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The Elegant Jeep

Friday, April 9, 2010

The marvelous ‘sardine tin’ on wheels prospers still as one of the most influential designs in automotive history.

Come, let us praise one of the most elegant vehicles ever conceived and built.

The Jeep.

Born of war and now in its 70th year, its brilliant design has propelled it into a new century with an undiminished reputation. It is an engineering landmark, the epitome of functional simplicity, and yet nobody is entirely sure who designed it or gave it its name.

What eventually became the Jeep was originally conceived in the 1930s as a light, rugged “reconnaissance car” to provide speedy movement of key personnel and equipment in the rear and on the battlefield. The U.S. Army vaguely envisioned something bigger than a motorcycle, smaller than a truck, and undaunted by the most difficult terrain.

In the crucible of World War II, the Jeep’s possibilities quickly eclipsed its capabilities. Its versatility was more than matched by the imagination of the G.I.s who used it.

What it got, sometimes described as a “sardine tin on wheels,” became perhaps the most recognized automotive silhouette in the world and made “four-wheel drive” a household term. In the crucible of World War II, the Jeep’s possibilities quickly eclipsed its capabilities. Its versatility was more than matched by the imagination of the G.I.s who used it. The humble became the heroic.

The Jeep was a nimble and wide-ranging scout car, an indefatigable pack horse and much more. It became a platform for machine guns and bazookas, as well as a troop carrier, ambulance, and hearse. It could rapidly dig long furrows and lay electrical cable in them along jungle airfields. It was a snow plow, a power plant, an impromptu stove for field rations, and a source of hot water for shaving. It was a searchlight platform, a speaker’s podium, a reviewing stand, an air crew taxi, a mobile field headquarters and a chaplain’s altar. It carried water and ammo and fuel, and towed small artillery pieces into “unreachable” areas over inhospitable terrain. Its flat hood became a table for dining, poker, map reading, and field surgery. The Jeep seemed "purpose-built" for every purpose and equal to every task, whether calmly calculated behind the lines or desperately dictated in the midst of battle.

The Jeep was a snow plow, a power plant, an impromptu stove for field rations, and a source of hot water for shaving. It was a searchlight platform, a speaker’s podium, a reviewing stand, an air crew taxi, a mobile field headquarters and a chaplain’s altar.

General George C. Marshall called the squared-off little 2,337-lb. vehicle “America’s greatest contribution to modern warfare.” Close to 650,000 Jeeps were produced (by Willys-Overland and Ford Motor Co.) during World War II. And over the next 30 years of Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam, hundreds of thousands more Jeeps were built in various improved military models.

When World War II came to an end the Jeep’s warrior reputation was parlayed into peacetime popularity, giving birth to the concept of the off-road recreational vehicle and eventually its slightly more refined cousin, the sport utility vehicle. The war had not yet ended when, in July 1945, Willys-Overland began producing the CJ-2A (CJ for “Civilian Jeep”). During the postwar period the Jeep directly inspired a host of imitators all over the world including its two most legendary rivals—Britain’s Land Rover and Japan’s Toyota Land Cruiser.

The first Land Rover was conceived in 1947 as a replacement for a trusty but battered war surplus Jeep used on a Welsh farm by the brother of Rover Motors’ chief designer, Maurice Wilks. Indeed, the prototype was built on a Jeep chassis. Its Jeep-like body, paneled with aluminum-magnesium aircraft alloy, was first displayed at an auto show in Amsterdam in 1948. It quickly won the hearts, first of English farmers, then of sportsmen and adventurers all over the world.

The Jeep seemed purpose-built for every purpose and equal to every task, whether calmly calculated behind the lines or desperately dictated in the midst of battle.

In 1950, as the Korean War ignited nearby, Japan’s Toyota Motors was given an order by U.S. forces to build a vehicle to Jeep specifications. The eventual result was the Toyota BJ and FJ series of utility vehicles, slightly bigger and more powerful versions of the Jeep. They became popular as police vehicles and established a reputation for versatility and reliability. In 1954, aware of the growing reputation of Britain’s Land Rover, Toyota’s technical director came up with the name Rando Karuza—Land Cruiser—for Toyota’s “Jeep.” The Land Cruiser established a worldwide reputation for Toyota well before its cars. And, as was the case with the Land Rover, Jeep was deep in the Land Cruiser’s DNA.

Unfortunately, many of the exact details of the Jeep’s birth (and even exactly how it got its name) are lost in a mist of controversy, industrial rivalry, contract politics, lost records and fervid recollections involving the now-forgotten American Bantam Car Co., which basically invented the Jeep, and Willys-Overland and Ford, which ended up building it.

American Bantam people called it the ‘Blitz Buggy.’ But it soon became identified by a military slang word for anything or anybody that was untested, untried, or a bit odd to the eye—‘jeep.’

