Willys Jeep

First published September 23rd, 2006

The Willys Jeep

"Good Lord, I don't think we could continue the war without the jeep. It does everything. It goes everywhere. It's as faithful as a dog, strong as a mule, and agile as a goat. It constantly carries twice what it was designed for, and keeps on going." (Ernie Pyle, 1900-1945)

Oddly enough, Jeep is now part of the German company DaimlerChrysler AG, but in people's minds the jeep is as American as it gets. And the one pictured left is not a Willys Jeep but a Bantam BRC40 made by the American Bantam Car Company, a firm which began life as the American Austin Car Company originally founded in 1930 by Austin of England. That the Bantam and the Willys jeeps are so strikingly similar is not a matter of coincidence. Even to this day, the debate over the origins of the Willys Jeep continues, but in truth it was the result of varying degrees of collaboration between the US Military, Bantam, Willys-Overland Motors, and the Ford Motor Company.

The US Army prepares for war

For some years before the start of World War II the US Army Infantry had in mind the replacement of their cavalry and their out-of-date range of motorcycles, motorcycle sidecars, and modified Model T Fords with some sort of modern all-purpose reconnaissance vehicle (RC). But the cash-strapped Quartermaster Corps Technical Sub-Committee on Motor Transport (in charge of developing Army vehicles) had been ignoring the Infantry's requests.

In June 1940, prompted by the increasing likelihood of involvement in the war, the Infantry listed a number of features they felt should be embodied in a new RC. The list (below) probably originates from Harry Payne, Bantam's energetic lobbyist, who'd been trying to stimulate official interest in the company's ideas for a lightweight RC and to kickstart a procurement programme. The first drawing of what was to become the jeep was produced in the office of Frank Fenn, Bantam's President, and although it's unclear who actually drew it, the main characteristics of the 'miniature truck' that would help to win World War II for the Allies were clearly conceived by staff at Bantam.

A month later, in July, the QMC invited bids for the production of the jeep from 135 companies, spelling out the basic requirements:

The invitations also included some layout drawings, detail drawings, and various specifications, substantially based (allegedly) on Bantam's original ideas. Only three bids were returned: Bantam, Willys-Overland, and Ford. An initial contract for 70 jeeps was awarded to Bantam, beginning with a pilot model, and then the remainder, designated as the Mark II.

Army concerns over Bantam's production capacity and a sense that their jeep was underpowered and too high off the ground led to Willys-Overland and Ford being invited to submit prototypes for testing alongside the Bantam. In March 1941 it was decided to order 1,500 jeeps from each of the three companies (with an increase to the original minimum weight). During further trials the competing designs continued to be developed and became more and more alike as successful ideas and features from one were copied into the others.

Finally, in July 1941, the Army concluded that a single standard design was the most practical solution, and that the Willys represented the best combination of quality and value for money. Willys-Overland was awarded a contract to supply 16,000 jeeps (the MB), incorporating various improvements that would now define the 'standard' model. The Bantams, now 'non-standard', were passed over to the British and Russian armies under the terms of the Lend-Lease Program. They proved popular, especially with the Russians, but the American Bantam Car Company never again produced vehicles.

Full scale production of the Willys Jeep

Under the Lend-Lease arrangements the demand for jeeps continued to increase, as did the prospects of the United States being drawn directly into a full-scale war, both in Europe and the Far East. In November 1941 (shortly before Japan's December attack on Pearl Harbor) the Ford Motor Company was awarded a contract for the supply of 15,000 jeeps made to the Willys MB standard design. The Army wanted parts to be fully interchangeable and the Ford GPW model differed only in minor ways to the MB.

In all, throughout World War II, Willys-Overland built 335,531 jeeps and Ford built 277,896 standard jeeps plus 12,778 of the amphibious version (nicknamed "Seeps") which saw only limited service because it was heavy, slow, and prone to sink easily.

The Willys Jeep was an excellent and highly versatile performer. It could travel at 60 miles per hour, manage a forty degree slope, tilt sideways at fifty degrees without tipping over, and had a small thirty-foot turning circle. It could be adapted to run on railway tracks by replacing the wheels with special cylinders, and pull 25 tons at 20 miles per hour. Its flat bonnet served as a card table or an altar, as required. By folding the windscreen down it could be quickly adapted to carry ambulance stretchers. It was put to every conceivable military purpose by Generals and privates alike to become the ultimate emblem of the American fighting machine.

The Jeep after the war

No-one is sure where the term 'jeep' came from, and after the war Willys-Overland filed a trademark claim for the name, now held by DaimlerChrysler together with the design of the slotted front radiator grille. Thanks to Kaj Poola from Finland, who wrote in:

"The actual term 'Jeep' came from the name of a pre-war cartoon character which supposedly had supernatural powers and, reportedly, always told the truth. Since the name 'GP', which the military used, sounds so much like the word 'jeep' when said quickly, the short nickname universally replaced the cumbersome military designation."

A civilian line was introduced - CJs (civilian jeep) - to replace the Willys MB and Ford GP models. 214,202 of the CJ-2A had been produced by 1949, after which the range was continuously developed over several decades, becoming the CJ-8 by the mid-1980s. Sales had begun to flag and the lower and wider Wrangler was launched to stem the decline. Various other variants such as the Gladiator, Honcho, Dispatcher, Jeepster, Forward Control, Wagoneer, and Grand Wagoneer (all trucks) expanded the company's range of products. The current range can be seen on the Jeep website.

Since the war years, the Jeep has been sanitised from a raw unit of basic military transport to a 'car' enjoyed by weekend funseekers and suburban families, whilst the famous brand has passed through several US corporate owners. By the late 1980s it was a product of the Chrysler Corporation, until 1998 when the company was taken over by Germany's Daimler-Benz.

Page last modified: November 30, 2014

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The art of Françoise Taylor:
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