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Origins Of The Jeep: Birthing A 75-Year Legend

Posted in Features on January 10, 2016
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Photographers: Bill NorrisJp Magazine StaffFred SmithRandy Withrow

Today, the word “Jeep” brings to mind many different models wearing that nameplate. Seven decades ago, it brought to mind one vehicle, and one vehicle only; an angular, bare bones four-wheeler that was more tool than transport. It began as a weapon of war, and the fires of World War II forged it into an American icon, but the story goes back long before.

Four-wheel-drive goes back a long way, with roots into the 1800s, believe it or not. The technology evolved quickly from 1900 but its appearances in the motor vehicle market were driven by economics. Adding four-wheel drive about doubled the cost in any class of vehicle. Few outside the commercial and military buyer could afford it, so the product lines were mainly developed for those markets. As a result four-wheel-drive trucks in the 1-1/2- to 5-ton range was the marketplace in which a truck manufacturer could expect to make money in those days.


From left to right: The 1941 Willys-Overland MA, Bantam BRC, and Ford GP. These are the follow-up models that came after each company's pilot models. All are extremely rare and valuable today.

A long forgotten U.S. Army captain made this proposal in 1905 for what he termed the "War Automobile." This page in Captain William Phillips' design packet had a sketch and a list of specifications. This is interesting because the general specs of the drawing are a close to the first jeeps. The wheelbase, overall length, curb weight, type of power, and gear ratios are almost a match. It proves that the concept of a lightweight compact 4x4 was not new in 1940.

The first U.S. Army 4x4 vehicle came in 1911 and started life as a touring car from the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company. It was converted into a "truck" by removing most of the body and adding a cargo box from a horse-drawn wagon. In 1912, it endured a 1,500-mile cross-country test along with other trucks (all 4x2s) and proved the value of four-wheel drive in military service.


First Action
World War I and the 1916 Punitive Expedition in Mexico were the United States military's introduction to motorized transport in battle. The benefits over horse transport were amply demonstrated, especially when four-wheel-drive was added to the mix. The early developments in all-wheel-drive took place took place where it was needed most, the heavy-haulers, used to transport mass quantities of supplies or large numbers of troops. Our military still relied heavily on horses and boots in those days and it took a while longer for the transition in thinking to fully understand the benefits of four-wheel-drive in the light duty realm.

Big 4x4s were a growing presence but Army units were getting by with whatever light 4x2 car or truck was handy. The motorcycle was the only high-mobility light motorized asset. It was fine for couriers and certain types of reconnaissance, but its cargo capacity was minimal, its ability to fight almost nil, and a high degree of operator skill was required in cross-country situations. The right lessons were learned in a short period of time but budget approval was slowed by a horse-centric mindset. Then, the war ended.

By the end of WWI, the U.S. ground forces had largely transformed to a motorized force. They had stumbled around long enough to have a pretty good idea of what was needed. Unfortunately, Congress cut the post-war military budget so deep there was barely enough money to keep the existing trucks in tires, let alone develop new equipment. From 1919-1935, what military development occurred was mostly in the 3- to 5-ton range and the only progress in the light-duty realm was experimentation to improve the cross-country performance of 4x2s by adding fat tires and stripping weight.


This jeep-like Ford Model-T 4x4 conversion by Jesse Livingood existed before World War II, and the conversion kits were offered into the 1930s to convert a few different cars to four-wheel-drive. It’s safe to assume the Army knew about these conversions because it used the Model-T, but there’s no trace of an official military model.

In some jeep histories, this 1936 Marmon-Herrington half-ton 4x4 conversion has been called, “The Grandaddy of the Jeep,” however there are no direct DNA connections. It did lead to the M-H trucks four years later, and the M-H was the Army's light-duty four-wheel-drive before the Dodge half- and three-quarter-ton 4x4 trucks of WWII.


Starting Gun
The year 1940 was when the purse strings were finally cut. It was clear we were going to be in a war with either Germany or Japan, and maybe both. Though an isolationist sentiment was strong, Congress still came through with big money to upgrade and enlarge the Armed Forces on every level. Money was the missing ingredient. There were no huge technical hurdles to overcome in building a compact 4x4. Designs based on existing technology were just a matter of a few weeks work at the drafting table. The major difficulty for any manufacturer was doing it on a budget and being able to underbid the other guy for a contract.