American Bantam, of Butler, Pennsylvania, had nursed the idea of “a small reconnaissance vehicle” through the late 1930s, effectively subsidized its development, and built the first prototype. Bantam had formerly built an American version of Britain’s little Austin Seven (a precursor of the compact car) and had struggled through the Depression trying futilely to interest Americans in smaller cars. But the Army was clearly interested in Bantam’s knowhow on small vehicles. It had informally tested one of American Bantam’s little mid-1930s roadsters as a candidate for military adaptation. Many ideas and a few prototypes had been studied, including some converted Ford pickup trucks and a motorized “machine-gun carrier,” a sort of wagon that carried two men in a prone position.

Harry Payne, American Bantam’s Washington lobbyist, had shepherded, goaded, and inspired the Army to translate its vague dream of a recon car into reality, hoping it would translate into some much-needed business for his company. The war in Europe had accelerated efforts at American preparedness. The Army was impressed with the rapid movement of German mechanized forces as they swept across Europe. It announced contract competition for its vehicle in June 1940, setting forth “characteristics” which might well have been written up by Bantam itself. The projected wheelbase and weight, for instance, were identical to that of a Bantam “Riviera” roadster.

Willys turned over all blueprints, specs, and patents to Ford. No money was involved. It was an unusual example of wartime cooperation.

Gathered at American Bantam’s Butler factory, north of Pittsburgh, was a group of ingenious seat-of-the-pants engineers, craftsmen, and inspired mechanics so typical of the early days of the automotive industry. One of them was Harold Crist, who had been an engineer in the heyday of the Stutz Motor Co. of Indianapolis, builders of the legendary, cutting-edge Stutz cars and racing cars.

Crist focused on the contract bid with two Butler-area natives, Ralph Turner and Chester Hemphling, both imaginative, resourceful, and highly skilled hands-on craftsmen/mechanics. The Army issued its formal bid request on July 11, 1940. Competitors were to submit final bids and detailed drawings by July 22, and have a prototype built for testing in 49 days. With the somewhat vague Army requirements and a single crude, almost childlike sketch to go on, the three men went to work.

Chrysler acquired AMC and the Jeep in 1987, and it continues today as one of the few bright spots for an ailing Chrysler Group, LLC.

Under Crist’s watchful eye, Turner and Hempfling fabricated some parts on the Butler factory floor and purchased others from the richly laden shelf of automotive products available in the American industry—axles from Spicer, a radiator from Harrison, a Continental four-cylinder engine, a Stromberg carburetor. Turner got steel from the neighboring Armco steel plant and personally cut, welded, and fashioned the sturdy box frame for the vehicle. At a Butler junkyard he bought two Chevrolet transmissions that he cut, welded together, modified, geared, and mated to a transfer case to provide four-wheel drive.

In a way, Crist’s team worked backwards, fashioning the vehicle almost ex nihilo, without a set of blueprints. Bantam draftsmen converted what they built into drawings. To meet the July 22 bid deadline, Bantam brought in a design engineer named Karl Probst, who took the mass of notes, parts orders, drawings, and photographs from Crist’s men and converted them into the official bid drawings. Working largely with Crist and a civilian consulting engineer from the Army, Probst completed these meticulous drawings in three days, finally giving shape on paper to one of the landmarks of automotive history. In the pre-computer days of slide rules and T-squares, it was a heroic task and one that led many people to later erroneously identify him as the “father” of the Jeep.

The appeal of the basic Jeep is visceral, profound, beyond explanation. Not even a Volkswagen Beetle is as instantly recognizable.

The result of all these feverish labors through the summer of 1940 was driven over mountainous two-lane roads to the Army testing site at Fort Holabird, Maryland, on September 23, arriving only a half hour before the bid deadline. Except for a slightly rounded hood and radiator cowl, it was the very image of the vehicle that would become a worldwide automotive icon. American Bantam people called it the “Blitz Buggy.” But it soon became identified by a military slang word for anything or anybody that was untested, untried, or a bit odd to the eye—“jeep.”

It is believed the term was made popular by cartoonist E.C. Segar, creator of Popeye “the sailor man.” In 1936 he had introduced into his comic strip “Eugene the Jeep,” a yellow creature about the size of a large dog and described as “a mysterious strange animal” from Africa. Popeye’s “jungle pet” had starred in several Popeye movie cartoons by 1940, delighting audiences with his antic genius, extraordinary powers of movement, and a one-word vocabulary—“Jeep, Jeep”—that quickly slipped into popular slang.

