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History of the Universal Jeep

129 9709 Jeepposter 01 Z
Posted July 24, 2003

From MA to TJ

From humble origins--a handful of prototypes built by three different manufacturers--the Jeep has evolved over the years into one of the most popular and versatile vehicles ever made. They've been used in combat and for desert racing, for rock crawling or daily driving . . . in short, if there's a road or trail anywhere in the world, chances are that sometime, somehow, a Jeep has driven over it.

For this special poster, we're pleased to present a short history of the vehicle that started the 4x4 craze almost 60 years ago, and a line that continues to thrive to this day. Included are photos of some outstanding specimens we've seen around the country, along with information on production numbers and differences between model years. We're not including other Jeep vehicles here, such as the Cherokee, Wagoneer, FC or J-series trucks (they deserve their own poster), just the grandaddy of them all: the short-wheelbase Jeep Universal.


Using the term that has become generic in the English language, this is the undisputed first "Jeep.'' Built by the American Bantam Car Company of Butler, Pennsylvania, it was delivered to Camp Holabird, Maryland, on September 23, 1940. The first vehicle of a 70-vehicle contract, "Old Number One'' was tested thoroughly and then spent the rest of its short life as a demo vehicle. It was wrecked in a traffic accident early in 1941, sent back to Butler and disassembled. The mechanical pieces were probably incorporated into the Bantam Mark IIs that were then in production. Legend has it that the unusable body sections were buried along with a pile of scrap on the Bantam grounds.

2: 1940-1941 BANTAM MARK II

The rest of the 70-vehicle Bantam Army contract were designated Mark IIs. Though essentially the same as the prototype, their bodies were more military in appearance, and many small mechanical changes were made according to Army requirements. The 69 Mark IIs, the lightest and most nimble of the three makes tested for the 1/4-ton contract, were shipped to Army units for actual field tests. Only one Mark II is known to have survived. Owned by the Smithsonian Institution, it's number 07 and is on display at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, Virginia. Shown is a test unit that mounted a .50 cal. Browning machine gun.


Willys built two Quads in the competition for a large-scale contract, and this is the vehicle that won it. The Quad's major asset was its 60hp "Go-Devil'' engine that literally blew the doors off Bantam and Ford (the other two contenders for the Army contract). The Quad, however, was a heavyweight and had to go on a big-time diet to meet the Army's requirements. Both Quads have since disappeared, but one lasted long enough to be photographed in the early 1950s. If Bantam Number One marked the beginning of the Jeep era, the Quad marked the beginning of Willys' dominance of the series.

4: 1940 FORD PYGMY

The Pygmy was Ford's competitor in the contract race. Two were built, one by Ford and the other by Budd. The Ford unit was accepted for testing and was run alongside the Bantam and Willys units. The Ford's overall layout was highly praised and became the pattern for the later Willys MB. Like the Bantam, the Pygmy fell victim to the Quad's more powerful engine. The vehicle shown is one of the two original Ford Pygmys still in existence. Owned the Alabama Center of Military History, the Ford is the only remaining survivor of the fierce, three-way competition.

5: 1941 FORD GP

A direct decendent of the Pygmy, the Ford GP was an updated model produced under an initial contract for 1,500 vehicles each from Ford, Willys and Bantam. As Lend-Lease requirements increased and the Willys design was finalized for mass production, more GPs were ordered, and Ford ended up building 4,456 units, most of which went to Lend-Lease. Contrary to popular belief, the GP did not stand for "General Purpose.'' GP was a Ford engineering term, "G'' for a government contract vehicle and "P'' for 80-inch-wheelbase Reconnaissance Car. Of the three early Jeep models, the Ford has the most remaining specimens; about 200 are known to remain, including Steve Greenberg's restored '41.

6: 1941 WILLYS MA

Even as the Quad was being tested, Willys knew that the Army would want an improved model and started development of the MA. In the three-way deal, 1,500 MAs were ordered. The MA was definitely an evolutionary vehicle. Very much different than the later MB, the MA featured a column shift and a host of other detail changes that put it between the Quad and the MB. The basic drivetrain was still the Warner Gear and Spicer components of the Quad, Ford and Bantam. The MA is the least common of the pre-production Willys, with only about 30 examples known to exist of the 1,553 originally built; most were send to Russia under Lend-Lease. This MA and 37mm antitank gun belong to the Alabama Center of Military History.

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