By: AmyLyn Hark
On September 23rd 1940 history was made. The first prototype for a new military vehicle rolled out of the American bantam car company’s butler Pennsylvania factory. On that day, a vehicle was born that would affect not only the outcome of WWII, but also play an important role in both military and civilian history. The history of the Jeep does not start with its incredible service in the military, but with its conception. And no tale of American history, especially the history of the Jeep, would be complete without a little controversy.
Just 49 days before, on June 27th, the American Quartermaster Corps Ordnance Technical Committee issued the specifications for a new military vehicle. They needed a command reconnaissance vehicle, capable of carrying 4 passengers and a 600 lb payload. The requirements were strict and the deadlines were unbelievable. The committee wanted blueprints by July 22nd and 70 finished prototypes just 75 days later. Out of the 135 automobile companies asked to submit plans, only 2 replied to the invitation. Due to the time constraints, many automobile companies felt that the idea of developing a whole vehicle from a clean slate and producing that vehicle in less than a month was impossible. Today car companies take longer to develop prototypes for door handles. When bidding opened at Camp Holabird on the 22nd of July, only 2 companies had blueprints ready, American Bantam Car Co. and Willys-Overland.
Driven by a sense of patriotism, 56 year old Karl Probst, a graduate of Ohio State University in mechanical engineering, was persuaded by an Army request to help out the American Bantam Car Co. Bantam was a small company and teetering on the edge of extinction financially. The $175,000 contract would give the company the boost it needed. Because the design department at Bantam had been closed for some time, the company’s owner and president sought out an engineer who could work quickly on this new design. Although Probst would not be paid if Bantam did not get the government contract, the challenge excited him, and he agreed to work on the project. He drove from Detroit, MI to Toledo, OH where he picked up a pair of axles, a transfer case, and drive shaft assemblies from Spicer, a transmission company. When he arrived Wednesday, July 17th in Butler, PA he began immediately, working 18 hour days. By Friday evening he had designed the Jeep.
With the blueprints drawn up and the ink barely dry on the contract application, Karl Probst arrived at Camp Holabird in Baltimore, MD on Monday, July 23rd just in time for the 9:00 am bidding to begin. Only one other company presented blueprints that day Willys-Overland. Ford was present, but only as an observer. Although a cheaper bid, the plans from Willys-Overland were rough and unready, and they wanted more time especially for the delivery of the prototype. This was an advantage for the smaller Bantam. Bantam was told the contract, worth $171,185, was theirs within an hour. Some Army officials were concerned that Bantam would not be able to produce the quantity that they needed. And so, after the Army gave Bantam the good news, they agreed to let Willys-Overland continue with their progress, and they encouraged Ford to develop a vehicle all while giving them both full access to Bantam’s blueprints.
Bantam, in the mean time, had a lot of work to do. They had only 49 days and nights to build their vehicle, and they would need every minute. They started with the basic frame off the bantam roadster beefed up with channel section steel and four cross-members. A Continental 4-cyl industrial flathead engine replaced the Bantam unit previously used in the roadster frame. The Continental engine managed 46 bhp at 3250 rpm with 86 lb of torque at 1800 rpm. The Spicer axles that Probst picked up at the beginning of his journey were modified from a Studebaker Champion with a ration of 4.88:1 and fully floating units. They were joined by the Spicer transfer case, which shifted from two to four wheel drive. The prototype had three forward gears and one reverse, with the power going through a Warner Gears primary gearbox. Next, a Stromberg carburetor and a 6 volt battery were added. Suspension consisted of Gabriel telescopic shock absorbers and semielliptical springs. The body was simple. Made from steel fabricated from raw stock or sourced from local junkyards, it was door-less, with exposed wheels, sturdy bumpers and functional wings. The vehicle was fitted with round headlights and a rounded grill. With the exception of the weight, the government specifications were met. The Bantam Reconnaissance Command-40 hp, or BRC-40 was finished. No other company had come close to meeting the requirements in the allotted time. Now it was time to test the vehicle.
