Of the major automakers, Chrysler has certainly had a rough year or two due to aging products and vehicles that the market has largely deemed uncompetitive. But Chrysler is now reporting a potentially devastating problem due to a supplier constraint – Jeep is short on hardtops for its still performing Wrangler hardtops.

According to a company memo that was distributed to Jeep dealers yesterday, Jeep will be facing a shortage of hardtops for its still popular Wrangler model. The timing could not have come at a worse time, given that Chrysler is struggling to move products and has managed just shy of a one percent improvement in sales year-over-year for the month of February.

According to Automotive News, the memo distributed to the Jeep dealers recommends that dealers only order softtop Wranglers during the next several months until the “supplier constraint” can be worked out. This will pose a particularly major problem for Jeep dealers in regions that rely heavily on the sale of hardtop models, such as regions with colder winters in the midwest and northeast.

Although the memo was distributed just yesterday, the issue has apparently been in the works for at least several weeks. “Nobody seems to be able to get hardtops,” said Troy Allen, owner of Allen Motors, Derry, New Hampshire. Allen explained that several dealers have already had difficulty getting Wranglers, but particularly with hardtop models.

Allen also explained that Jeep dealers in his region typically sell 85 percent hardtop Wranglers, compared to only 15 percent softtop models. Allen attributes this to the particularly cold winters in the region and the fact that most owners rely on the Wranglers as their primary mode of transportation throughout the winter.

As of the start of last month, Automotive News’ data center showed 16,653 Wranglers nationwide in dealer inventory, an amount equivalent to a 69 day supply.

Source of the shortage
The original supplier responsible for producing Wranglers’ hardtops, Meridian Automotive Systems Inc., filed for Chapter 7 liquidation in August 2009. Once Meridian ceased operations due to bankruptcy, the production responsibility was passed on to Continental Structural Plastics Inc., out of suburban Detroit, Michigan.

The shortage apparently stems from the new supplier, with a supplier executive familiar to the problems citing the difficult and intricate production process required to produce the hardtops. The process requires sheet-molded composite plastic that come from large and very expensive molding presses, paint application booths and specialized curing ovens.

Leftlane spoke with several fleet managers from Jeep dealers in the San Diego region about the issue, with most saying they were unaware of the shortage. In the warmer climate of San Diego, softtops typically dominate sales, making the shortage less of a risk to already low Jeep sales figures.