Marqued

Feature

Milan to Moab: One Italian Jeep collector's vision for the TJ market

Photography by Shayan Bokaie

Oct 5, 2021

The allure of Italian cars—and more broadly, Italian culture—to enthusiasts in the US has always been tantalizing. Romantic visions of Italian backroads, coachbuilt cars, and all things La Dolce Vita, have long symbolized some best motoring has to offer. The old adage 'the opposite is equally true', however, is firmly in effect here. A friendly surprise to some, enthusiasts in Italy lust after American cars and culture in equal measure with a fascination for Harley Davidsons, Route 66, and the open road.

In the late '70s, it was seldom to see a Jeep that wasn't a remnant of WWII, except for offroad racer, Renzo Bondesan, and his race-ready CJ5 dubbed 'Captain America'. His success in creating intrigue in Jeeps through racing turned into a full fledged dealership, becoming the first to import American cars. In addition to assisting in the spark which ignited the Italian Jeep phenomenon, he also instilled this passion in his daughter, Luna Bondesan. A respected 4x4 journalist, talented automotive executive, and off-roader, this passion for Jeep brought her career to the States, closer the culture she grew up admiring.

Having rolled Jeeps "a thousand times" from Milan to Moab, she's a qualified thought leader in the off-road world and subject matter expert who loves to collect and trade Jeep TJs as a hobby. Built from 1997-2006, Luna is convinced that the blend of their modern amenities and classic appeal makes them wonderful entry-level cars for enthusiasts. We spoke with her to shed more light on her story and thoughts on TJ ownership.

Marqued: Your family has been involved in the Jeep world for a long time. Can you tell me how that began?

Luna Bondesan: My dad was the only son in a very humble family. He was always was pretty vivacious and even wanted to buy himself a car but he was only 10 years old. Since he couldn't drive, he started photographing cars by sneaking in rally races that were happening around his hometown in northern Italy. He would climb trees to get aerial photographs of the rally cars that were racing, in order to have a different perspective from all the other photographers that were there.

He would sell these pictures and finally put enough money together to buy himself a ticket to Los Angeles when he was 14 years old. This is where his first Jeep came into the fold and changed his life. He found a Willys, which to him, was the closest thing to a car that could do everything, go everywhere, similar to his approach in life. He always liked the idea of doing things that weren't easy or weren't allowed to be done. That's why he liked the concept of a Jeep because that was his idea of going beyond the limits with a car.

Marqued: He was a rule breaker.

Luna: Definitely a rule breaker. He shipped the Jeep back to his family's farmhouse near the suburbs of Vercelli, in northern Italy. His first order of business was testing the four-wheel-drive system, so he drove the car up the stairs. My grandma was losing her mind since he couldn't do anything normal. After this first adventure with the Willys, he would take it to the fields around the countryside where they lived, doing all sorts of off-roading.

Then he started racing. He went back to the US and bought a 1954 CJ5, the first civilian Jeep, and made it race-ready in Italy. Tubular cage, increased power, off-road tires, everything. He started going to the CVIF, which is the Campionato Velocità Italiano Fuoristrada—a speed-driving championship for off-roading vehicles.

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Photographed by Shayan Bokaie

Marqued: For context, this style of racing is a bit more technical where speed is an element but also traversing the landscape properly is critical.

Luna: Exactly. There are mountains, river washes, and rock crawling. It's all elements of off-roading combined with speed. So you have to make it through the off-road trial in the fastest time possible.

He was the only racer with a CJ, so people started going crazy because it was an exotic product for the Europeans. It was more agile than the other cars, it was better than the other cars. My dad drove like he had no fear of damaging the car, or himself. He was Italian Champion of the CVIF several times.

Spectators and competitors started wanting Jeeps, but nobody really knew how to find or import them. It wasn't easy then, and it's not easy today. This is how he started importing cars from the US for his friends.

Marqued: So he created demand and then started fulfilling it.

Luna: He inspired demand more than created it. It was great advertising for these cars because he would always get out of these racing incidents alive, which was definitely not expected. He would roll ten times down a mountain, down rocks without a roof. Then climb out of the Jeep, roll it back on its tires, and keep going. I'm not kidding.

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Marqued: At what point did he start the dealership, Car America Bondesan?

Luna: In 1980. But he didn't start with the idea it was going to become a business, it was simply an evolution of his hobby and passion. Initially, he would park cars he imported from the US for his friends or competitors outside at a local restaurant as he ran out of parking.

As people started driving by, they would become curious, "These come from America? Wow." He got a lot of visibility from just parking cars at that restaurant and demand started to build beyond his exposure from racing. Famous people started wanting them. Like soccer players, singers, actors. It exploded. We are talking about Italy in the 80s, the economy was booming.

Whenever American film production would take place in Italy, they would rent his Jeeps or Humvees, which he also developed a passion for. It became clear he needed to take the business seriously and started importing pretty much any car that was unusual and unavailable to the European market, specializing in American cars, Jeeps, 4x4's, muscle cars, military vehicles, and so on all with the help of my mother by his side.

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Marqued: Jeeps were obviously a large part of your childhood. Was it always a passion for you? Or did it just sort of hit you later in life?

