Follow Motorbase:
Search Motorbase for


During WWII, the tiny, all terrain, 1/4 ton 4x4 JEEP made a name for itself to become one of the most easily recognised and well known Icons of all time.

The military need for a basic, easy to maintain and repair vehicle even under adverse conditions had been evident for many years. Previous attempts to fill this void had been based on existing production models, but it soon became evident that even a 1/2 ton vehicle wasn't able to tackle the mud and snow usually found in theatres of conflict. They invariably became inextricably
bogged down due to weight, size or length, despite the fact that 4x4 transmission had been used in many instances.

In 1937, Robert G. Howie, a Senior officer in the U.S. Army, working with Sergeant Helvin G. Wiley, envisaged a vehicle that would transport a driver and one passenger - both lying on their stomach to give a very low profile height of only 33.25". A 'fixed' machine gun was mounted on a pedestal for use by the passenger and there was provision to carry 1,500 rounds of ammunition. It had no suspension and the front wheels were driven by a rear mounted American Bantam (Austin based) engine.

With the co-operation of Master Sergeant Melvyn C. Wiley, a prototype was ready in March 1937 and the Army started tests in April. But they were not impressed with the concept, which became known as the 'Belly Flopper' because of the dreadful shaking the prone occupants sustained in use. It was impossible to drive over uneven terrain due to its minimal ground clearance and it didn't have enough power to tackle gradients. Although it was obviously not production material, it did give a basic indication of the type of vehicle that was needed.

In 1938, Roy S. Evans of the American Bantam Company in Butler, Pennsylvania, realised that his small cars had potential in respect of the vehicle that was required. They were small and light and could easily be adapted to suit any task, within reason. His range already contained saloons, convertibles, vans and trucks. With this in mind, he loaned three standard Bantam Roadsters to the Pennsylvania National Guard during their summer manoeuvres for evaluation regarding their use as reconnaissance cars. They performed satisfactorily, but official reports were not forthcoming at that time. Charles Payne was in charge of military sales at Bantam and he suggested to the authorities that they consider a lightweight vehicle based on the Bantam Roadsters.

In May 1940, the American Army studied the proposal and laid down basic details for a lightweight vehicle that were handed to the Ordnance Technical Committee (OTC). The OTC formed a sub-committee to establish both the requirements of the new vehicle and also the capacity of the Bantam plant regarding quantity production. The sub-committee arranged a meeting at Bantam in June 1940. Invited were Robert 'Belly Flopper' Howie, specialist engineers from Spicer, since 4x4 transmission was involved and three military engineers to put forward the main requirements of the Army.

The basic features of the proposed vehicle were established:
A lightweight vehicle with a body of basic rectangular design, employing a fold-down windscreen and weighing in at no more than 1200 lbs. (This was later increased to 1275 lbs) It had to be capable of carrying a crew of three and have a 'fixed' mounting for a 7.62 mm machine gun. It must have four-wheel drive with provision to disengage the front axle when required, fully floating axles, a two speed transfer box, hydraulic brakes and an oil bath air cleaner. Minimum driven speed forward had to be 3 mph, with a top speed of no less than 50 mph and it had to have the ability to climb gradients of 45 degrees in forward gear and 40 degrees in reverse. A wheelbase of 75" (later increased to 80"), a maximum track of 47" and a maximum height of 36" (later increased to 40")The details were approved by the Secretary of War and a sum of $175,000 was assigned to the project, together with a deadline that coincided with the late 1940 summer manoeuvres.

Believing that Bantam would most likely have difficulty supplying in large quantities, it was decided that it would be advisable to allow other manufacturers to submit quotes and 135 companies were invited to take part with alternative proposals. The Quarter Master Corps gave a target date for the initial four wheel drive prototype to be delivered within 49 days and the 70 similar vehicles - eight with four wheel steering - were to follow within a further 26 days. The proposals had to be in the hands of the U.S. Army test centre for wheeled vehicles at Camp Holabird by 9:00 am on Monday 22nd July 1940. Despite the extremely limited times given, two proposals arrived. These were from the American Bantam Company and Willys Overland Incorporated of Toledo, Ohio.

On receiving the invitation to submit a tender, Bantam President, Francis H. Fenn had a major problem on his hands. Bantam had been at the forefront of discussions regarding the creation of the new vehicle, but by 1940, due to ever decreasing cars sales to a public that preferred larger, more comfortable cars, their Technical Engineering Department had already been disbanded. In desperation, Fenn contacted his predecessor, Arthur Brandt from American Austin days for advice. Brandt recommended the services of a highly qualified engineer named Karl K. Probst. But when Probst was approached, he was already aware of the difficulties associated with Bantam and hesitated for a time before actually committing his services to the company. But when he finally agreed, he set about the task in earnest and he had the plans for the new vehicle ready within a week. Probst worked closely with the Spicer engineers and chose to use existing production vehicle parts from a variety of sources. He determined that the Bantam engine was of insufficient power and adopted an easily obtainable Continental Y-4112 engine which gave 48 bhp at 3,250 rpm.

