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History of the Universal Jeep - A Lesson in Jeep History

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 Willys 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 Willys 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.

7: 1941 BANTAM BRC-40

The BRC-40 was the final evolution of the Bantam design. The Army initially contracted for 1,500 units, but 2,605 were eventually assembled. Bantam ceased motor vehicle production after the last was built in December of 1941 and carried on building trailers, torpedo motors and landing gear. The BRC-40 had many fine features and was well liked by the Allied forces that used it; its light weight and nimble handling was particularly noteworthy. At least 100 BRC-40s have survived the years, making them the second most common of the pre-production 1/4-tons. This restored BRC-40 belongs to Steve Greenberg of Portland, Oregon.


The first 25,808 Willys MBs used a welded steel grille very similar to the Ford GP design, and there were a host of other differences from the later Willys. These early MBs had "Willys'' embossed in the back panel. In production, the slat grilles were given running changes until they finally evolved into the standard "stamped-grille'' Willys MB we know and love. The slat grilles are an uncommon find these days; some sources say that fewer than 25 survive. Owner Reg Hodgson of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is the Editor of Army Motors, the official magazine of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association.

9: 1941-1945 WILLYS MB

The hero of World War II. Willys produced 335,531 units, and they served in every theater of war, in every conceivable role, and with every Allied army. This vehicle changed the way Americans looked at the automobile and added a new word to our vocabulary: Jeep. Early versions had "Willys'' embossed on the back panel, but the military frowned on the free advertising and ordered the practice stopped. MBs are plentiful, easily restored and a heck of a lot of fun. This superbly restored 1944 MB belongs to Tony Standefer, of Bothell, Washington

10: 1941-1945 FORD GPW

As Ford built the last of its own GP units, it landed a contract to built Jeeps to the Willys pattern. Ford designated these vehicles GPW (Government, 80-inch wheelbase, Willys). Though very similar to the Willys, there are some telltale differences. The front crossmenber is a U-channel instead of the Willys tubular unit. The letter F (Ford) is stamped on most small components, and the rear stowage compartment differs from the Willys. To war's end, 277,896 Ford GPWs were built, and they're equally as popular and cherished as the Willys. The vehicle shown belongs to John Ferrie of Fort Collins, Colorado and is an early '42 "Script'' model, meaning it has "Ford'' embossed on the rear panel.

11: 1942-1943 FORD GPA

This is the amphibious Jeep, or "Seep.'' Not particularly successful on land or sea, 12,778 were constructed. In the water, they were very slow, and anything more than a slight chop sent them to the bottom. On land, the extra weight and bulk made them ungainly. Originally developed by Marmon-Herrington and the yacht designers at Sparkman and Stevens, Seeps saw limited service. Nowadays, as an oddball, they've become highly collectable and are quite rare. (If 11B is used, add: This restored GPA belongs to Wayne Dowdle of Memphis, Tennessee.)

12: 1944-1945 CJ-2

As the war wound down, Willys turned its attention to the postwar Jeep market and started development of a civilian model. Though there may have been a CJ or CJ-1, available records show only CJ-2 models mentioned. The first of these were known as "Agrijeeps'' on their data plates. Twelve Agrijeeps were produced in 1944, and another 22 or 23 CJ-2s in 1945. These rigs were used at various agricultural test stations around the country. This restored 1944 Agrijeep bears the serial number CJ-2-09. Owned by noted early-Jeep expert Fred Coldwell, the CJ-2 was restored by Charles Ellis and is one of two remaining Agrijeeps. A total of four CJ-2s remain: numbers 09, 12, 32 and 37.

13: 1945-1949 CJ-2A

The first of the production CJs (Civilian Jeeps), 214,202 units were produced. The earliest versions used a column shift until early 1946. The earliest CJ-2As also used the MB's full-floating rear axle and had military tool notches in the body. Unlike the MBs, the CJs used a tailgate and had "Willys'' embossed on the hood sides and windshield frame. The beefier T-90 gearbox replaced the old T-84. CJ-2A sales were very brisk, especially considering the almost endless supply of MBs on the war surplus market. A few CJ-2As were built concurrently with the later CJ-3A. This very early CJ-2A belongs to Art Carey of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

14: 1949-1953 CJ-3A

This was the last of the "low-hood'' flatfendered CJs. Only a few changes, mostly visual, marked the CJ-3A from the 2A. The windshield is a one-piece design and has a vent just below it. In its four-year run, 131, 843 CJ-3As were manufactured. The 3A got an axle upgrade from a Spicer 42-1 to a Spicer 44-2. A stripped "Farm Jeep'' option was available for 1951-43 models; these featured a standard drawbar and PTO. In 1953, the CJ-3A was built alongside the "high-hood,'' F-head-powered CJ-3B. This extremely original 1950 CJ-3A belongs to Colin Hutto of Cedaredge, Colorado.

15. 1950-1952 M-38 (WILLYS MODEL MC)

A direct knockoff of the CJ-3A, the M-38 was upgraded for GI use by a stronger frame and suspension, a 24-volt electrical system, and full-floating rear axle, in addition to a multitude of military accoutrements. These rigs saw combat in Korea, but production was low at 61,423 units. An export version was built from 1953 to 1955 for foreign military forces. The headlight guards, blackout lights, battery panel on the cowl and tool notches on the body are the way to ID them. Some were equipped with Ramsey winches. Reg Hodgon's M-38 is decked out in Korean War-vintage Canadian colors.