Luna: My dad was hoping to have a son, but ended up with 3 daughters. So he raised me as he would have raised a son. While my mom was trying to take me shopping for clothes my dad gave me a wooden Jeep to ride. That then became a motorized plastic Jeep, and then it became an actual Jeep. He was just raising me as he would've raised himself.

I have been off-roading since I was an infant. He had a whole system to strap me to the car seat. I became so accustomed to this and relaxed by it, that I'd have a hard time sleeping unless he would take me over bumps off-roading. He and my mom would always laugh, because after five minutes that I was in an off-road ride with him, I would fall asleep immediately. Because that was my... cradle almost.

Marqued: When did you get behind the wheel?

Luna: When my legs grew long enough for me to touch the pedals, he would take me to the countryside and sit me behind the wheel and then let me drive. I got my first first Jeep at 14. Her name was Jesse. It was a car my parents acquired from a customer who had wrecked it and was in the body shop for months getting repaired and repainted.

My mom came to me, "Luna, please. This is basically a new car. It just came out from the body shop. Don't damage it." So I took the car, and 30 minutes later, rolled over while off-roading. Literally. Multiple rollovers.

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Photographed by Shayan Bokaie

I called my dad and told him, "I'm going to go away. I can't come back home. I made a disaster of my life." He came to pick me up and I was like, "Dad, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm going to leave and I'm never going to be a problem for you again. You're never going to see me again." I was 14. I was terrified. He looked at the car and looked at me, he was like, "Are you okay?" I'm like, "Yeah." Then he said, "I’ve done this probably 100 times. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." And that was the biggest relief I've ever felt in my life. I thought he was going to kill me, and instead he reacted as he couldn't have expected anything less.

Marqued: He was probably proud in a way.

Luna: After that, I became more responsible because I finally tested the risk with my own skin. I became more conscious about the limits of physics, myself and my experience, and the fact that the car has a balance. I started going to competitions and races across Europe. Many in the community were slightly shocked because I was a kid, and most of the time the only girl off-roading.

Marqued: You made cars your career. How did that happen?

Luna: I was studying business and economics at the university in Milano, but my dream was to write. Cars were my biggest passion at that point, so I shifted my focus to become an automotive journalist.

I reached out to an editor who ran the majority of the car magazines in Italy. He gave me an assignment and said, "Try to test drive this for this article." Two days later he hired me as a writer for the Italian version of Autocar, which was a pretty big magazine back then. I was 19. I worked as a journalist and an advisor for all things cars and also expanded into motorcycles. And then Jeep found me. The brand has been recently relaunched in Europe through Fiat Automobiles, having acquired the Chrysler group.

And so I was hired directly by Jeep as a consultant and a brand expert. I ended up working for my dream brand directly, and that was probably the greatest professional satisfaction I've ever had. I have worked for several other car manufacturers and brands which I also love, but my heart has a seven-slot grill shape.

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Photographed by Shayan Bokaie

Marqued: Now you’re based in the US, and your hobby has kind of turned into finding and restoring the TJ type Jeep. What is interesting about the TJ in particular?

Luna: I think the TJ is the greatest point of connection between Jeep’s heritage which has the convenience of a modern car, without being full of technology and devices and that remove the driver's experience. They're not uncivilized but also not refined. It’s a car that can be used for any purpose but still having the flavor of an older, simpler and more rugged car. Especially when it comes to off-roading.

The fun lies in the challenge, in figuring out a strategy to get over an obstacle with the right combination of throttle use and grip, without breaking anything. Having a modern and technologically advanced 4x4 is great, safe and allows you a lot more, but doesn’t provide the same pride and satisfaction.

Marqued: So when you look for a TJ, what's the criteria of things that you need to source a good example?

Luna: As in any other car, originality is always a valuable element. But I'm not a maniac about it because I feel I've had a lasting impression from my first Jeep which has a two-inch lift kit and 33-inch tires. Whenever I see a Jeep that's modified tastefully, I generally prefer it over a bare-bones stock example. The unmodified ones obviously have the value of being fresh and clean and likely haven’t been abused off-road, Aesthetically though, I think that their look is not particularly gracious or proportionate.

While that minimum upgrade to the suspension lift and tire size is something that, to me, gives it perfect symmetry and proportion that the shape of a Jeep should have. So that's my personal favorite. In general, for a first-time buyer, I would definitely recommend interesting colors because those are cooler, not easy to find (especially in well-preserved conditions) and they are fun to look at.

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Photographed by Shayan Bokaie

Marqued: What about automatic versus stick shift?

Luna: A lot of Jeep drivers in the US, which encompasses a large demographic, don't really care for the manual transmission, while in Europe it’s the opposite. As a result, manual transmission cars are generally priced lower. I see them as a great opportunity for those who enjoy driving stick.

Overall, the TJs are very resilient mechanically meaning higher mileage examples can be considered if they've been cared for it. They are an interesting choice for enthusiast driving, a different type of momentum car which gives you pleasure in the city and off-road. I didn't have choice in my passion for Jeeps, but I highly recommend it for those that do.

More about Luna

Working with brands like Luftgekühlt, Porsche, and more, Luna's Instagram (@luna__bond) is a glimpse into her Jeep mania and automotive career. You can also check out Bondesan's Instagram and website for more information.

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