Unfortunately, it was calculated that the final car would be over the stipulated weight by 550 lbs and when this was mentioned to Charles Payne at Bantam, he was doubtful that it would be accepted by the Army. However, the proposal had to be submitted on the correct forms and when they were filled in, the entry regarding the weight corresponded with the weight laid down by the Army. When the tenders were opened at Camp Holabird on 22nd July 1940, it was found that the Willys price was actually cheaper than Bantam. But whereas Bantam insisted that they could meet all deadlines, Willys requested that the deadline be extended by another 45 days. A penalty clause of $5 for every additional day over the stated date was in place, which meant that the Willys version would eventually become the dearer of the two because of the extra penalty cost and the contract was finally given to Bantam. Confident that they would win, Bantam had already set on more personnel and had begun work on the first prototype. They beat the target date by two days and this allowed Probst to do a bit of preliminary testing to ensure that all was satisfactory before handing it over for testing at Camp Holabird.

The Army tests were carried over 19 days using a variety of conditions and road surfaces and covered nearly 3,500 miles. Opinions were varied. There was criticism of the Bantams weight, lack of power, a number of points that needed more attention to detail and the fact that it required frequent maintenance. Bantam, undeterred by the problems, noted them with the intention of correcting the faults before they continued with further models. Nevertheless, many observers were impressed by the way the little vehicle had performed after being designed and constructed in such a short space of time. Observers from Willys and also from Ford were allowed to inspect the car and see it put through its paces during the tests. This was frowned upon by several officials, but the Quarter Master replied that he was still unsure that Bantam could actually supply the quantity required and that to have two large companies such as Willys and Ford involved could only be beneficial in the long term.

Bantam made several alterations to their design before commencing with the main batch of 70 vehicles, which were now referred to as the 'Pilot Model Mark II.' The motorcycle type front wings gave way to a more rectangular shape and several modifications were made to address other problems that had arisen in the prototype. By mid-December 1940, the 70 pre-production cars were completed. These included the eight with four-wheel steering. Even as they were being built, the U.S. Army, satisfied with the first test report, had placed an order for 1,500. They were given the code 40BRC.  But when the order was placed with the Quarter Master Corps, certain senior members suggested that as Willys and Ford were now in the picture, then this figure should be divided between the three companies.  This brought a strong response from Charles Payne of Bantam who made an immediate appeal to the Secretary of State for War. He pointed out that only Bantam had been involved in the origins of the new vehicle and that only Bantam had met the required delivery dates with the pre-production batch. But he added that Bantam would be prepared to share drawings and expertise gained from the project with other companies if orders surpassed the production capabilities of the Bantam company.

In the end, despite opposition from several members of the Quarter Master Corps, the entire order was placed in the hands of Bantam by the General Staff and the Secretary of State. When this was decided, the infuriated management of Willys decided to press on with the development of two prototypes at their own expense. But the matter didn't end there....... Colonel Henry S. Aurand, the head of the 1/4 ton, 4x4 programme, suggested that Bantam, Willys and Ford should each receive an order for 1500 vehicles. This was approved by General Knudsen on the condition that the first prototypes accurately met the specification set down by the Army. The Willys pilot model was ready for testing on 11th November 1940 and was given the name 'Quad'. It was immediately found that the engine, built by Willys themselves, was far superior to the Continental engine used by Bantam. Like the Bantam, the simple nose was rounded and the headlamps were free standing. But the front wings were bulky and too flamboyant. There was also a problem with the weight. Ford's pilot model, named the 'Pygmy' wasn't ready for testing until 23rd November 1940. It soon became evident that, although it was the most comfortable of the three to drive, it was very low on power due to the use of a Ferguson Dearborn tractor engine. The gearbox came from a Ford Model 'A' and was restricted to only three forward gears. But the Pygmy had the flat front and built-in headlamps that would be a feature of the final design that later became known as the 'JEEP'. Unsurprisingly, since representatives of both Willys and Ford had witnessed the Bantam trials at Camp Holabird, both of them resembled the Bantam in many respects. Test results comparisons showed that the Bantam had the lowest fuel consumption. The Ford had better steering and was the most comfortable, but lacked power and had only three forward speeds. The Willys had the better engine, was the cheapest and performed best of the three, but exceeded the weight specified by several hundred pounds. Pleased with the results of the test with regard to their entry, but realising that substantial future orders were at stake, Willys did a redesign to resolve the weight problem. One of the features that they adopted was the flat front and inset headlamps as on the Ford Pygmy. The new design, called the Willys MA Command Reconnaissance, shed a huge amount of weight, but was still borderline and only met the specification with a clean, dry vehicle. A small coating of mud collected under the wheel arches could easily take it over the weight limit again.

