Jeep – Designed for War

The Jeep story is a war story.  In the late 1930s, when it became obvious that US was eventually going to be pulled into the war in Europe, the various branches of the military started to look at the necessary material preparations involved.  In particular, in early 1940, the US Army contacted 134 companies and asked them if they had interest in building a prototype of a small, 4WD reconnaissance car. Only two companies responded to the request; Willys-Overland and The American Bantam Company.  The lack of response almost certainly due to the impossible deadline they had placed on the request: a working prototype needed to be delivered within a mere 49 days.

Willys asked for more time to deliver a prototype but the Army refused the request.  The bankrupt American Bantam Car Company, who had no engineering left on the staff, solicited Karl Probst, an ex-Bantam consultant to help them out.  After turning down Bantam’s initial request, Probst responded to a direct Army request and commenced work. Working at a feverish pace, Probst laid out full plans for the Bantam prototype, known as the BRC (Bantam Reconnaissance Car), in just two days.  While much of the vehicle could be assembled from off-the-shelf parts, custom 4WD components were to be supplied by Spicer Corporation The hand-built prototype was completed and driven to Camp Holabird, MD for Army testing September 21, 1940.



Although the Bantam prototype met almost all of the requirements, the Army felt that the company (Bantam) was too small to supply the number of vehicles it needed, so it supplied the Bantam design to Willys and Ford who were encouraged to make their own changes and modifications. The resulting Ford “Pygmy” and Willys “Quad” prototypes looked very similar to the Bantam BRC prototype and Spicer supplied very similar four-wheel drivetrain components to all three manufacturers. It now was a contest among three possible suppliers.

Our contact at tells us that 1500 of each of the three models were built and extensively field-tested. The Willys version of the car would become the standardized jeep design, designated the Model MB and was built at their plant in Toledo, Ohio.  The Army chose Ford as the second supplier but they were required to build their Jeeps to the Willys’ design. American Bantam, the creators of the first Jeep, spent the rest of the war building heavy-duty trailers for the Army.

Incidently, none of the original manufacturers actually used the term “Jeep” to designate their vehicles. Although there is some debate as to the origin of the name, many historians acknowledge that it was a slang that was applied to the vehicle’s military name “GP Vehicle” (General Purpose).  This seems likely because of the tendency to make non-sensical military acronyms into words is very common. For example, HMMWV (for High-Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle) has become commonly known as the Humvee.

Today, Jeep is a major brand of automobiles that is manufactured by Chrysler Group LLC, a multi-national company in a global strategic alliance with the FIAT Group SPA.  The former Chrysler Corporation acquired the Jeep brand along with its remaining assets in 1987 from American Motors Corporation (AMC). Although it has made trucks, Jeep’s line of vehicles today still consist solely off-road and sport utility vehicles.

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