that shares a lot in common with the Fiat 500X. A short off-road course at the launch in Scotland proved the plucky Renegade could handle some mud, but this was another level.

Cresting one hill, an original Willys MB was being flung around the course, its occupants attracting a large crowd of fans admiring the fact that something so old was still being used, and being used properly.

Everywhere you looked you’d find a unique Jeep of some sort, from an early Wrangler covered in stars and stripes to the latest Grand Cherokee with balloon tyres and more mud than a Turkish bath.

I watched it all from the Renegade as it made its way round the red course. More slowly than the Wrangler, certainly, but ultimately with little fuss. A tricky section that saw the car balancing on two wheels highlighted the community feel of the event – a small crowd quickly gathered and shouted millimetre precise instructions in where to place the car so as to make it over a huge rock without damaging the car.

For those not driving, Mopar had a presence for aftermarket Jeep goodies, spare parts were on sale, a very muddy demonstration of the new models was put on and excellent burgers were available.

A proper camp fire and live music meant the warm evening was going to be a cracking affair, but a tricky flight plan meant I had to return to Lyon, my time at the camp all too brief.

Jeep are just realising that the heritage they enjoy in the US might just translate to a stronger following in Europe. Already there are well over 30,000 members of the Jeep Owners Group, and that’s expected to top 40,000 by the end of the year. You think Land Rover has a following? They’ve got nothing on their American cousins.

With SUV sales seemingly on a never-ending upward trajectory, getting close to the customers and educating them about the history and capabilities of the brand can’t be a bad idea.

Everybody I spoke to saw the link between buyer and seller as a partnership, as if a new family member had been introduced. The lasting impression I got was that the feeling extends far beyond one family and their car, but stretches across every owner, every club, every Jeep.

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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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