Part 1: Racing Wheeling & War 1941-1976
Our coverage of the Jeep’s gala 70th Anniversary includes plenty of info and images of the various stock makes and models. As intriguing as these are, Jeep’s off-road legacy wasn’t forged by driverless vehicles parked by a lake or in a photo studio.
To show you why the vehicle has such a passionate following, we’re taking a look back at the people, events, and some specific Jeeps that have made the brand one of the strongest worldwide.
World War II was undoubtedly the trebuchet that launched the Jeep into worldwide prominence.
General George C. Marshall, who oversaw the Manhattan Project atomic-bomb program, famously called the Jeep “America’s greatest contribution to modern warfare.” General George Patton quipped, “The two most dangerous weapons the Germans have are our own armored halftrack and jeep. The halftrack because the boys in it go all heroic, thinking they are in a tank. The jeep because we have so many God-awful drivers.”
Jeep’s genesis is well-documented. The War Department solicited a quarter-ton four-wheel-drive reconnaissance vehicle. Bantam won the contract, partly be being able to deliver a vehicle within the specified 49-day window. The company manufactured more than 2,600 Bantam Reconnaissance Cars (BRCs) from 1940 to 1941 before ceasing all automotive production. Willys-Overland made its MB military Jeep based on the Army’s and Bantam’s specs. Ford served as a secondary manufacturer so that production wouldn’t be interrupted if one assembly line went down.
GIs promptly became passionate about their jeeps. Wally Parks, future editor of Hot Rod and founder of the National Hot Rod Association, swapped a flathead Ford V-8 into one of the Bantam BRCs while stationed in the Philippines during World War II.
After the war, vets bought surplus military Jeeps to indulge their backwoods hobbies. “Jeepers” were generally self-sufficient individuals who enjoyed exploring remote areas.
One of the country’s first organized 4x4 clubs was Sareea Al Jamel (Fast Camel), which sprung up in Indio, California, around 1946. They hosted the Fast Camel Cruise for decades until land closures prompted the club to disband in 1991. The oldest extant club we’re aware of is the Hemet Jeep Club, formed in 1948 as the Hemet Cavalcade. Early members included famous off-road legends Rod Hall and Larry Minor.
The first Jeepers Jamboree happened in 1953. Intended to promote tourism in Georgetown, California, the trek involved 55 Jeeps traversing the Rubicon Trail stagecoach route to Lake Tahoe. Mark A. Smith procured Willys-Overland sponsorship for his own event, limited to Jeep-brand 4x4, the following year. He continued to serve as Jeepers Jamboree Jeepmaster for 40 years total.
One of the first organized overland 4x4 expeditions was staged by future Jeep dealer Brian Chuchua in 1960. This trek went from Los Angeles to the Panama Canal. Since then, Chuchua has participated in Jeep expeditions around the world.
Since Americans are worldwide leaders in one-upmanship, Jeep competitions likely started seconds after two of the vehicles lined up side-by-side. Jeep races during World War II apparently weren’t uncommon: NORRA founder Ed Pearlman organized competitions while stationed in Guam.
Stateside, Jeep clubs soon augmented organized exploration with motorized competition. Brian Chuchua won a Jeep race in Borrego Springs in 1954, the year he graduated from high school. A decade later, Rod Hall won the Hemet Jeep Club’s Afton Canyon Jeep Junket, the first victory of his still-going off-road racing career.
Brian Chuchua took Jeep-centric off-road competition to the next level. In a strategic move later fine-tuned by Mickey Thompson, Chuchua brought the event closer to its fans. His National Four-Wheel Drive Grand Prix debuted in 1965 in a riverbed near Riverside, California. Not limited to Jeeps, Chuchua’s Grand Prix events ran through 1972, attracting a who’s who of not-yet-famous off-road racers.
Ed Pearlman, who’d bought a surplus jeep to explore Mexico after the war, participated in Chuchua’s Grand Prix races. Hearing about tip-to-tip Baja “record runs” on motorcycles, Pearlman and Pete Condos of Con-Ferr, who is generally credited with coining the term off-road, formed the National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA) with help from Dick Cepek. The purpose was to organize and validate Baja racing. NORRA’s first event, the Mexican 1000 (part rally, part fastest-from-A-to-B) was won by Rod Hall and Larry Minor in a CJ-5 in 1967. (In 1973, the Mexican government confiscated NORRA’s race, renamed it the Baja 1000, mismanaged it, and turned the race over to Mickey Thompson’s SCORE organization for the 1974 event.)
This has been a brief overview of events that shaped early Jeep enthusiasm. Next time we’ll look more in-depth at competition Jeeps and the vehicles that served as the link between factory-framed vehicles and today’s go-anywhere moon buggies.
Early Legend-Building Events
• 1941-1945: World War II
• 1946: Sareea Al Jamel (Fast Camel) 4WD Club formed
• 1948: Hemet Cavalcade (later Hemet Jeep Club) formed
• 1953: First Jeepers Jamboree
• 1954: First Jeep Jamboree; first Sareea Al Jamel (Fast Camel) 4WD Cruise
• 1956: Mile-Hi Jeep Club formed; Smittybilt founder Basil Smith formed the Chuckwalla Jeep Club
• 1960: Brian Chuchua’s Los Angeles to Panama Expedition
• 1962: First Tierra Del Sol Desert Safari
• 1963: Pete Condos cofounded the San Fernando Valley Stump Jumpers
• 1967: First Red Rock 4Wheelers Moab Easter Jeep Safari; first Mile-Hi Jeep Club All-4-Fun Week; inaugural NORRA Mexican 1000 Rally
• 1973: First Baja 1000; SCORE founded by Mickey Thompson