WWII Origins of the Jeep: An American Tradition

Jeeps carried soldiers through the toughest conditions of the war, earning their celebrated place in history.

by | Jun 5, 2019 | Car Profiles

Photo Credit: John Lamm

WWII Origins of the Jeep: An American Tradition

Jeeps carried soldiers through the toughest conditions of the war, earning their celebrated place in history.

by | Jun 5, 2019 | Car Profiles

Photo Credit: John Lamm

In the early 1930s, the U.S. Army used a motorcycle and sidecar combination as its light recon vehicle, but as the war in Europe deepened, it was decided to find a replacement. American Bantam, which had spent the 1930s trying unsuccessfully to interest U.S. car buyers in small automobiles, proposed a trio of lightweight scout cars in September 1939.

Those were rejected, but Bantam joined Ford and Willys-Overland as the only serious contenders in a competition to design the Army’s new light, all-purpose vehicle. Originally, the Army was looking for a 1300-lb machine with a wheelbase of no more than 80 in. and a track no wider than 47 in. There were also tight requirements on delivery schedules, and Bantam was the winner of this round of the bidding war.

Both Ford and Willys were concerned about being able to build a rugged and field-reliable utility vehicle within that light weight restriction. The Army encouraged both companies to independently continue with their own new prototypes, and that’s when Willys’ vice president of engineering, Barney Roos, put his staff back in Toledo, Ohio, to work on new pilot vehicles to fit what he figured was the best mix of weight and ruggedness.

By September 1940, Bantam had its “Blitz Buggy” ready for testing, but soon after, prototypes were offered by Ford–the Pygmy–and Willys’ Quad. Because the Army had released the blueprints to the Bantam, there were charges that some ideas were pirated, but the three machines had their differences.

Still unready to settle on one of the machines, the Army ordered 1500 vehicles from each of the three companies for field testing. There was now a 2160-lb weight ceiling on the delivered machines so the Quad went through a piece-by-piece weight-reduction program, getting down to within seven ounces of the new limit.

After testing, the Army settled on one design based on the Willys-Overland proposal, but with elements of the Bantam and Ford prototypes. Bidding for production took place in July 1941, with Willys winning the initial contract. But as the war expanded, so did Jeep production, totally more than 640,000, 360,000 from Willys, only 2,675 from Bantam and the remainder from Ford.

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There is the question of the origin of the name. Most theories are that this moniker means General Purpose, the Army’s designation distilled to GP and finally to Jeep. Others claim the name refers to a character from the Popeye comic strip called “Eugene the Jeep.” To Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which owns the name through a lineage that reads Willys-Overland to Willys Motors to Kaiser Jeep Corporation to American Motors to Chrysler, the name Jeep is one it will protect as fiercely as any in its dictionary.

KISS is the famous Army acronym that stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid, and that’s what Willy’s did so brilliantly with the Jeep. To a basic frame they added a sturdy open body with a folding canvas top and no doors. Nothing beautiful, just straight metal and glass with no compound curves. Pure function and the ability to be anything from a beast of burden to an ambulance to a mount for a machine gun, a recoilless rifle… or an officer. I asked my father-in-law, Don Horton, who was another WWII real hero having won a Silver Star as a medic, his recollections of Jeeps. He smiled and said “Jeeps? For the most part, we saluted Jeeps.”

For power, Willys used a 2.2-liter L-head four that produced 63 bhp and 105 lb-ft of torque. The drivetrain included a hearty 3-speed manual transmission with a 2-speed transfer case that allowed rear- or 4-wheel drive through front and rear live axles with their differentials offset to the right. They suspended the axles from leaf springs, then added brakes and tires that could stand up to the toughest going, where mud, snow or water.

And Jeeps did just that. From Omaha Beach to Berlin and all across the Pacific Theater of Operations, Jeeps carried soldiers through the toughest conditions of the war, earning their celebrated place in history.

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