You won't find an "Aha!" moment in the jeep story. The closest is a meeting between a U.S. Army Ordnance subcommittee and the American Bantam Car Company of Butler, Pennsylvania, in early June of 1940. The subcommittee was on a fact-finding mission and included representatives of the various branches of the Army. The initial goal was to discuss light reconnaissance vehicles to replace the motorcycle and see some militarized Bantam cars in action. It's clear a light 4x4 was in the minds of the subcommittee, so the general idea was discussed and Bantam's brain trust proffered some good ideas.

Not long after the subcommittee meetings, Bantam presented a very complete set of vehicle specifications and plans, and offered to negotiate a contract for a small run of experimental 4x4 vehicles. That offer was refused, and Bantam was later shocked to learn the government was sending out invitations to bid on a short-wheelbase 4x4 to a large number of auto manufacturers. That grated especially hard because Bantam had helped flesh out the specifications. The paperwork specified a rigid schedule for completion of the first prototype in 49 days and final delivery of 61 vehicles 26 days after that prototype was approved. An additional two weeks was allotted for the completion of eight four-wheel-steer variants for a total of 70 vehicles.

Bantam resolved to stay in the game and the extra time on the project helped it produce a very complete and detailed bid. When the smoke cleared, Willys-Overland was the only other bidder. Their bid was a little lower than Bantam's but Willys could not commit to the delivery schedule. As a result, the $171,181.75 contract for 70 vehicles was granted to Bantam. Ironically, the Bantam bid was within spitting distance of the $175,000 offer they made earlier, though the vehicle they contracted to build was very different than the one they had proposed.


Pictured is the 49-day wonder, and while Bantam's Harold Crist had a basic design well in hand prior to winning the contract in July of 1940, Bantam adapted body stampings from its car line, including the cowl, dash and front fenders to save time. Power came from an 112ci Continental four-cylinder engine making 45hp and 86 lb-ft of torque.

The Bantam emblem disappeared midway into tests, replaced by louvers to help reduce under-hood temperatures. Testers had doubts about the inverted u-section chassis so reportedly began jumping the Bantam off a loading dock. Legend has it the chassis finally did crack after many jumps, but the driver was left with a backache.

The Bantam Pilot was not a part of the 70-unit order and was returned to Bantam. Shortly after testing stopped, it was damaged in a traffic accident on the way back to the factory. Shortly thereafter, it disappeared. Period documentation points to some or most of its parts being used in later BRCs. It is the Holy Grail to enthusiasts, but after 70 years of dead ends, master fabricator and restorer Duncan Rolls of Texas photographed, and measured the oldest existing Bantam, the seventh of the 70-unit order. Rolls also collected every photo of the pilot he could find, as well as early BRC parts, a few Bantam car parts, and then hand-fabricated a body. The result is the vehicle shown that represents the Bantam Pilot as it was originally built and first delivered to Camp Holabird. Rolls also fabricated a replica of the 1940 BRC.

Pictured is BRC-1007, the seventh BRC constructed, delivered on November 29, 1940, with 21 others. Some forward thinking person within the Quartermaster Corps had it donated to the Smithsonian Museum in 1944. With 15,941 miles showing, it was driven to the museum but hasn't run since. It's currently on display in Pittsburgh's Heinz Museum as part of a growing Jeep exhibit.

Though likely repainted, BRC-1007 is unrestored. These first BRCs have been alternately called the BRC 60 or Bantam Mark 1. The BRC 60 term has recently been discovered to not be a Bantam designation but one applied later. Ditto for the Mark I designation. That leaves 1940 BRC as the correct nomenclature.

The last eight 1940 BRCs of the 70-unit order were four-wheel-steer. The Cavalry branch of the Army, tasked with reconnaissance in those days, was insistent on four-wheel-steering, thinking the extra maneuverability was a benefit in a recon vehicle. Four-wheel-steering was removed from the list of features by the time of standardization.

Bantam's BRC upgrade was well liked by testers, and although less powerful than the Willys, it was agile and reliable. Production began on March 31, 1941 and continued until the end of November. A total of 2,642 were built, and a batch went to the Brits, who used it in the North African desert and loved them.

The Army was delighted that jeeps were capable of towing the new M3 anti-tank gun. They were less delighted to find out that most German tanks soon evolved to be nearly immune to the 37mm gun. This M3 is shown behind a '41 BRC, with a 4WS Ford GP on the right.