Probst and the plant manager Harold Crist, drove the prototype 200 miles to Camp Holabird. They had to be there by 5 pm on the 23rd of September. They arrived with just a half hour to spare. After the initial drive to Camp Holabird, the BRC-40 as tested rigorously and unmercifully under Major Herbert Laws and Captain Mosley, for 300 miles until it broke. Ford and Willys-Overland were there to see the BRC-40 perform, and it performed extremely well. The BRC-40 was tested for 3 weeks. During that time some weaknesses were found, and the government officials were not satisfied with the vehicle being over the weight limit condition they had set, and the engine lacking the torque required. The weight limit problem was passed over when a Calvary officer lifted the rear end unassisted. The BRC-40 was praised as the best vehicle ever tested at Holabird, and Major Laws was quoted as saying, “I believe this unit will make history.” After the testing was done, Bantam got to work making the other 70 prototypes, but before those were even finished, and additional 1,500 were ordered.
During the testing, Ford and Wilys-Overland were taking notes. As far as the government was concerned the blueprints and the rights to the Bantam vehicle belongs to them, so they shared all the information with the two other competing companies. One could question of the ethics of this move. Bantam was the only company not only to build a prototype, but did it on time, and almost all the specifications. But Bantam, after all, was a tiny company, and the amount of vehicles needed if America went to war would be enormous. Eventually the Quartermaster Corps thought that the additional order of 1,500 units was too much for Bantam, and was pushing for that to be split between the three interested companies. Bantam fought back and protested. The debate raged for weeks in newspapers and Congressional committees. Bantam won back its 1,500 units but it was obvious that not everyone had faith in Bantam. In the end, of the 647,927 Jeeps built during WWII, Bantam produced only 2675.
On the 11th of November the Willys-Overland Quad or MA arrived at Holabird; 12 days later the Ford Pygmy rolled into the camp. There was no surprise that these looked remarkably like the BRC-40, with the exception being the front grill.
The Willys-Overland Quad had the finest engine of them all. Called the ‘go-devil’, it was the most powerful at 63 bhp. The ‘go-devil’ started as the Whippet’s 4 cyl but it lacked reliability and power. Barney Roos, Wiley’s chief engineer, enlarged the inlet ports and manifolds. He replaced the old cast iron pistons with aluminum three-ring pins and forged connecting rods. A down-draught Carter Carburetor was added and with that the Quad could now keep running on a 20 degree slope or at a 56 degree slope front to rear. These changes enabled a boost of horsepower from 49 bhp to 60 bhp at 3,600 rpm, and a torque of 105 lb at 2,000 rpm. A Borg & Beck clutch was used between the engine and the transmission and Roos used a Warner transmission that supplied the Quad with three forwards and one reverse, with synchromesh only on second and third. The transfer case, supplied by Spicer at first but Brown-Lipe later on, had a range of 1.97:1. Unfortunately for Willys the Quad came in grossly overweight. Willys had two options; either lose the ‘go-devil’ engine or trim the weight from elsewhere. In the end, ten pounds of paint was cut, sheet metal was thinned, and alloy replaced the carbon steel frame. The windscreen was split into a two-part design, and every nut, bolt and washer was scrutinized. After all the examination and assessment the Quad came in under the weight limit by just seven ounces.
Ford’s Pygmy was the worst of all three prototypes. The largest company of the three, Ford was not that interested in the project from the start because they were concentrating on improving their road cars at the time. Ford used the only 4 cyl engine it had, from a Ferguson Dearborn tractor. The power train was completely out of date. With only one transmission to go with the tractor engine, the vehicle has only three forward gears and no synchromesh. The Ford Pygmy could not stand up to the Army’s thrashing during testing.
After thoroughly testing all three, it was obvious that the Willys Quad was the vehicle for the Job. It was more powerful than the Bantam and the Ford. Bantam’s vehicle was prone to overheat and break with rapid wear. Ford’s was basically a tractor that had too many problems. The Quartermaster Corps did agree that there were some features from Bantam’s and Fords vehicles that were keeping and decided to incorporate them into the quarter ton Willys MB. One of those features was the pressed metal grill from Ford’s design. And it was with these decisions the MB became the standardized ‘Jeep’.
