Last January, Molnar found in his mailbox a crisp, white envelope from the Chrysler Motors Corp. "I won a new car!" he thought. Not quite. The letter said that "Jeep" was a registered trademark of the Jeep Eagle Corp., a Chrysler subsidiary, and that Molnar's use of the word in "your corporate name is a violation of Federal Law." Either rename Jeep's Bar, the letter said, or face legal action.
Jeep blew a gasket. "I don't sell cars, I sell liquor," he says. "It makes me wonder if Lee lacocca is selling whiskey on the side."
Though Molnar may not be as well-known worldwide as the versatile little vehicle that was trademarked by Willys-Overland in 1940, he points out that he has seniority. Born in 1937, he was christened Fred but was quickly dubbed Jeep by his deliveryman father—a fan of the cartoon strip starring Popeye, in which the Jeep, a puppylike magical creature, had first appeared in the 1930s.
Upon receiving Chrysler's ultimatum, Molnar, who opened his bar in 1976 after a career as an itinerant drummer, called the company and arranged a meeting at corporate headquarters in Highland Park, Mich. "They asked if I was bringing my lawyers with me," he says. "I told them I couldn't afford to bring one, no less a couple." On the 1,720-mile drive to Highland Park, Molnar did bring a witness—his 75-year-old mother, Sophie. Sophie's Exhibit A was a faded photo of her little boy dated July 8, 1939 and marked, "Jeep, 2 years old." After four hours, a Chrysler senior staff counsel made Molnar an offer: He could keep using the name but with certain restrictions. He couldn't start a franchise or a new business bearing his nickname, and he had to use the name only in script, followed by the words "bar and lounge." After consulting a lawyer, Molnar decided to hold out for compensation instead.
"Here the Government bails out Chrysler and they use the money to harass me, the little guy," Molnar says. "It burns my rear." Two weeks ago Molnar called Chrysler and said, "Send me a new Jeep and I'll sign on the dot." No deal. "Our proposal is fair," says a spokeswoman. "If he chooses not to sign, he may be forcing us to pursue other legal avenues."
Jeep is not swerving. "I feel they owe me something for what they've put me through," he says. "Hey, I didn't start this."
As the owner of Jeep's Bar in Alpine, Wyo. (pop. 97), Jeep Molnar has heard his share of weird stories. Now the 51-year-old barkeep has one of his own.