Lately there’s been a lot of speculation about the Mahindra Roxor, so today we’re going to set the record straight. What follows is everything we know about the FCA and Mahindra lawsuits and legal battle as of January 2019.
Want to become an armchair expert on this in 10 minutes or less? You’re in the right place.
Let’s Start from the Start
Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know that every warm-blooded off-road enthusiast in America has been begging for a back-to-basics off-roader for years now. All we want are thin A-pillars and lightweight roofs that would most certainly collapse in a rollover. But noooo, the government says those are “unsafe”. Just don’t wreck. Problem solved.
On the second day of March in the year of our Lord 2018, Indian car and tractor manufacturer Mahindra answered our prayers. They bestowed upon us a modern reincarnation of the Willys Jeep called the Roxor and yes, it’s everything we wanted it to be.
Like anything that sounds too good to be true, the Roxor has come with its fair share of catches. The price tops out at nearly $20,000, speed tops out at 45 MPH, and it’s classified as a UTV so it isn’t street legal. Luckily those things can be easily remedied, unleashing a 70+ MPH street legal CJ-5 replica that’s every bit as good as the original.
The Roxor has been plagued with bad PR since the very beginning, with speculation that Mahindra simply cloned the vintage Jeep platform without permission. The latest drama comes from the parent company of Jeep, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), who now allege that Mahindra had no right to build and sell the Roxor in the United States.
Yet Mahindra has held production rights for the Willys-style Jeep since the late 1940s, they’ve been building their own versions in India for decades, and the Roxor is just a US-market version of the Mahindra Thar which has been on sale in India for nearly 10 years.
The plot thickens.
The FCA ITC Complaint
Things escalated on August 1st, 2018. That’s when FCA, intellectual owners of the Jeep brand’s unique design cues, filed a complaint (not a lawsuit!) with the U.S. International Trade Commission claiming that Mahindra engaged in “unlicensed importation” and sale of “products that infringe and dilute FCA’s distinctive Jeep vehicle trade dress.”
In their filings, FCA alleged that the Mahindra Roxor copied the Jeep’s design in many key areas, specifically the entire thing. They expressed that Mahindra had “no right” to use any of these elements – from the grille to the general shape of the body – since they are the intellectual property of FCA. Their demands? Nothing less than the complete and total cessation of Roxor production and sale in the United States:
“FCA further seeks cease and desist orders halting Respondents from conducting any of the following activities in the United States: importing, selling, marketing, advertising, distributing, transferring, or soliciting U.S. agents or distributors for, vehicles that incorporate or display or are marketed or sold in connection with the Jeep IP or designs that are confusingly similar to the Jeep IP.”
Mahindra requested to keep this matter within the local courts of Michigan (where FCA is based and the Roxor is assembled), but FCA insisted it be handled by the International Trade Commission, the legal equivalent of airing the story 24/7 on CNN instead of at 3 in the morning on PBS.
If it sounds like that lawsuit came from left field, it did. According to Jalopnik, not even Mahindra themselves were immediately aware of the filing. Which is slightly suspicious considering all the effort it took to get the Roxor here in the first place: the factories, the marketing… but we’ll get to that in a second.
You can view the full ITC complaint documents here.
The Scorpio Agreement
Mahindra responded to the complaint by filing a lawsuit in late August of 2018, alleging that FCA’s complaint has done significant damage to the Roxor’s identity and sales. The suit cited a 2009 legal dispute as proof that Mahindra had written permission from FCA to build and style the Roxor as they did.
That dispute began when Mahindra designed a grille for their late-2000s Scorpio SUV which bore a passing resemblance to the Jeep brand image of the time. The two companies talked it out, Mahindra redesigned the grille, and then-President and CEO of Jeep Michael Manley signed off on a document stating that Chrysler wouldn’t sue Mahindra for any future grille designs stemming from the one they agreed on – a variant of which is the now-infamous “four-and-a-half slot” grille found on the Mahindra Roxor.
While that might sound pretty vague on Jeep’s part, it’s nothing compared to this precariously-worded passage from the agreement, emphasis mine:
“Chrysler consents to the use and incorporation of the grille design shown in Exhibit A (hereinafter the “Approved Grille Design”) in vehicles sold and advertised in the United States by Mahindra and/or its affiliates and authorized dealers. Chrysler agrees and warrants that it will not assert against Mahindra, its affiliates, authorized dealers, or customers, or anyone else, any claim for infringement of Chrysler’s trade dress, trademark, or other intellectual property rights in the United States based on: (1) a grille having the Approved Grille Design; or (2) a vehicle containing or using the Approved Grille Design.”
As far as the English language is concerned, that’s simply Chrysler saying they won’t ever sue Mahindra just because a vehicle incorporates said grille design. But to a person of wit and intellect, that’s actually Chrysler giving Mahindra free reign to design any vehicle they want around the aforementioned grille without any risk of intellectual property infringement whatsoever.
Within a year, the Mahindra Thar went on sale in India looking exactly like a Jeep.
Fast forward to 2018, and the newly-appointed CEO of FCA is none other than Michael Manley himself. FCA has now alleged that Mahindra produced a Jeep clone without their permission, and Mahindra has insisted they were well within their legal rights. FCA’s lawyers have said “that’s not what we meant," to which Mahindra has responded, “you can’t change the meaning of a legal document after the fact.”