Ralph Turner, who drove the test vehicle to Fort Holabird, later recalled showing it off to an officer there and discussing what to call it. A sergeant standing among those surrounding the curious vehicle suggested “Jeep.” The name stuck. The Bantam entry proved itself in grueling tests at Fort Holabird. It was also studied by representatives of the other bidders, Ford and Willys, who took extensive notes, made sketches, and eventually got blueprints to help them build their prototypes.

As to the military originals of the Second World War, I have often seen veterans simply break into tears in the presence of a restored one.

Not surprisingly, by November the rivals had prototypes that were close copies of the ingenious Bantam design. In early 1941, all three makers were given orders to produce 1500 Jeeps for extensive field testing. But in July 1941, when the War Department decided to ramp up production, Willys got the contract, supposedly because of the superior performance of its “Go Devil” engine, a 60-horsepower four-cylinder that outclassed its rivals and would prove a legendary and durable performer on battlefronts across the world.

Willys was ordered to build 16,000 Jeeps, incorporating some of the features of the Ford and Bantam designs. The vehicle’s impact was immediate; the services were clamoring for it. As demand grew the War Department did not believe Willys could keep up with production. Without any real examination of its productive capabilities, little Butler-based Bantam was, perhaps unfairly, dismissed as being too small to build Jeeps in the numbers envisioned. In the fall of 1941, Army Quartermaster General E. B. Gregory asked Ford’s president, Edsel Ford, to have his company build Jeep clones. Ford was rich with military contracts, but Edsel agreed. Willys turned over all blueprints, specs, and patents to Ford. No money was involved. It was an unusual example of wartime cooperation.

What eventually became the Jeep was originally conceived in the 1930s as a light, rugged ‘reconnaissance car’ to provide speedy movement of key personnel and equipment in the rear and on the battlefield.

Both companies turned out what had essentially been the Bantam design with some Willys improvements. Major changes besides the Go Devil engine were the characteristic squared-off front end and famous flat hood instead of the more rounded one on the Bantam original. Ford came up with a cheaper, stronger pressed steel grille to replace the welded iron one on the Willys models. This slotted grille became one of the most instantly recognizable Jeep features and continues to this day. The only real difference between the early Willys and Ford production models was the respective companies’ names discreetly stamped in the steel on the left rear panels of the vehicles. But the War Office soon ordered this “free advertising” eliminated.

Bantam got a few war contracts, including building two-wheeled trailers for the Jeep. It went out of business in 1945 when the contracts dried up. Ford tried to secure rights to the word “Jeep” after the war. It sued Willys but lost. Willys won the undisputed trademark for one of the best known brand names in the world in 1950.

The Jeep kept Willys alive at least for a while amid the savage auto industry competition of the late 1940s and early ’50s. Willys was acquired by Kaiser Motors in 1953, which became Kaiser Jeep in 1963, a name change that reflected the fact that Jeep was carrying the company. American Motors Co. swallowed up Kaiser and the Jeep business in 1970. Chrysler acquired AMC and the Jeep in 1987, and it continues today as one of the few bright spots for an ailing Chrysler Group, LLC.

As was the case with the Land Rover, Jeep was deep in the Land Cruiser’s DNA.

The Jeep in its original, basically square four-seat design has roared on through its seventh decade, surviving corporate collapses and changing automotive tastes. Although Jeep has built a raft of vehicles—the huge Commander SUV, popular Grand Cherokee and Liberty, and the smaller Patriot and Compass—it is the basic Jeep, now called the Wrangler, which continues as a bestseller. Last year, a dismal year for Chrysler Group and the whole industry, sales of the basic Jeep (82,044) were off only 3 percent from the previous year while the other Jeep models were off from 32 to 54 percent and Chrysler sales as a whole were off 36 percent.

The appeal of the basic Jeep is visceral, profound, beyond explanation. Not even a Volkswagen Beetle is as instantly recognizable. Older Jeeps continue to be recycled through new bodies, new engines, giant wheels and tires, hard tops, soft tops, no tops. They become dune buggies, beach buggies, ball buggies on golf driving ranges, and windshield-down stump jumping go-to-hell cars. They do everything but die. As to the military originals of the Second World War, I have often seen veterans simply break into tears in the presence of a restored one.

The Smithsonian Institution has one of the Bantam originals, and there’s one in a museum in Butler, Pennsylvania. A handful of others have survived in the loving hands of enthusiasts to show up in the occasional parade or military vehicle collector’s show. They are always rather disarming to see, so plain, so businesslike, so small. And yet, somehow—perhaps because of all the history they evoke and the now-forgotten names of the men who gave birth to a legend 70 years ago—so awesome.

Ralph Kinney Bennett writes the Automobility column for THE AMERICAN.

FURTHER READING: Bennett recently discussed the American love affair with trucks in “Truckin,’” commemorated “The Passing of Pontiac,” and explained how the compact car revolution began in “Small Car, Big Shadow.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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