The current American off-roading scene is adrift in a sea of aggro intensity. Trails are full of Wranglers in need of new prescriptions thanks to angry eye'd headlights. Ford's most capable off-roaders are named after a dinosaur that pop culture would tell us is a vicious killer, while each new truck that hits the market must be taller and meaner than those which came before.
Continue this curve and eventually you land in a future where every off-road park looks like a Fury Road fever dream.
For the electric reboot of Scout Motors, an all-American brand with a strong heritage of off-road capability, newly appointed chief design officer Chris Benjamin wants to take a different, more respectful approach to off-roading.
Gallery: The History Of The Scout Off-Road Brand
"You know, a lot of what you see off-road vehicles doing is, it's like: 'Let's go out, let's conquer the off-road world, let's conquer the rocks,' and Scout isn't about that. Scout is having the ability to go off-roading and do those things, but it's more about community and bringing people together," Benjamin told me in an interview last week. "And so, that will factor into the design language as well, not trying to feel too overly aggressive."
Benjamin brings a distinctly international perspective to helm its design. The former head of interior design for Jeep, Wagoneer, Chrysler, Dodge, and Ram, Benjamin was born and raised in South Jamaica, Queens, to a father who immigrated from Jamaica and a mother with strong Caribbean roots, parents who moved him to Miami when he was seven. It was there he embraced his love for design.
Mercedes-Benz Concept Ocean Drive
"Miami Dade County was a great public school program. I mean, you know, the area I lived in wasn't the greatest, a lot of crime and that sort of thing. So, I pretty much dove into school headfirst and really enjoyed it, and it was my sanctuary, if you will," he said.
After graduating from Miami's Design and Architecture Senior High School, he was accepted at top design schools like Pratt, but scholarships and his family's finances didn't line up, so he spent a year at Miami Dade Community College before a friend turned him on to Michigan's College for Creative Studies, alma mater to so many of the industry's finest.
After graduation from CCS he was hired by Mercedes-Benz, his first project the Vision GST Concept, which debuted at 2002's Detroit Auto Show and gave a strong look at the later R-Class MPV. "I did the interior," he told me. "That was a team of one." At Mercedes he also worked on 2007's Ocean Drive concept and did the interior on the 2008 GLK.
Mercedes-Benz Vision GST Concept interior
Benjamin then moved to BMW Designworks, where he worked on a lot of projects for larger companies like the Kenworth T680 truck, before moving to Volvo in 2007. "The first project that I started sketching on was the V40," he told me, the car that would ultimately become 2012's Volvo V40, a five-door apparently deemed too attractive for America.
Benjamin's career would see him living in Germany, Sweden, and California before finally settling back in Michigan.
1961 Scout 80S
Today's Scout Motors has had a similarly circuitous, international path. It was originally part of International Harvester, a brand known best for its tractors that started making rugged little SUVs in 1960, really before the term "SUV" was a thing. The Bronco was still years away, so if you wanted something capable and you weren't into the whole Jeep scene, you got yourself a Scout.
As the brand evolved its product line expanded, evolving into Scout II in 1971, then in 1976 introducing the Terra truck and the three-row Traveler SUV. Everything came to a halt in 1980 thanks to International Harvester's financial woes. The Scout brand was swept into obscurity, shuffled to the back of one copyright portfolio after another as IH's assets were sold again and again.
That folio got dusted off in 2020, when Volkswagen Group's Traton commercial trucking brand acquired Navistar. Along with that came the rights to the 40-year-dormant Scout.
1972 Scout II
Though born of the corporate behemoth that is VW, Scout Motors is very much paving its own path to production. And now, Chris Benjamin will literally be shaping what that path looks like.
Scout has publicly promised to release two products, an off-road focused SUV priced in the $40,000 range launching in 2026 and a larger truck launching soon after with a slightly higher sticker. The company has revealed a few teaser silhouettes and has even done early reveals to dedicated fans of the brand, folks still holding on to their Scouts after all these years.
I asked Benjamin who crafted those concept designs: "It was volunteers from all over the world," he said. "Mainly a dedicated team here in the States that was really passionate about the Scout brand. So, it started out as being done with borrowed help, but now we're formulating our design team."
