If you are a Jeep fan, you already know about this event. Or you should. This was the sixth year of the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival, and it brought Jeepers to the focal point in the Jeep universe, Butler, Pennsylvania. This midsized town in Northwestern Pennsylvania is where the Bantam Car Company took a vague idea for a new military vehicle and turned it into steel and rubber. In Bantam’s hands, the vehicle we now know as the jeep went from concept to reality, and that vehicle, delivered in September 1940, became the pattern from which all other jeeps were made.
Butler oozes Jeep history, and the Bantam festival pays homage to it with a building devoted to that history. This year, it was mainly Jeeps of the ’40s and ’50s. Next year will cover the ’60s. Each year there is a History Speaker Series, with experts on Jeep history making presentations throughout the event. Omix-Ada brought six vehicles from its jaw-dropping Historic Jeep Collection, and its curator, Dave Logan, gave a presentation on finding old Jeeps. Derek Redmond from the CJ-3B page talked about the love-hate relationship we have with the high-hood. Julius Lorentzson of the First Frontier Mechanized Cavalry talked about early jeep testing. Lee Bortmas, an expert in the Bantam Car Company, talked about the Bantam part of the Jeep story. David Hustler covered Vietnam war-era Jeeps and equipment, and this author gave a presentation on the development of the Wagoneer.
While the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival holds the Guinness World's Record for the longest Jeep parade, they don't do them every year. They do hold an "Invasion" of downtown Butler, where thousands of Jeeps crowd the downtown area for a street show and a massive party. There were approximately 1,200 Jeeps in attendance, and with their owners, friends, and others, the Butler Police Department estimated more than 20,000 people came to party.
With veterans and Jeeps being so closely tied, the military encampment offered a look at history not totally focused on Jeeps. Members of the First Frontier Mechanized Cavalry and other groups re-enacted many eras of military service, doing their best to honor the Americans who have willingly and honorably carried the burden of military service for their country.
Jeep history extends to present day, so the Festival is as much about today's Jeeping as it is yesterday's. To that end, there were 135 vendors and modern Jeep activities to keep participants entertained. Quadratec hosted a Jeep playground built and run by the folks from Rausch Creek Off-Road Park. Across the road, several trails had been set up in the woods, ranging from easy to moderately difficult. Though this event was the first during which bad weather had not sent everyone scrambling for cover, recent rains had left the woods more than a bit greasy. If you didn't have mudders, you were going to spin tires.
With a six-year track record, the Bantam Heritage Jeep Festival is proving to be one of the premier Jeep fun events in the eastern U.S. This year, there were more than 2,100 Jeeps registered from 30 states, plus Canada. You can bet the 2017 Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival, scheduled for June 9-11, is already marked on the calendars of many Jeep-loving fun-seekers.
The Quadratec play area was often the first place to see action when Bernie Gardula opened it up in the morning at 9:00 a.m. This bright, sunny Friday morning shows the course almost full, and there was already a long line behind the camera.
The First Frontier Mechanized Cavalry, a WWII reenactment group, organized the military encampment, but the Korean War and Vietnam conflict were also well represented. Wandering among the living history was Jim Barnes, who relives the service of a relative in WWII who was stationed in the Panama Canal when the war broke out in December of 1941. Behind him is a 1941 Willys Slat-Grille that was built December 1941 and a 1943 White M-16 halftrack, minus its quad-.50 cal anti-aircraft turret. Barnes' uniform, gear, and "Doughboy" helmet are period-1941 correct.
The wooded trails ranged in difficulty, but recent rains made them greasy. Even the easier trails could be a challenge if you had the wrong tires. The tow straps were out for those that needed them. Some 1,500 Jeepers signed up to run the trails.
A new exhibit was unveiled for the 2016 event called the "Faces of Jeep." The ultimate goal is to eventually have a grille from every model ever made, but the phase one unveiling included rigs from Day One into the 1950s. Some of these are actual grilles refurbished for the purpose, but some had to be made from scratch. After all, not too many Bantam Pilot Model grilles are still around. Bill Ringeisen hatched this plan after the 2015 Festival, and with master fabricator Tom Flank and many other helpers and sponsors, he began the project. The paint was barely dry in time for the festival. Eventually the display will likely cover all the interior walls of the building.
Follow Editor Rick Péwé around at a Jeep event and you will find he's a rock star! We couldn't oggle a vintage J-300 dually without him being "recognized." Surely a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is the next step. Péwé is one of the best Jeep and four-wheeling ambassadors on the planet.
The paint on Colli Leighton's ’67 Jeepster Commando C101 pickup was barely dry following a ground-up restoration when we saw it at Bantam. Built in January 1967, it has the 225 Dauntless V-6 and T-86AA 3-speed combined with the standard trim. Among the very few options was a heater and chrome hubcaps. It was purchased from a farmer, so all of this makes sense. The model designation for the pickups was 8705H. The Roadster, Pickup, and Station Wagon rolled down the line essentially the same as the model 8705, but a Pickup used the "H" suffix, the Roadster the "O" suffix, and the Wagon an "F."
This is the fourth ’63 J300 DRW built. The DRW Gladiators had only two bed options: none (cab & chassis) or a flatbed. The Sacramento, California, dealer from which this rig was originally purchased adapted a Thiftside bed with fender extensions for the original owner. This rig is bone stock, almost 100 percent original, and will be the subject of a future Jeep Encyclopedia story.
This rig is nicknamed Elvira, and it was nice to see her at an event dominated by TJs and JKs. The rocky sections on the most difficult Black Diamond Trail were well lubricated, but Elvira seemed to handle them well.
JKs and Small-J! You have to start them early!
Stan Wurzburger's ’51 CJ-3A pays homage to the Maryland Forest Service in the early days of the civilian Jeep with all the correct markings for the era. It's presented in the spirit of 1951, but the extensive restoration allowed for a few modern upgrades that don't detract from the vintage look.
This is CEEEEE-JAAAAAY! We didn't catch the name of the builder, but this extra-long wheelbase crawler was pretty much scratch-built and powered by a 4BT Cummins. Looks like it has plenty of room for friends and gear. We got the impression it was recently finished. Nicely done, dude!
"I can't hearrrrrr youuuuu!" The most active part of the Military encampment was the obstacle course. Here, kids could get a taste of what it felt like to be an Army recruit. "Drill Sergeant" Jamie Balser "lines out" some recruits at the start of the obstacle course—without the customary military profanity, of course.
The mud pit at the Quatratec Jeep playground became very exciting at times. Depending on when you chose your time to "take a dip" you might have needed a fair bit of energy, or a strap, to get through.
Here are just a couple of the 100 teams that tested themselves on the Jeep team challenge. There were a number of low-energy challenges that included tossing foam balls into a trash can while that can was being towed by your Jeep in reverse over an obstacle course, a blindfolded obstacle course, knocking over water bottles with tennis balls while the driver negotiates an obstacle course, and more. Silly? Sure, but no one left without a smile on their face.
The very first standardized 1/4-ton 4x4s appeared in late 1941 and have since been called "Slat Grilles" for their welded grille. The Slat Grilles were a work in progress and had many ongoing changes in their roughly 6-month, 25,000-unit production run. They were the only military jeeps to wear a Willys logo on the body. Next to the prestandardized and prototype jeeps, Slat Grilles are the most difficult restoration due to many unique parts and so many production changes. Bob Malenfant's restoration is about as close to totally correct as you generally see. It was delivered in December 1941 and is the 3,125th standardized jeep built. We'll have a story on it in an upcoming issue.