The stylish Bantam instruments stand out in the rig’s interior. The Bantam was thought well of for its roomy driver comfort and a good ride. Interpreting the 75-year old test commentary of the three pre-standardized jeeps, this was the nimble "sporty car" of the bunch, with the best handling and braking.

The '41 BRC used the same Continental Y-112 engine as the previous Bantams, though it is listed as the BY4112 (the "B" for "Bantam Special") in literature. The Y-Series saw use in tractors, power units, forklifts, boats, and motor vehicles into the 1970s, and came in 69, 91, and 112ci displacements. Putting out 45hp at 3,500 rpm and 85 lb-ft at 1,800 rpm, it was not a rip-snorter on paper, but when combined with the BRC's light weight it made for a snappy jeep.


Bantam Delivers
Bantam got busy finalizing a design, hand-building its pilot model and setting up an assembly line. The auto industry was generally gobsmacked when, against the odds, Bantam delivered the pilot to Camp Holabird, Maryland, (the Army's test facility) on September 23, 1940, only 30 minutes before the deadline. The beatings soon commenced and the Bantam pilot underwent a heinous test regimen. From September 27 to October 16, it was thrashed for 3,400 miles, only 247 of it on pavement. The contract depended on this pilot model passing its qualification tests, and it did, overwhelmingly. In fact, some called it "historic."

The 70-unit order was set up for production even before the Bantam pilot model was finished and approved, but Willys-Overland wasn't sitting on its thumbs. It had lost round one, but knew more chances to score existed. On its own dime and schedule, Willys developed a prototype. Along the way, it was allowed to inspect and observe the Bantam prototype in tests. No, this is not a nefarious deed, nor a cheat. Bantam was contracted to develop and build 70 test models, but the government owned the results. This early in the development process, letting other potential contractors in on the testing was SOP and wise from the buyer's point of view.

Bantam delivered the first of the 70 units on November 29 and the last on December 17. The new BRCs (Bantam Reconnaissance Cars) were shipped off to various branches of the Army for operational field tests. The reports were enthusiastically positive. While the original idea had been for a reconnaissance vehicle, it was learned the 1/4-ton 4x4 had many other uses, and it became especially useful as a general utility rig and command vehicle. They had planned to mount a light machine gun but it also proved suitable for the very powerful .50 cal. Browning heavy machine gun, and of being an agile tank-killer towing the Army's new anti-tank gun, the 37mm M-3.


Willys introduced two pilot models called Quads on November 13, 1940. They were identical except one featured four-wheel steering. The Quad had many interesting features such as a 134ci 60 hp engine from its 441 car. Willys specified a passenger side offset for the diffs and transfer case drop opposite the Bantam (and the later Ford) to incorporate the bell-crank steering Willys favored.

The Quad is also lost to time, and this may be one of the last photos of it. Willys brought out the MD (M-38A1) in 1952 and photographed the Quad and MD together. The Quad seen was rebuilt in 1943 using upgraded parts, and reportedly was scrapped before Kaiser added Jeep to its stable of companies, but many hope it's hiding somewhere in a Toledo garage.


Willys Pilots
On November 11, not long before Bantam delivered the first of the 70 BRCs, Willys-Overland submitted two pilot models of a rig it called "Quad" to Camp Holabird for tests. The Willys Quads were put under the gun and though there were the usual failures, they passed the performance tests. Because of its large engine, the Quad earned praise for a great power-to-weight ratio but it did not meet all the prescribed criteria, namely in the area of weight. While the Quad was more than 30 percent more powerful than the BRC (60 vs. 45 hp), it was 16-percent heavier. The Bantam was just under the required 2,100-pound limit; the Quad was more than 400 pounds over (2,520 lbs. to be exact) and was initially disqualified from bidding. Willys had some friends in government and got that reversed based on assurances weight could be reduced significantly.

Ford's Pygmy was delivered on November 23, 1940 for tests, along with an identical chassis mounting a body from the Budd Company. Though it got a late start, the vast resources of Ford were available and its engineers had closely inspected the Bantam. The Pygmy's layout would set the stage for the future jeep. It used a mix of Spicer axles and transfer case, combined with a modified Model-A three speed and a Ford 119ci four-cylinder engine.

The Pygmy survives, along with its Budd-bodied brother. For years the Pygmy was in the Henry Ford Museum, but was sold to a private collector in the '80s and now resides in the Alabama Center for Military History, Huntsville, Alabama. It's shown here in the '90s, but looks pretty much the same today. It's said to still have the original test dirt on it.

