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Jeep: The First 70 Years

Posted in Project Vehicles on February 1, 2011
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Photographers: Courtesy Chrysler Group LLC

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.

'40 Bantam BRC Pilot Model
When this unique rig was put through its paces in the fall of 1940, it was unique in the automotive world. The Bantam car parts bin was raided whenever possible on this first hand-built rig, hence the curvy fenders, hood, cowl dash, and various small parts. Much of that same stuff was incorporated into the subsequent 69 vehicles, though not the stylish fenders. It only lived a few months. In early 1941, it was damaged in a collision and not repaired. Or was it? The current theory, supported by some photographic evidence, is that some or all of it was recycled into a BRC-60 model, which was later tested by the Canadian military. That vehicle's fate is unknown at this time.

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.

New Ideas from Bantam, Ford, and Willys-Overland
Bantam began delivering the improved Mark II, or BRC-60, models in November of 1940. Also in November, a prototype from Willys-Overland arrived at Camp Holabird, followed shortly by one from Ford. Both of these came at the manufacturers' expense, and in response to urging from government and military officials concerned with broadening the expertise and manufacturing base of the project. (There was no shortage of politicking and one-upmanship, either.) Of the two late-comers, the Ford 1/2-ton, nicknamed "Pygmy," was the most prophetic because its features and layout provided an accurate snapshot of what the standardized model would come to be.

'40 Bantam BRC-60
This is the very last Bantam BRC-60 known to exist, the seventh built of 69. It was donated to the Smithsonian during World War II, but is now on display at the Heinz Museum in Pittsburgh. It's very similar to the BRC Pilot, save the flat fenders. It's powered by a 112ci, 45hp Continental Four.

The Willys version was the most controversial, being grossly over the Army's weight limit. That fact almost nixed Willys' ability to bid, but the "Quad," as it eventually came to be known, had one thing the other two contract competitors didn't have: the powerful "Go-Devil" engine, which produced 33 percent more power than the others. Unfortunately, much of that extra power was negated by the Quad being 15 percent heavier than the other two jeeps. The Go-Devil was a good part of that weight difference, but Willys stuck to its guns, knowing that the extra power was going to be needed as more refined versions of the vehicle inevitably grew heavier. The weight issue would be the major bone of contention all through the early days, but eventually the Army realized its weight requirements were unrealistic. When the standardized model finally appeared, Willys' stance was justified. It was approximately the same weight as the original Quad, and the bigger powerplant gave it an adequate power-to-weight ratio.

Prestandardized Military Jeeps, 1941
The prototypes from Bantam, Willys and Ford hinted at the performance and utility of the 1/4-ton 4x4 concept. There was a whole lot of haggling and political intrigue over getting a contract, but each of the three companies was eventually contracted to deliver 1,500 improved models each in the form of the Willys MA, Bantam BRC-40 and Ford GP. The thinking was that the government could then test them with actual Army units, determine the most desirable pattern, and finally homogenize the best features of each into a standardized concept. Subsequent contracts were issued to both Ford and Bantam, who rapidly completed their orders, and these extra prestandardized models were used to fulfill Lend-Lease requirements. Though the internecine fighting over contracts during this period reached legendary levels (even by usual corporate and government standards), from the vehicular point of view, it was a very positive move. The standardized jeep was a better machine as a result of three companies adding different design elements to it.

'41 Willys MA, Bantam BRC-40, and Ford GP
Contrary to some versions of history, there was no direct competition between the three OE manufacturers for the first production contract. Each was tested individually to determine if it was fit for military service. After that, it mostly came down to a low bid. There was an official moment in the summer of 1941, however, just before Willys won the bid, when the three were tested side by side. It didn't have any influence on the contract but, in a nutshell, the Willys was lauded for its power and performance, the Ford for its layout, and the Bantam for its handling, braking and fuel economy. Of the three prestandardized models built, only 1,555 Willys MAs were built in 1941, and only some 30 remain today. They are very different from the standardized MB, even the mechanical parts. The BRC-40 in the center was the last jeep developed by Bantam. It was always the lightest and most nimble of the three prototypes. There were 2,605 built, and fewer than 100 remain today. The GP on the end was most numerous of the pre-standardized jeeps, with Ford cranking out between 4,500 and 5,700 units (the records conflict). Survivors may run as high as 250, but as with the other prestandardized jeeps, many of those are little more than a pile of parts with a serial number.