Benjamin's last three projects at Stellantis: The Jeep Recon EV and Wagoneer S Concepts, and the 2024 Wrangler.
That team will be built in Michigan, near metro Detroit, where Benjamin lives now. There'll be an engineering presence there as well, complementing Scout's manufacturing and other corporate facilities in South Carolina and its current, DC-based executive team. "Yeah, we're all over," Benjamin said.
Benjamin joins from Stellantis, where he most recently served as vice president of interior design, specifically overseeing Jeep, Wagoneer, Dodge, and Chrysler.
Benjamin's stint there started in 2013. In the decade since, he oversaw interiors on everything from the current Chrysler Pacifica minivan to the Grand Wagoneer. His team also did the interiors on the upcoming Jeep Recon and Wagoneer S. "Those haven't been shown yet, but they'll be good," Benjamin assured me.
But, of all that experience, his recent re-shaping of the interior on the 2024 Wrangler would seem to resonate most strongly with his new role. There was a big push to increase fit and finish without losing that classic Jeep heritage.
"Those products had been becoming more and more premium, and the interior was sort of falling behind," Benjamin told me. "The one thing you'll see in the Wrangler is this heavy tactility. The switches and knobs, the shifter, for example, the way you put it into four-low," he said. "Those shifters are meaty."
At Scout, there won't be a need for meaty shifters. EV powertrains mean nothing to shift. This frees Benjamin and his team from a lot of classic design constraints – but not all of them: "You are still beholden to carrying people and you're packaging different things, right? Batteries instead of an engine. You still have the motors, of course and all of the same modules that you've always had, if not more these days."
But, like all good art, upcoming Scouts will take advantage of their medium. "We're trying to avoid innovating for novelty sake but rather innovating for real usability," Benjamin said, then referenced some classic Scout design features of old: "The thing that was a big part of the Scouts in the past was being able to experience the environment around you, the open air," he said. "[We're] looking into what we can do there without finding some of the pitfalls that we've seen other companies fall into with leaky roofs, stuff like that."
Though Benjamin promises the Scout interiors will feature all the latest tech that drivers will want, including Android Auto and Apple CarPlay ("I certainly don't believe in taking away conveniences that people are happy with"), he also assured me that the digital will not overwhelm the physical.
"We will hold on to an element of tactility, making manual controls feel special, like something that you want to interact with. Not just a sort of sea of matte black buttons, but rather something that feels special," he said. "Like a high-precision machine."
Benjamin promised the "right mix" of physical controls and digital touchpoints. "Not a sea of buttons, for sure. Not overdone. Just a small amount of exactly the most critical things that are desired by customers to get to quickly," he said, mentioning things like a volume knob and HVAC controls.
And on the exterior? Again, the design language will represent the brand, which is more about exploration and respect than conquering and dominating. A Scout, Benjamin says, will: "look like a serious machine, like it's there for business, but with an approachability."
So, no angry-eye headlight covers, presumably.
Benjamin also wants these vehicles to be less fundamentally compromised than the Wrangler or the Bronco: "We will create something that is both capable and is super-comfortable when you're going about your daily business."
They also won't be bland retro homages: "What I'm looking to do with the brand is to create something that will make people feel a familiarity without being a direct redo of the International Harvester Scout. I think that there's so much room between the 80s and now, cars have changed so much in that timeframe, that we can create something that's new and fresh and still have elements that will make people reminisce."
For the record, Benjamin sounds legitimately excited to be taking on this task of bringing back a classic and, in many cases, forgotten brand, one with a strong heritage soon augmented by the considerable advantages that a dedicated electric platform brings to off-roading.
"I think Scout for one will be first and foremost a US product. But, you know, America is a big melting pot, and the beauty of America is that people come from all over to achieve the American dream, to find a life, to do better for their families. It's why my dad came here, you know, and for me, having the experience from living in different parts of the world, experiencing so many different cultures both in my own household and from traveling."
It's a melting pot that will continue on through to the very DNA of the brand. "There's so many people here in the States that, of course, want an American product and feel proud to drive an American product. But, they also want some of the refinement from products in Europe and reliability of the Japanese products, and I think having experienced so many of the companies in the industry and, along with the vast amount of talent that Scout is bringing in, I think that's exactly what we're going to create."