After receiving the 1500 pre-production vehicles, known as the Bantam 40BRC, Ford GP (General Purpose) and Willys MA, from each of the three companies, the definitive specification was drawn up by the Quarter Master Corps and all the relevant branches of the U.S. Army. Additions to the original specification were the ability to drive through water up to 18" deep, the possibility of fitting chains to the wheels and a carrying capacity of 800 lbs. There had to be a towing facility for towing either a ¼ ton, two wheel trailer or a 37 mm Anti-Tank gun. The normal 4x4 vehicle must have a maximum weight of 2100 lbs and the four wheel steering vehicle must not exceed 2175 lbs. The ability to climb a gradient in reverse was altered to 35 degrees.

The final testing carried out on the vehicles submitted by the three companies proved Willys to be an easy winner, in performance, price and delivery and a contract for 16,000 cars was given to them. It was possible now to decide what improvements or minor modifications could be made to the Willys MA, using standard parts, such as the 6volt battery, dynamo, air filters and blackout lighting already in use on other vehicles. The handbrake was moved from the drivers left to a central position and the steering column was revised. To give more headroom, the hood was modified by adding a second hoop.

At the request of the Army, an axe and a spade could be carried on the left hand side and a holder for a 5 gallon Jerrycan was added on the back. The fuel tank, situated under the driver's seat was increased in size to hold 15 gallons. The revised car was called the Willys MB.

No-one is sure how the little car came to be known as the 'JEEP'. Some believe that the name came from a small character 'Eugene the Jeep' seen in the Popeye cartoons. There is a claim that a Willys test driver named it the Jeep to differentiate between the Willys and Ford versions. But the most likely is that it came from the initials 'GP' (General Purpose). Wherever the name came from, it stuck and the car is instantly bought to mind when anyone mentions the JEEP.

Most of the production were sent to Britain, Russia or the Far East under the lease/lend programme and by October 1941, the demand outstripped the supply making it obvious that another supplier would have to be employed. The new contract went to Ford and it was agreed that Willys would supply them with the necessary drawings. These would be given the title of Ford GPW (GP-Willys). Bantam protested that they could have been included in the new contract, but the Quarter Master Corps rejected all protests from the company and confined them to the production of trailers only for the duration of WWII.

The total production of JEEPS consisted of 2,675 Bantam 40BRC, 277,896 Ford GPW and 361,349 Willys MB.

After the war it was discovered that Bantam did have the facilities for large quantity production. But it was too late and the Bantam company collapsed, to eventually become absorbed by American Rolling Mills in 1956. Bantam had put all the ground work into the conception of the tiny vehicle and had no benefit from their efforts.

The JEEP saw active service on many fronts, including the North Africa Campaign. It was adapted in many ways, from ambulance to running on railroad tracks. Smart of Detroit armour plated a prototype, but it was too heavy and got nowhere. It was also built as an amphibian and used in civilian guise as a flood vehicle. Several American Companies, including Crosley, Chevrolet and Kaiser tried to design a lightweight version for airborne duties, but they were too fragile. In England, Nuffield Mechanization Limited built a successful lightweight JEEP, but it became un-necessary as the war progressed and was not pursued.

At the end of hostilities in 1945, General McArthur left a huge quantity of 'War Surplus' JEEPS behind in the Philippines which were modified by people in Manila to become Jeepney's. These are extended exotically painted mini-buses that transport passengers along set routes for a minimum fee.

There was a rumour that Willys had been sued by Bantam after the war, for claiming the JEEP name and using it in their advertising. But this was not the case.

In 1943, the Federal Trade Commission ordered Willys to stop using the name because they were not entitled to it. But by the end of WWII, so many JEEPS had been built by Willys and Ford, using the 2.2 litre Willys engine, that Willys were able to use it unopposed. The first civilian JEEP was built by Willys in 1945 and they were granted the name for JEEP to become a marque in its own right in June 1950. It became Kaiuser-JEEP when Willys sold out to Kaiser in 1953, but when Kaiser lost money, they sold it to American Motors Corporation (AMC) in 1970.

Chrysler bought out AMC in 1987 and merged with Daimler Benz in 1998 to become Daimler Chrysler. JEEP now operates as part of the Chrysler Group LLC.

Information submitted by: Reg J. Prosser

Models produced by Jeep WWII

Related Links

Suggest a link relating to Jeep WWII

Related Contacts

Suggest a Contact relating to Jeep WWII