Is any vehicle better known than the military Jeep? Not likely, unless it’s the Ford Model T or Volkswagen Beetle. Not surprisingly, they’re similar in several ways. All were known for rugged construction, no-frills simplicity, and all-purpose dependability. And in the minds of their owners-or uniformed driversall had near-human personalities. These were more than just vehicles: they were friends.
The Jeep served beyond the call of duty during World War II on eastern and western front alike. Whether at Anzio or along the Burma Road, from South Pacific jungles to the shifting sands of North Africa, the Jeep was sure to be there, doing whatever was required-and more. It was conceived mainly for reconnaissance, but its service record was far more varied. Jeeps carried troops, both well and wounded, mounted guns, hauled supplies, guarded lines, delivered messages, and transported everyone from commanding generals and VIPs to rank-and-file GIs. Even President Roosevelt used one when reviewing the troops. Army chief of staff General George Marshall called it "America’s greatest contribution to modern warfare." Few who knew it disagreed.
Credit for the Jeep concept goes to American Bantam, the pioneering compact-car maker of 1936-41, which also developed the initial prototype and participated in wartime production. But the name is forever tied to Willys-Overland, which submitted a competing proposal and turned out the military version in huge numbers in 1941-45. Willys made only the chassis, however. Bodies came from outside suppliers. ‘
Willys’ first Jeep was the "Quad" prototype, delivered to Camp Holabird, Maryland, on Novevember 11, 1940. Finalized under company engineering vice-president Delmar G. "Barney" Roos, it was, per Army specifications, a lightweight, quarterton utility vehicle with four-wheel drive, and had a curved, snout-like front. After extensive testing, the basic design was accepted, and fullscale development began at the Willys plant in Toledo. The "Quad" was followed by a second prototype in 1941, the MA, created to counter alternatives from Bantam and Ford. Wearing a flat, vertical-bar grille and headlamps perched atop the front fenders, it rode an 80-inch wheelbase and measured 130 inches long. Power was supplied by the 134.2-cubic-inch L-head four from the 1941-42 Americar passenger models, churning out 63 horsepower. Willys built exactly 1577 of the MAs. Some time later, it turned to the eventual military version, designated MB. It was identical with the MA except for being two inches longer, weighing 2450 pounds, and having a fold-down windshield and headlights built into the front grille area. There were no doors, of course. By war’s end, Willys had turned out . 359,489 of them. Ford built another 227,000 under license.
The Jeep’s reputation as mainly a Willys creation is owed to company president Joseph Frazer. Though he had little to do with its design, he had plenty to do with its publicity, and helped the public forget that Ford was making them too. He even claimed to have coined the name-from G.P., "general purpose," the Army’s original description-though some insist it was borrowed from the "Popeye" cartoon character.
In all, wartime Jeep production was over 585,000 units. Military production would continue after the war, of course, but Willys wasted no time putting the concept in "civvies." First came a modified version dubbed CJ, for "civilian Jeep," followed in 1946 by an all-steel station wagon loosely based on the original design.
The military Jeeps were tough, versatile, and highly adaptable. But most of all they were loved. Bill Mauldin’s famous 1944 cartoon said it best, without words. Agrizzled, sadfaced sergeant, eyes covered with one hand, is aiming a pistol at his Jeep to put it out of its misery. Every military man and woman understood. But some may have wondered whether any Jeep was ever beyond repair. Surely it could be mended just one more time.