Ford hedged its bets by producing two different prototypes. The chassis shipped off to Budd got a treatment more in line with Bantam's '40 BRC and the original drawings. It was rejected before it was even tested, but was used for a time as a factory runabout, and then used in Hollywood war movies, including Flying Tigers with John Wayne

The Budd survived and was rediscovered in a Southern California backyard in the mid 1990s. It eventually found a home with noted English military vehicle collector and restorer Fred Smith. Nicknamed "Buddy" it got the detailed restoration it deserved in 2007 and Fred has wowed crowds in the U.K. with it ever since.

Ford GP production started in February of 1941. The Army liked its low-slung, easily concealed profile. The GP was the first updated pre-standardized jeep to appear and be issued in significant numbers, so it’s the jeep rig that most GIs saw first. Many were shipped overseas, but possibly hundreds stayed on U.S. bases, so more survived than other pre-standardized jeeps. The second production series ended in November of 1940 with a total of 4,458 built.

Testers especially liked the Ford GP parking brake and shifter layout, and its instrument cluster was the same as any Ford pickup of the same year. The mirror arrangement allowed the windshield to go up or down, and the T-handle hood latches became part of the jeep legend. Despite deficits in other areas, it was features such as this that made the GP a big hit with the Army.

The Ford 119ci four-cylinder engine, relatively new when used for the GP, was based on the 239ci Mercury flathead V-8 with one bank lopped off. Originally developed for as a slow-spinning agricultural engine for Ford’s 1939 9N tractor, the engine was happier making 28 hp at 2000 rpm than being spun up to make 46 at 3600 rpm in the GP. Its Holley carb was notorious for flooding in rough terrain.


Ford Green
Along the way, a third contestant emerged. When Bantam and Willys learned manufacturing juggernaught Ford Motor Company was entering the fray, it must have sent chills down the spines of execs at both companies. Ford had initially declined to bid but its disinterest was only in that first development contract. Ford rapidly produced two pilot models with identical chassis and mechanicals, one with a body from Budd Manufacturing based closely on the original sample drawings, and another with a low-slung, angular body developed by one of Ford's best engineers. The Ford-bodied prototype, nicknamed the Pygmy, would be prophetic. More than any other pilot model, it would visually and ergonomically represent the production WWII quarter-ton. Ford submitted its prototypes on November 23. The Budd-bodied prototype was immediately rejected but the Pygmy would be tested and qualify in all respects.

The end result was the awarding of 1,500-unit contracts to each of the three companies for improved models. The improved models were sent to Army units all over the country for evaluation and the reports were enthusiastic for all three. The plusses and minuses of each were noted and the data was complied for use in a standardized specification, which was issued on July 7, 1941. Then it all came down to the bids.


When the chubby Quad nearly cost Willys the bid, Willys went all-out to reduce the weight of the followup model, the MA. Using thinner body sheet metal and lightening everything they could got a Willys-powered MA a hair below the 2,160-pound limit. The inside joke was that if too much dust settled on the MA, it would be overweight. The MA was the lightest Willys jeep built, and production began June 5, 1941. A total of just 1,555 were built (50 for the Navy) and production ended on August 27. The American military kept almost no MAs, but many went to the Soviets, and many of those ended up in Czechoslovakia after the war.

Willys put most of its effort into the 60hp 441 engine that was an upgrade of the 48hp four-banger that dated back to 1926. With 105 lb-ft of torque on tap, it had the most grunt of the pre-standardized lineup. The Willys MA could reach almost 52 mph in less than 15 seconds, topping out at 74 mph, and was substantially faster than the other two prestandardized jeeps. The production ¼-ton would pork-up to almost exactly the same as the Quad, so that bigger engine became a crucial part of maintaining adequate performance.

The MA was not highly praised for its interior, restricted legroom being called out as a problem. The column shift was particularly disliked because when driving over rough ground it could be bumped by a knee and was unreliable in field conditions.


Contract Winner
With all the previous qualification tests done, the results were predictable. Ford's bid was $782.59 and 171 days. Bantam was $788.32 and 152 days. Willy's bid of $748.74 per vehicle was the lowest and it needed 149 days to complete the contract. On July 31 of 1941 Willys-Overland was awarded the contract to build 16,000 standardized 1/4-ton 4x4s. Per the contract, Willys massaged its MA design to the standardized-specification jeep that would be dubbed the MB: "M" for military contract and "B" for Model B. The first standardized Willys MB rolled off the line in November of 1941.