The prestandardized Willys MA was a real barn-burner. The company had worked very hard to bring the weight a few ounces under the arbitrary 2,150-pound limit, and with the 60hp Go-Devil, it had great reserves of power and really impressed the testers. The Ford GP and Bantam BRC were at about the same weight but with only 45 horsepower on tap. The Ford was plagued with a cranky carburetor and a balky transmission, inherited from the Model A. All of the prestandardized rigs used the same Spicer axles and transfer case (with some internal variations). The Willys and the Bantam models both used the same Warner Gear transmission, again with some variations in internal design.

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The Steel Soldier, 1941-1945
Willys won a contract to built 16,000 standardized jeeps in July of 1941, and after all the required changes were added to the design, began producing them in November. Production bottlenecks involving components not built in-house-mainly axles and transfer cases-led the Army to tap Ford on the shoulder once more. In October, Ford was contracted to build jeeps to the standardized pattern, even taking on the additional burden of tooling up to produce Willys engines, Warner transmissions, and Spicer axles, and transfer cases in-house. Ford was really the only manufacturer at the time that could have carried this out. In the end, they did so at a financial loss.

'42 Willys Slat-Grille
The first production Willys jeeps used a welded grille similar to the Ford prototype. They began appearing in late 1941 and were built into March of 1942 to the tune of just over 25,000 units. They had many different parts than the later-production stamped-grille MBs. Today, they are a rare collectible.

One of the most interesting things to come out of the Ford development process was the iconic nine-slot stamped grille. Ford decided that the welded grille, which had debuted on their GP and later appeared on the Willys design, was too time-consuming to manufacture. They came up with an inexpensive stamped unit to replace it, and the modification was approved. All Ford jeeps used this grille, and Willys jeeps later switched over to it. Ironic, isn't it? One of the most iconic and noticeable jeep features was simply a production expedient.

While the pre-standardized jeeps were the first to see combat, some with Allied units in Europe and some with the U.S. Army in the Philippines, the standardized jeeps from Ford and Willys soon replaced them, and the legend began to expand. If there is a way to fold, spindle, mutilate or adapt a vehicle to things way outside its design limits, a soldier will figure out how to do it. That's when the understated brilliance of the jeep design came into focus. With many soldiers, jeeps rose to a level of importance just below the rifle, and few GIs came home without a war story that didn't involved a jeep. Some even came home with a jeep! Even our enemies prized the jeep, considering them prime booty and worthy of drafting into service. And once the war was over, it was one of the most copied vehicles of all time.

'42 Ford GPW
The GPW was built to the Willys design. The government requirement was that all parts be interchangeable, and this was tested often by dismantling Ford and Willys jeeps, mixing up the parts and attempting to reassemble them. Still, almost every part on an early Ford GPW had a Ford mark on it. (Henry Ford wasn't going to pay for warranty claims on non-Ford parts!) GPW stood for Government (contract) 80-inch reconnaissance car (P), Willys pattern (W). Fred LaPerriere owns this '42, which was driven from Colorado to Alaska in the '90s. A total of 278,000 GPWs were built from 1942-1945.
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Brush Wars and Garrison Duty, 1950-1969
World War II military contracts had been the salvation of Willys. When the time came for upgrading the military 1/4-ton, they naturally worked closely with government officials. The first major upgrade came in 1950, with the model MC, eventually dubbed the M-38. It incorporated many of the civilian upgrades with certain standardized features newly adopted by the Army, including a waterproof, shielded 24-volt electrical system. Unfortunately, a new payload requirement, combined with the extra weight of the new features, took the "go" out of the Go-Devil engine, and the Army was less than impressed. Fortunately, Willys had developed a very economical and cost effective expedient for the next go-round: the F-head engine, later called the Hurricane.

'50 CJV-35U
The first postwar military jeep to appear was the CJV-35U. It was a militarized, waterproofed version of the CJ-3A built for Navy and Marine beachmasters. Besides the waterproofing, it had a special PTO-powered generator for the high-powered radio equipment. Only 1,000 were built. Bob Westerman owns this one.

To enhance breathing, a new cylinder head was developed. It moved the intake valves out of the block and into the new head, where they could be made larger. The result was a 20 percent increase in power and an almost 15 percent increase in torque from the same displacement. It utilized much of the old engine as well, so the retooling was minimal. You could even adapt the old flatheads to F-head configuration. The stickler was that the engine was taller and required a taller hood. That problem was solved two ways, with what became the CJ-3B (which essentially added some sheetmetal to the grille, cowl, and hood) and the new round-fendered body that would become the model MD (M-38A1) and, eventually, the CJ-5.