It’s not hard to see what’s happened here, but it’s baffling that we made it this far.
The rest of this article is opinionated babble.
I Mean, It’s Been Ten Years
As I write this article nearly a decade after the Scorpio Agreement was made, I have many questions about how we arrived at this situation. You can’t just import and sell a new brand of vehicle in the United States overnight, after all.
Porting the Indian-market Thar to the US market undoubtedly required extensive research and legal gymnastics – according to Mahindra, it took over three years of hard effort. They worked with dealerships to market and sell the Roxor, and they fostered relationships with American suppliers to ensure that over 20% of the Roxor’s parts are sourced locally (with a stretch goal of 51%).
Yet while the original announcement of the Roxor happened in late 2017, none of that year’s marketing material featured any images of the Roxor itself. No Instagram teasers, no spotting of test mules, no headlights shining through a car cover, nothing. We were all unaware of the Roxor’s true identity until it hit the market – FCA included.
But the automotive industry is highly secretive, so that isn’t necessarily grounds for suspicion. I mean, it’s not like they built a factory in Chrysler’s back yard or anything.
Mahindra Built a Factory in Chrysler’s Back Yard
To assemble the Roxor and house their growing North American operations center, Mahindra constructed a brand-new, $230 million, 150,000-square-foot production facility less than a mile from the FCA headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan. And wouldn’t you know: at the factory’s grand opening, the prototype Roxor was
proudly displayed hidden under a tarp.
It’s safe to assume that during all the development, testing, and prototyping, not once was a Roxor spotted by anyone at FCA – if they had seen one, we wouldn’t be having this conversation – even though they were being built less than a mile away.
This new facility won’t just build Roxors, mind you. Mahindra is planning a new line of trucks, SUVs, and electric vehicles set to launch in 2020 to be sold in the United States and Canada.
Meanwhile, the Scorpio Agreement has been serving Mahindra well in their home market. The Thar has been a huge success for nearly 10 years, and there’s a new version of the Scorpio:
So not only did Mahindra fully hide the Roxor from public view until it launched, they’re planning to sell an entire lineup of cars in the US – probably styled like the Scorpio – within the next few years.
So, Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong?
Mahindra clearly knew they were skirting a line of legality by building the Thar and bringing it to the States. No one’s disputing that. It’s curious that FCA wasn’t concerned with brand-image competition elsewhere in the world – they never raised a fuss about the Thar in India, though the two companies share that market – but I see why they’re taking firm action now.
It’s their approach to this situation that bewilders me.
Mahindra made what FCA couldn’t: a light, simple, spartan off-road vehicle unrestricted by modern safety standards and design clichés. FCA could choose to handle this quietly, but instead they’re playing hardball at the federal level, causing a PR nightmare for Mahindra by saying the Roxor will “damage the Jeep brand image.”
The Roxor is mainly designed for two groups of people: off-road purists and farmers. No farmer has ever gone to the dealership and bought a brand-new, leather-seats-and-backup-cameras Jeep to haul hay and herd cattle, and no off-road purist (who loves a stripped-down CJ covered in dents and caked in mud) would ever buy a 4000-lb, $30,000, soon-to-be-hybrid Wrangler for serious dirt duty. So it’s not like Mahindra is stealing sales from Jeep here.
The Mahindra Roxor reminds people of old Jeeps. Old Jeeps are cool. Ergo, the modern Jeep brand is cool by association.
What the Roxor Could Be
In a perfect world, FCA would fully embrace this. They would support the Roxor as the novel UTV that it is, give Mahindra all the backing they could muster, and enjoy the free publicity from a brand-new 50-year-old Jeep sitting on showroom floors, with the added benefit of publicly supporting a foreign company that’s actively investing in American jobs and the American auto industry at a time when we need it the most.
They could work behind the scenes to legally ensure that no roadgoing Mahindras ever carry the Jeep brand image in the States, then call it a day.
To be fair, Mahindra went about selling the Roxor with the sort of “better to ask forgiveness” mindset that got me chewed out for buying a motorcycle while my girlfriend was out of town. A quick email might have smoothed it all over, but for some reason I fully expected her to come home and be totally okay with it without any prior warning. To my complete surprise, she was appalled.
And in hindsight, I can’t say I blame her.
SITREP: Mahindra vs. FCA
With that said, here’s everything we know about the Mahindra and FCA legal battle condensed into one paragraph.
A 2009 legal battle with Chrysler (now FCA) over an unrelated grille design led to Truman-era Jeep contractor Mahindra receiving what appeared to be a blank slate to design cars without ever being sued by FCA about it. They began selling a Jeep clone called the Thar in their home market of India, then imported a version of it the United States market. Nobody, including FCA, realized this new vehicle was essentially the Thar until the Roxor hit the market on March 2, 2018. FCA promptly complained to the International Trade Commission citing a breach of intellectual property rights, their goal being to halt sales of the Roxor in the United States, and Mahindra responded with “sorry bro, you gave us permission like 10 years ago.”
Who’s right? Who’s wrong?