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November 18, 2011

News & Features

War legend: At 70, the Jeep has a place in American history

The Detroit News

112011_1941_willys_jeep.jpg

The 1941 Jeep Willys MA was created for World War II as a lightweight troop mover. Almost 650,000 were made for the war. (Chrysler)

Born out of war
  • American Bantam Car Co. was one of just two companies -- out of 135 manufacturers solicited -- to bid on a contract to produce a new military vehicle as the U.S. prepared to go to war in 1940. Willys-Overland was the other company, but only Bantam was able to meet the government's 49-day deadline to build a prototype.
  • And yet -- possibly due to favoritism or bureaucratic infighting -- Willys-Overland and Ford won the government contracts to produce almost all of the nearly 650,000 Jeeps used in the war. The first were produced in 1941. At war's end, Willys emerged with the rights to the vehicle's design and trademarked the name.
  • Bantam survived by making military trailers, torpedo motors and aircraft landing gear before the company was bought out by what was then Armco Steel in 1956.
  • Willys merged with Kaiser Motors in the 1950s. The company later was purchased by American Motors Corp. before Chrysler bought AMC in the 1980s, largely to get its hands on the Jeep line.
  • Chrysler's official "Jeep History" credits Bantam with creating the earliest prototype, but says a version known as the Willys Quad "with modifications and improvements" was the vehicle that became the Jeep.
    -- The Associated Press


The Willys-Overland Jeep had a fast start. It was invented as the U.S. prepared to enter World War II, and nearly 650,000 were used by the time the war ended.

When the Americans took Sicily and Paris and crossed the Rhine, it was the Jeep that carried them. It quickly became a do-everything vehicle: troop hauler, supply carrier, ambulance and reliable best friend.

"Some have called the Jeep the single most important American influence in modern warfare," says Brandt Rosenbusch, manager of Historical Services at Chrysler, which owns Jeep.

Now, on its 70th birthday, Jeep is still running on all cylinders. The old version may live in nostalgia, but new Jeeps continue the tradition of terrain-eating capabilities while providing much more comfortable rides.

"Jeeps are the benchmark for off-roading," says Mike Manley, Jeep president. "They can go anywhere and do nearly anything."

This year, Jeep is offering 70th-anniversary editions of its entire lineup, including the flagship Grand Cherokee, The Detroit News Truck of the Year.

With quality improvements in construction and cabin design, the Jeep brand has opened up to new customers. According to New Jersey-based AutoData Corp., Jeep sales have climbed steadily this year, jumping 41 percent in the first quarter compared to last year. Every vehicle in Jeep's lineup has seen sales increase this year, with the Grand Cherokee up the most, 86 percent in the first quarter over the first three months last year.

It's easy to see, though, why the 1940s Jeeps continue to have passionate fans. Not only was its role in the war pivotal, the look became instantly iconic. Designed by American Bantam Car Co. (see sidebar), it was created to be a lightweight, all-terrain vehicle.

"It's not what you would call an invention like a light bulb. It's a design," says Bill Spear, a
Jeep enthusiast and expert on Bantam. "But that being said, it's one of the most enduring and original designs in automotive history."

Thumbnail image for 112011_1959_Jeep-CJ-6.jpg

(Chrysler)

How the Jeep got its name remains a mystery. It could have been derived from the military nomenclature "GP," for "general purpose," according to Jeep. It could have also earned the name from the Popeye character Eugene the Jeep, Rosenbusch says.

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