The MD/M-38A1 debuted in early 1952, and the new body delivered more room and utility for the military. The F-head engine gave it sprightly performance, and the MD lasted in service well into the '60s. From the MD came the MDA, a long-wheelbase field ambulance version known as the M-170.

When the Army decided to upgrade its fleet of Korean War-era Dodge tactical light trucks in the late '60s, Kaiser won the contract with an adaptation of its Gladiator truck line, eventually known as the M-715. The concept was to try a modified commercial truck in tactical situations instead of a more expensive purpose-built tactical truck. The M-715 was built with the heaviest-duty civvy components that Jeep could put together and built cargo, utility and ambulance versions to the tune of a bit over 30,000 units.

Ford out-jeeped Jeep in 1959 with its independent-suspension M-151 and turned the military away from the traditional military Jeep. Jeep got the last laugh when its commercial subsidiary, later known as AM General, won contracts to build large numbers of them. In the end, AM General eventually produced the majority of the M-151s, which were built into the late '70s. Ironically, it was also AM General that took the Humvee concept to completion and ended the reign of all jeep-like military vehicles altogether.

Defining Jeep
Today, if you misuse the trademarked name Jeep(r) commercially, you will find an army of lawyers ready to sue you into the next dimension. In 1940, the word had many meanings, including, but not limited to, a Midwest ethnic German regional jibe akin to "jerk," a World War I-era Army term for a new unproven recruit or piece of equipment, and the name of a popular comic-strip character of the '30s named Eugene-the-Jeep. How it got applied to a World War II Army vehicle officially known as the "truck, 1/4-ton, 4x4" and later to a company is a can-of-worms story that has been subject to a lot of loose interpretation. Here's what we know.

'51 MC (M-38)
The MC was the first full military remake of the original jeep idea. It combined the evolution of the CJ-line with the additional requirements dictated by the military, including a 1,200-pound payload. Some 62,000 were built between September of 1950 and July of 1952. Gary Wirth's '51 mounts the M2 "Ma Deuce" .50-caliber machine gun.

• Willys-Overland applied for a trademark from the Federal Trade Commission for the "Jeep" name in February of 1943, and it was granted in June of 1950.

• There were a number of other vehicles that were called "jeeps" before the one we know best; some that predate the 1/4-ton, some that were concurrent, and some that came after. See the Mar. '95 issue of Four Wheeler for a story called, "Will the Real Jeep Please Stand Up" to see a few of them. (Editor's note: You can find this story posted online at

• Eugene-the-Jeep was a popular character in the Popeye comic strip in the '30s and his exceptional abilities led people of the era to use the term "jeep" for something extraordinary.

• In prewar Army parlance, a "jeep" was a new human recruit or a new, unproven motor vehicle.

• The thought that "jeep" was derived from the military acronym GP (for "General Purpose") doesn't hold much water, since the terminology was never applied to the 1/4-ton, except by Ford, for whom it was an internal model code for a government-contract 80-inch wheelbase reconnaissance car. There are some obscure government documents that list the 1/4-ton in a "General Purpose" category, but these were not seen by the majority of those who popularized the terminology-namely the troops and the general public.

• In the early days, "jeep" was commonly applied to the 1940-and-up VC-1 Dodge command cars prior to the 1/4-tons coming into general use. When the 1/4-tons appeared, they were often known as "peeps" (pint-sized-jeeps) as well as several other terms.

• The generally acknowledged point when "jeep" came to the forefront was when Washington reporter and columnist Katherine Hillyer reported an incident that occurred on the steps of the capitol in February of 1941. Willys was demonstrating the Quad's abilities by driving one up the steps of the Capitol for various politicos, suits, and the general public. Test driver Red Housman was reportedly asked by a bystander, "What is that thing?" He replied, "It's a jeep."

• Willys-Overland latched onto the term and did its level best to publicize and popularize it. From 1942 onwards, they used it relentlessly in print advertising.

• It isn't too hard to connect the dots and speculate how the name was popularized. It starts with a group of Army motorheads calling the new 1/4-ton test rigs "jeeps." Civilians, like Housman, are known to have overheard, some perhaps interpreting it according to the Eugene-the-Jeep reference. Either way, the name works: It was both a new and unproven vehicle and something pretty extraordinary. The vehicle itself was such a fascinating new thingamajig that it drew attention from all angles, and though there were many holdouts for "peep" in the service, they were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of those that knew it as "jeep." The rest, as they say, is history.

Next month: Civilian Jeeps and the birth of four-wheeling, 1946-present.

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