The American Jeep is recognised as the first mass-produced 4×4 dating back to 1941 when the US military needed light reconnaissance vehicles for WW2 with 4×4 drive, but did you know its roots go back to an English designer Sir Herbert Austin who’s 1922 Austin 7 car was exported to all corners of the globe. The Americanised Austin 7 was made originally by the company Butler in Pennsylvania who found great success until the
depression caused bankruptcy in 1934 allowing Roy Evans an Austin salesman to buy the company renaming it American Bantam Motors.
Roy changed the engine to avoid paying royalties to Austin making his version more durable and powerful, forever the salesman, he hired a lobbyist, retired Navy Commander Harry Payne to engage the US Army Quartermaster Corps (QMC) to order the Bantam Roadster as its first motorised vehicle. Harry knew that the British Army had purchased two Austins’ in 1932 as scouts and by 1937 a British infantry captain had reconfigured the Austin to become small and lightweight (just 1,000lb) with mountings for a machine gun, plus a four wheel drive vehicle.
Harry loaned two Roadsters to the QMC for evaluation in 1938 but the small tires and 2wd system meant the trucks got stuck. Not to be defeated in 1940 Harry Payne then went to Senator Harry Truman, an avid campaigner against Military inefficiencies and under his watchful eye again two more Roadsters were loaned to the QMC, this was the turning point. The military needed reconnaissance vehicles and on 11th July 1940 they requested bids from 135 vehicle manufacturers for a recon vehicle that must have a 75in wheelbase, weigh just 1,200lbs, capable of 85lbs of torque and carry 660lbs, only three companies submitted bids within the permitted 22 days, American Bantam, Ford and Willys-Overland.
Bantam could provide the pilot vehicle within the required 49 days and the 70 prototypes for evaluation in 75 days for a unit price of $1166. Ford bid $1200 but had no plans or ideas in place, as did Willys-Overland who bid $739 per unit but Roy Evans of Bantam also held the controlling interest in Willys-Overland having organised a syndicate back in 1935 to save the company from bankruptcy.
Bantam hand built its pilot vehicle the Blitz Buggy with a 20 hp engine and a three-speed gear box, two technicians then volunteered to drive the Blitz Buggy the 450 miles to Camp
Holabird to meet the bid dead line. Unfortunately for Roy Evans the military then handed over all technical drawings to Willys and Ford as well as allowing the competing companies access to the Blitz Buggy for photos and examination. This permitted the Ford Pygmy and the Willys Quad to be submitted for consideration in the November even though they were three months late and both cars were considerably overweight but Henry Ford had considerable influence and was not going down without a fight forcing the QMC to revise it weight requirement on numerous occasions from the original 1,200lbs to over 2,000lbs.
Both were initially dismissed ,as the Willys Quad proved of poor quality & reliability, the Ford was dismissed because Henry Ford was openly sympathetic to the Nazis supplying them with trucks, in later years he tried to sue the USA Government for damage to his European factories damaged by the war!
Bantam had Vice President Harry Miller famed for his Indianapolis racing and his chief engineer Harold Christ on board who had already designed and built racing cars solving most of the requirements demanded by the military, this
enabled Bantam to place a second bid named the BRC60 in the December. Willys also submitted a second bid the MA, powered by a 2.2ltr Go-Devil engine with 60hp and 105lbs of torque, this engine was used in Jeep until 1950, the MA (Military/ model A) was 240lbs lighter then it’s original bid with the Quad.
On the 20th February 1941 Willys held a press conference and as a publicity stunt ferried congressman, senators and reporters up and down the US Capital Buildings steps, when a reporter asked the name of the vehicle the Willys employee replied ‘we call it Jeep’, this was the military’s mechanic’s term used for all test vehicles so that was the name reported in the newspapers.
This publicity stunt forced the hand of the QMC and in March 1941 they issued contracts to all three companies Ford, Bantam and Willys to each provide 1,500 vehicles. By July 1941 the order was placed for 16,000 units to Willys because their unit price was the cheapest per unit. Shortly after the QMC needed a second assembly plant to build a further 15,000 Jeeps so awarded the contract to Ford at a higher cost per unit then paid to Willys, on the condition the Willys specifications and Go-Devil engine were used. Ford labelled their version GP (Government/Passenger) and did however give the Jeep a face-lift by designing the seven slot grill making it possible for the headlights to be inserted rather then mounted and flattened the bonnet, this proved to be more cost effective so Willys assumed the new design giving birth to the Willys MB (Military/B model).
Roy Evans left Bantam by the end of the war to concentrate on Willys and the promotion of the Jeep now produced for the civilian market and code C, but by 1953 had to sell Willys Overland to Kaiser Motors who renamed the company Willys Motors concentrating on export and worldwide licensing deals, by 1963 the company name changed again to Kaiser-Jeep Corporation dropping the Willys name and identity completely. 1970 saw again a change of ownership for the Jeep when Kaiser sold their auto business to American Motors Corporation (AMC). This proved to by a step to far for AMC with mandatory design changes due to new legislation forcing product costs up they were forced to sell shares of the company to Renault by 1979 and again in 1983. The final change of ownership for Jeep happened in 1987 when Chrysler Corporation brought AMC, they dropped the CJ reference, redesigned the look and called it the Wrangler.
We all know the rest …