16: 1951 CJ-4

This is the missing link between the CJ-3A/3B and the Jeep CJ-5. Only one unit was built in 1951. It was probably the first vehicle to carry the new Willys "Hurricane'' F-head engine and was probably a concurrent development with the MD model (M-38A1/CJ-5). It combined the rear of a CJ-3A, the hood of an MD, and this unique cowl and fenders on an 81-inch wheelbase. Mechanically, it was pretty standard Jeep. Carrying the engineering code X-151 (X, experimental; Serial No. 1, 1951) the rig was sold to a Willys employee in 1955 who worked it for 12 years. John Milam, of Ida, Michigan, has owned it for the last 25 years.

17A OR 17B: 1952-1957 M-38A1

This was the first appearance of the "round-fender'' Jeep that would eventually become the CJ-5. The M-38A1 was quite different than the CJ-5, having a stronger chassis and reversed front spring shackles, in addition to the military accoutrements such as standardized GI instruments and 24-volt electricals. The M-38A1 lasted quite awhile in military service. Even after it was replaced by the high-tech Ford M-151, they could be seen in OD green as late as the 1970s. In all, 101,488 units were produced, some of which went for export. This rig is owned by George Baxter at Army Jeep Parts in Bristol, Pennsylvania.

18 1953-1968 CJ-3B

This "high-hood'' Jeep was essentially a CJ-3A with the taller F-head engine fitted and a "hood-ectomy'' to give clearance. Though it may have been intended as a interim model prior to the intro of the CJ-5, it stayed in production until 1968 as a shorter-wheelbase option. With only a few thousand a year built, many of them exported, there are not many CJ-3Bs around. A total of 155,494 were assembled in the U.S. Strangely enough, they are still being built under license in India under the Mahindra nameplate. This restored 1963 CJ-3B belongs to Derek Redmond, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

19: 1954-1983 Jeep CJ-5

Nearly 30 years in production, the Jeep CJ-5 outlasted all the other Jeep utilities by a comfortable margin. All told, 603,303 were manufactured, making them the most plentiful CJ by a bunch. Many special editions existed for the Jeep CJ-5, including the 1964-68 Tuxedo Park; the 1969 Camper; the 1969 "462'' model; the 1971 Renegade I; the 1972-83 Renegade II; the 1972 Super Jeep; and the 1977-83 Golden Eagle. The Jeep CJ-5 has been the basis for countless trail buildups and probably logged more trail miles than any other Jeep. Shown here is a '73 Renegade II. This package featured a 304cid V-8 (the first V-8 in a short-wheelbase utility), Mag wheels and a host of other goodies that included a Powr-Lok rear limited-slip. It belongs to Dan Chaffin of Nathrop, Colorado.

20: 1955-1975 CJ-6

The only common complaint among early Jeep utility owners was for more room. This call was answered in the form of the CJ-6. Essentially a CJ-5 with 20 extra inches of wheelbase (101 inches total), the CJ-6 offered the storage space of a small pickup and the mobility of a Jeep. The demand was not great for the stretched CJ but they stayed in production from 1955 until the advent of the CJ-7 in 1976. They continued in production for export until 1981. Only 50,172 were manufactured, making them a fairly rare bird these days. As seen at the 1996 Easter Jeep Safari, this '75 CJ-6 belongs to Texan Sam Merrill.

21: 1976-1986 CJ-7

The CJ-7 offered a compromise between the CJ-5 shortie and the long-arm CJ-6. With a 93.4-inch wheelbase, it was just long enough for room and comfort but short enough to get down and dirty on the trail. It has proven a popular rig on all fronts. A total of 379,299 units were built in just 10 years of production. The extra wheelbase also allows for a wider variety of drivetrain modifications than does the CJ-5. This rig belongs to Mike Golly, of Loveland, Colorado.

22: 1981-1985 CJ-8 (SCRAMBLER)

After the CJ-6's demise in 1975, there was another cry by owners for more room. AMC answered with the CJ-8 "Scrambler.'' Built as a 103-inch-wheelbase pickup, the CJ-8 came in hard- or soft-top models. The Scrambler was a very modest seller, with only 27,792 built. An upswing in popularity in the 1990s has turned the old CJ-8 into a very hot item. This well used CJ-8 belongs to Greg Noss of Glenwood springs, Colorado.

23: 1986-1996 WRANGLER YJ

With CJ sales lagging in the mid-'80s, AMC responded with the Wrangler. Lower and wider than the CJ, the Wrangler was not looked upon as a "real'' Jeep by the fans but gradually, it won them over and has proven to be a capable and adaptable design with a personality all its own. A total of 632,231 YJ Wranglers were built in its production run.

24: 1997 WRANGLER TJ

Starting with the basic Wrangler platform, Jeep engineers gave the little utility the most thorough working-over since the Quad evolved into the MB. Virtually nothing was left untouched. The coil-spring suspension makes this the best riding and best-performing out-of-the-box Jeep ever built. The TJ has been garnering rave reviews since its debut in late 1996 and it appears that Jeep has just begun making the Wrangler a more appealing sport-ute. The Jeep story goes on.