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The Jeep's History

Topics:  Jeep

The Jeep's History

Al Carl
February 13, 2006

While the Jeep is famous in its history of serving the US military there is some misunderstanding concerning who created the original Jeep. Many incorrectly attribute the development of the first Jeep to Willys. The true inspiration of the first Jeep design came from a small and relatively unknown company by the name of the American Bantam Car Company based in Butler, PA.

The American Bantam Car Company was first established as a subsidiary of the Austin Car Company, a British car manufacturer, and was originally called American Austin Car Company. Austin made a small and economical car called the Austin Seven, which was very popular in England. Unfortunately for the Austin Car Company, the Austin Seven never saw popularity here in the states and the American Austin Car Company nearly went bankrupt. It was eventually taken over by its Chairman who changed its name to the American Bantam Car Company (Bantam). Bantam took the original Austin Seven design and made a number of improvements. It was a slightly bigger version than its British cousin and was capable of longer drives.

The Bantam folks were pioneers and saw a need for a light military vehicle. They provided a few of their autos to the National Guard in an effort to sell the military on the use of such vehicles. The military finally realized a need for a light mobile vehicle and finally agreed to discuss a design with Banatm in 1940. The outcome of this meeting was a proposed military 4X4 hybrid that was to weigh less than 1300 pounds. In 1941 Bantam developed a Bantam Reconnaissance Car in response to the U.S. Army’s request for an all-purpose military vehicle. This vehicle ultimately became the prototype of the Jeep, which was later manufactured by Willys (Willys MB) and Ford (GPW).

The US military was concerned about Bantam’s ability to produce the necessary amount of vehicles and because of this they decided to offer other manufacturers the opportunity to produce the vehicle. The requirement was to design a vehicle and with the approval of the US military, the manufacturer was then to build and deliver a prototype within 49 days. With the military’s approval of the prototype, an additional 70 working rigs were to be delivered in 75 days. The required weight limit caused many manufacturers to turn away from the project with only Bantam and Willys participating initially, and Ford joining in later.

Bantam’s drawings were the closest to the military’s requirements even though their design had problems with the weight restrictions. The company completed their design and built and delivered the prototype on schedule. The military having tested the vehicle to its fullest was satisfied with the design and performance, and commissioned the additional 70 vehicles to be built. This is where the Military began to be concerned about Bantam’s ability to produce enough vehicles. The company was fairly small and had a limited capacity. What the military did was to grant Willys and Ford access to the trials of the Bantam prototype and to their actual designs, even though Willys failed to submit a prototype on time and Ford showed little interest in the endeavor up to that point in time. Both Ford and Willys were allowed to submit prototypes, the Quad (Willys) and the Pygmy (Ford), well outside the specified time frame and well above the required weight limit. Both the Ford and Willys versions “borrowed” quite a bit from Bantam’s design.

The Bantam vehicle, Bantam GPV (General Purpose Vehicle), was delivered on time, met the majority of the specifications, and performed well in the tests. By all accounts Bantam should have been awarded the contract, and there was a large controversy over how the contract was handled. The military, unfortunately for Bantam, identified strengths and weaknesses of each vehicle. The Bantam was to high off the ground and was underpowered, while the Quad was well over the weight limit but had a more powerful engine, and the Pygmy was underpowered and had suspect steering components but handled best of the three vehicles. The military still concerned about the capability of two of the companies, Bantam and Willys, decided to place an order for 1500 vehicles with each company producing 500, as long as they met the original specifications with the only change being an increase in the weight limit to a little over 2200 pounds.

All three companies took the best ideas from each other and from Bantam’s original production design to further develop their vehicles causing the 3 vehicles to be extremely similar. In mid 1941 the military decided that the 1500 vehicles should be of a standardized design and not three different types. They ultimately chose the Willys design due to its lower cost, and that version was adopted as the standard army vehicle. Willys went on to secure the contract to provide the next 16,000 Willys. This contract award called for a series of alterations to the design, which lead to the classic standard Jeep design.

Bantam continued to produce its production version, known, as the Bantam 40 BRC, but the US Army did not want it because it was non-standard. The already produced vehicles and the new production units were forwarded to the Russian and British armies. It is very interesting to note that after watching the testing trials the Russian military actually chose the Bantam over the Willys’ and Ford’s units. The eventual Willys’ design closely resembles the 40 BRC.

In the winter of 1941 the army wanted to develop a second source for the vehicle because Willys couldn’t keep up with production requirements and a wanted a safeguard against the possible sabotage at the one production facility. In November the US Army awarded Ford to build 15,000 jeeps to the Willys design and drawing. The Willys MB and the Ford GPW vary in minor details only as the military required that the parts be interchangeable. The GPW in the Ford model’s name was reference to G for government vehicle, P referred to its wheel base size, and the W was for designating that it had a Willys’ engine. The one change Ford made, which was adopted by the military as standard design, was the now all-familiar grill. With Ford now producing the jeep along with Willys, the military was able to provide the jeeps to its allies and production of the Bantam 40 BRC was discontinued.

Combined production of the Willys MB and Ford GPW during WW II was over 500,000. A total of 2,675 of the Bantam 40 BRCs were built. The company reportedly never produced vehicles again. The US military awarded Bantam contracts to build trailers as a way to make it up to them for not receiving the jeep contract.

So, who created the original jeep? Well historically this has seen a bit of controversy going back as far as 1943 when the Fair Trade Commission ultimately charged Willys with false and misleading advertising claims stating that Willys had created the Jeep. The court determined that the Jeep was fostered and conceived in Butler, PA, by the American Bantam Car Company. The primary designer who worked on the Jeep project for Bantam was Karl Probst, and, now you know who really created the first Jeep!

Jeep parts for the Willys MB and GPW are still available from web sites such as http://www.xtremeterrain.com .

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