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Jeep: The First 70 Years

Two Willys Jeeps Front Shot
Jim Allen | Writer
Posted February 1, 2011
Photographers: Courtesy Chrysler Group LLC

Part 1: Forged in the Crucible of War

It's hard to deny that Jeep is the cornerstone of four-wheeling in America and much of the world. Its vehicular roots go back to a humble and hastily contrived vehicle that changed the face of the world's battlefields and, later, the fields of peace. How it became an American icon is worthy of a TV mini-series.

It's going too far to say World War II would have been lost without the jeep, but its existence was a vital part of the victory equation. The development of a "jeep-like" vehicle was inevitable. That it evolved into the now-familiar shape was due to pure practicality and thrift. That it was built primarily by one company came down to the difference of a few dollars on a government bidding form. That it made history and established a four-wheeling dynasty-well, some would call that fate.

Willys-Overland's postwar success with its jeep vehicle was at least partly due to astute marketing that unashamedly capitalized on wartime exploits, but the adaptability and versatility that soldiers appreciated in wartime translated nicely to a sizable chunk of the civilian market. Because the original Jeep wasn't for everyone, even with numerous comfort upgrades, Willys developed other, more user-friendly utility vehicles. In doing so, they laid the foundations of today's sport utility market by concentrating on what was then a new automotive segment, user-friendly four-wheel drive utility vehicles.

Cornerstone: The Bantam BRC Pilot, 1940
While celebrating the 70th year of the Jeep brand in 2011, we are really celebrating the 71st year of the "jeep vehicle." While the standardization of the 1/4-ton 4x4 design came in 1941, and Willys-Overland won the bid to build it that year, it's worthy of note that the first jeep vehicle was built by American Bantam and delivered to the Army for tests on September 23, 1940.

To steal a biblical reference, the '40 Bantam Pilot Model is the Adam of the jeep world. It was the base DNA from which all other jeeps were created. The American Bantam Company is long gone, but its contribution to the Jeep legacy lives on.

The universe aligned to begin this 70-year trek in the summer of 1940, when the U.S. Army Chief of Ordnance sent a committee of officers and engineers to Bantam for a meeting. Bantam, and its previous incarnation American Austin, had been building compact cars since 1930 and courting military officials much of that time in the hopes of a contract for a light scout vehicle. From that meeting, the specifications for a light four-wheel-drive scout car emerged and Bantam undertook making them a reality.

Having provided a lot of useful input, it looked to Bantam as though they had a lock on pursuing the idea. The company was on life support after years of slow sales, and a government contract was nothing less than a Hail Mary play. Despite meager resources, Bantam charged into laying out a vehicle but soon learned that invitations to bid for 70 test models were going out to a total of 135 car manufacturers. An almost impossible-to-meet schedule of an acceptable pilot model in 49 days-and 69 more acceptable units in just 75 days-scared away all but two companies, Bantam and Willys-Overland. Bantam was finally awarded the contract over Willys, who beat Bantam on price but not on a commitment to meet the deadline. Betting in the auto industry was against Bantam being able to carry it off.

In the automotive equivalent of a ball in the air as the timer clicks to zero, Bantam delivered the first Bantam Reconnaissance Car (BRC) to Camp Holabird, Maryland, an Army vehicle test facility, just 30 minutes before the contract deadline. After a short test drive, the officer in charge said, "I believe this unit will make history." From September 27 to October 16, 1940, the BRC accrued 3,400 torture-test miles, only 247 on highways. It also accrued a list of faults, but survived to be officially accepted and respected by those who tested it.

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