With war looming, an order for 16,000 units was up for grabs. Bantam and Willys certainly needed the contract financially, while Ford, the largest of the three, seemed like the only company that could deliver. For $738.74 per MB, Willys-Overland was awarded the contract on July 23, 1941. Eventually government officials realized that Willys could not deliver that amount of units needed on their own, so an unprecedented arrangement was made. On November 10, 1941, Willys-Overland granted the US a non-exclusive license to allow another company to manufacture the vehicle using the Willys MB specifications. Ford agreed to produce the Willys vehicle exactly according to the Willys blueprints, but with one exception, Ford would stamp all its parts with their logo. The Ford versions would be called the GPW (G=government vehicle, P designated the 80″wheelbase, and W = the Willys engine design.) The originator of the design, American Bantam, survived for a while producing Jeep trailers, torpedo parts, and hydraulic landing gear for aircraft. In 1965 Bantam was purchased by the American Rolling Mills Co.
Every division of the military and every Allied Force used and abused the Jeep during the war. The Jeep was used for a multitude of tasks thought up before the US entered the war and altered for more during. Primarily the Jeep was used for routine soldier tasks of reconnaissance, message dispatch, the movement of officials, weapons and supplies. For soldiers on the front line, Jeep’s heavy armor protected, and its many flat surfaces were perfect for mounting guns. Guns from .30 cal automatic rifles to .50 cal automatic machine guns were mounted all over the Jeep. In the Pacific, rocket launchers were used my Marines along with a 37 mm anti tank gun. The Jeep served as an ambulance, carrying the wounded on the hood with the windscreen folded down, or even a fire truck when needed. At times the tires were replaced with railroad wheels and the Jeep was used to pull 25 times its own weight on the railroads. One Jeep was even attached to a British sub and transported underwater. Eventually the Jeep was even converted into an amphibious vehicle, with a boat tub bottom and a PTO propeller, it was called a Seep. An Australian engineer circumnavigated the globe in a highly modified Seep. Jeeps were used to lay cable, plow fields for planting, remove snow from roads, and equipped with power sprayers, they would even be called into service to control mosquitoes and the spread of malaria. Even standing still the Jeep was a powerful tool for the servicemen during the war, the flat hood was used as a table top for meals, an altar for chaplains, or just to play cards during down time. The rotational speed of the front wheel could be harnessed to run a saw or do the laundry. And in one of the more clever exploits, Jeeps were raced up hills until the radiator water was nice and hot for shaving.
The Jeep was agile, strong, powerful, easy to maintain and quickly became a favorite among servicemen. The US Department of Agriculture printed a pamphlet describing the hundreds of uses including farming, ranching, and mining. Before the end of the war, Willys began a campaign to transfer the momentum and popularity of the Jeep from wartime to civilian use, Jeep was depicted as a tough, powerful workhorse, and essential vehicle for the transfer of goods and services including the US mail and even as the perfect family car. Ford had no aspirations to produce the Jeep post-war; they had their own projects to attend to. When the war was finally over Willys had altered the Jeep into a pick-up truck, a utility vehicle, a passenger car and a delivery ban, as well as the CJ or Civilian Jeep.
The word ‘Jeep’ was trademarked after the war by Willys, and has been used continuously even after the company was sold to Kaiser in 1953, turning into Kaiser-Jeep in 1963. American Motors bought out Kaiser-Jeep in 1970. Soon after Renault started investing in AMC and the automobile market began experiencing financing troubles. Chrysler wanted to capture the Jeep brand and other assets of AMC and purchased AMC in 1987. Shortly after Chrysler merged with Daimler-Benz to form DaimlerChrysler and Jeep was operating under Chrysler LLC until 2014 when the name was changed to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Through the decades the civilian Jeep has undergone many changes but still resembles the original design, and new models pay homage to their wartime predecessors. Although retired from military service in 1981, the Jeep maintains its popularity as a recreational delight for its many admirers today.
Clarke, R. M., Off Road Jeeps Civilian & Military 1944-1974, Brooklands Books Ltd, Surrey England 2001
Fetherston, David, Jeep Warhorse, Workhorse & Boulevard Cruiser, Reed International Books, London England 1975
Scott, Graham, Essential Jeep Willys, Ford and Bantam Models 1941-45, MBI Publishing Company, Osceola, WO 1996
Conley, Lt. Col. Manuel A. 1984. “The Legendary Jeep.” American History Illustrated (June) 18-28
A “Brief” History of Jeeps (from CJ to ZJ). www.Jeepin.com
*All images provided via www.Google.com are for general reference only and are not property of National Off-road Jeep Association.