Depending on the Army branch, a soldier may have found different names for the ¼-ton 4x4. This page from a January 17, 1942 issue of the long-defunct Saturday Evening Post ("How to Become a Military Expert," by William Hazlett Upson) provides a humorous illustration. On the left is the 1940 Dodge VC-1 Command Car that was often known as "jeep," and on the right is what appears to be one of the early MBs. When the quarter-ton was issued, it was calling the "peep," a name that persisted in the Armor Branch until late in the WWII. You will still find WWII Vets who still insist on calling them Peeps.

"Jeep Creeps Up Capitol Steps" is the headline reporter Kathryn Hillyer used for what she assumed was going to be a boring syndicated story about an odd new military vehicle in a publicity stunt. Little did she know her February 20, 1941, story would set the name "Jeep" in the minds of a nation. Senator Meade of New York was behind the wheel, with Representative Thomas of New Jersey riding shotgun and two bored GIs in back. Somewhere nearby was Willys test-driver Irving "Red" Housman, whose answer to Hillyer’s question of what the vehicle was called made history.

Popeye-the-Sailor and Eugene-the-Jeep were two of the 1930s most popular comic strip characters. Eugene was described by another character in the strip, Professor Brainstine, as being an African Hooey Hound enhanced with "Jeep Cells" from the Fourth Dimension. No, really! Eugene was loyal, trustworthy, and capable of extraordinary feats. So the truth is that "Jeep" was firmly engrained in American culture as a term for extraordinary before the time the Army’s ¼-ton 4x4 appeared.


The Name Game
Jeep is one of the most recognized trademarks in the world. Its origins have been called “obscure,” but much has been clarified through diligent research. The primary legend has the name coming from a slurring of “GP.” GP did not stand for “General Purpose” but was a Ford's designation, the “G” signifying government contract vehicle and “P” indicating the 80-inch wheelbase reconnaissance car. Because the Ford pre-standardized GP was the first jeep to reach GIs in large numbers starting early in 1941, it is possible “GP” could have evolved into “Geep” and finally “jeep,” but the General Purpose name did not exist as Army vehicle nomenclature in WWII, and wasn't seen except on obscure accounting documents that grouped many types and makes of vehicles.

The word "jeep" did already existed in military parlance. The word is said to date back as far as WWI and described an unproven human recruit or an unproven new vehicle. There is documentary evidence it was used this way in the build-up of forces prior to the war and the conception of the quarter-ton jeep.

Then there was Eugene-the-Jeep, a comic strip character in the Popeye-the-Sailor strip by E.C. Segar. Eugene had debuted in 1936, was almost magical in his abilities and soon became a beloved character. The term “jeep” became known in the civilian world as describing something extraordinary. How Segar found the word and why he used it for the comic strip is still a mystery.

It's not hard to apply all three of these origins to the common usage of jeep and that's probably exactly what happened. Imagine a bunch of grizzled GIs, many of them retreads from WWI, calling a new unproven vehicle “jeep.” Civilians involved in the process, ignorant of Army parlance, are going to hear a Eugene reference, which also fits. Then something called a “Gee Pee” shows up!

It all came to a head at a publicity stunt in February of 1941, when a Quad was driven up the steps of the Capitol. A bystander asked the Willys test driver Irving “Red” Housman, “What is that thing?” Housman’s answer “It's a jeep” was overheard by a syndicated columnist and then seen all over the U.S. the next day, and it was difficult to stop the spread of the word from there. Even though many in the Army knew them as “peeps” and other names, the quarter-ton became “jeep” as much by popular demand as anything Willys-Overland did to stake a claim on the name.

Willys-Overland applied for the “Jeep” trademark in 1943 but it was not granted until 1950 because there was conflict over the origins of the name and to what vehicle it was applied first. Eventually, the other contestants gave up and “jeep” became “Jeep,” but you still see both in the dictionary. The lower case jeep has long been a generic term for any compact 4x4. Historians tend to use the lower case when referring to WWII jeeps, whether they were by Willys, Bantam, or Ford. The upper case Jeep is the trademark and is commonly used for anything from 1945 to this day.

Stay tuned to Jp Magazine and fourwheeler.com for Chapter 2: 75 Years of Jeep, the next episode in our continuing series of articles about the 75-year history of the vehicle we know today as the Jeep.

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