War Often is the Mother of Invention
By Tom Morrow
World War II brought a number of innovations and inventions out of necessity to America. The original creation of the “Jeep” by Bantam Reconnaissance Car was just one of those innovations. However, the term “Jeep” was used for a variety of items long before World War II.
Today we know the World War II “Jeep” was a four-wheel drive vehicle for reconnaissance or other military duty. A term originally applied to and occasionally on other motor vehicles of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Army Air Corps. It also was used by the military as “any small plane, helicopter, or gadget.” The U.S. Navy’s term “jeep carrier” referred to small escort aircraft carriers supplying larger attack carriers during battle with replacement aircraft.
During World War I the U.S. Army used “jeep” as slang for new uninitiated recruits, or by mechanics referring to new unproven vehicles. In 1937, U.S. Army’s tractors supplied by the farm equipment manufacturer Minneapolis-Moline were called “jeeps.” The B-15 bomber, a precursor of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, also was referred to as a “jeep.”
When it became clear the United States would be involved in the European theater of World War II, the U.S. Army asked some 135 companies to create working prototypes for a four-wheel drive reconnaissance car, but only two firms responded: American Bantam Car Company and Willys-Overland. The Army set a nearly impossible deadline of 49 days to supply a working prototype. Because of the Great Depression Bantam had only a skeleton crew but asked freelance designer Karl Probst for help. On July 17, 1940, Probst began work without salary.
Probst basic plan was known as the “BRC” (Bantam Reconnaissance Car). The firm’s bid was submitted in five days. Because the War Department required a large number of vehicles in a short period of time, Willys granted the government a non-exclusive license to allow other companies to manufacture vehicles using Willys’ specifications. The Army chose Ford as a second supplier.
Final Jeep production versions were built by Willys and Ford with only subtle differences between the two. As the War continued the cost per vehicle trended upwards from the original price under Willys first contract of $648.74. Ford’s price tag was $782.59 per unit. Together, Willys-Overland and Ford produced some 640,000 Jeeps, which accounted for approximately 18 percent of all the U.S. wheeled military vehicles built during the War.
Jeeps were used by every service of the U.S. military. An average of 145 were supplied to every U.S. Army infantry regiment.
Jeeps were used for many purposes, including field ambulances, tractors, and, with wheels that would run on railway tracks. An amphibious jeep was built by Ford, but it could not be considered a success. As part of the “Lend-Lease” act, nearly 30 percent of all Jeeps produced were supplied to Great Britain and the Soviet Union.
After the War, the British designed their popular all-terrain “Land Rover” which was inspired by the Jeep. Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle called the Jeep, along with the Coleman G.I. Pocket Stove, “… the two most important pieces of non-combat equipment ever developed.”
Jeeps became even more famous following the war as they became available on the surplus market. Some ads claimed to offer “Jeeps still in the factory crate.” But Jeeps were never shipped from the factory in crates (although Ford did “knock down” Jeeps for easier shipping, which may have perpetuated the myth.
U.S. military personnel familiar with life in the Philippines will recognize the term “Jeepney” as a unique type of taxi or bus created by Filipino taxi drivers. The first “Jeepneys” were original U.S. military-surplus vehicles left behind following WWII and Filipino independence in 1946.
Many explanations of the origin of the word “jeep” have proven difficult to verify. The most widely held theory is the military designation GP (for Government Purposes or General Purpose) was slurred into the word Jeep in the same way the contemporary HMMWV (for High-Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle) has become the “Humvee.”
The “Jeep” brand has gone through many owners, starting with Willys-Overland, which filed the original trademark application for the “Jeep” brand name in February 1943. In 1945 Willys proceeded to produce the first civilian Jeep, copyrighting the name in 1946. Being the only company that continually produced “Jeep” vehicles after the war, in 1950, Willys was granted the name “Jeep” as a registered trademark.
Today, most of society recognizes the brand “Jeep” as just another automotive company. Manufactured by Fiat-Chrysler, Jeep vehicles are the result of that funny little military car Karl Probst designed as war clouds were gathering. Those small four-wheeled drive vehicles were a far cry from today’s sleek, modern family cars. Jeep has emerged as one of the more important war-time innovations that, in five days of July 1940, was quickly drawn up for the U.S. War Department. No one could have imagined what an impact Jeep would make on American military and society.