ENGINEER ACCEPTS CHALLENGE TO DESIGN LEGENDARY JEEP

Detroit, Michigan July 17, 1940

As war clouds gathered over Europe in the late 1930s, the U.S. Army asked Amer­i­can auto­mobile manu­fac­turers to tender sug­gestions to replace its aging light-motor vehicles, mostly motor­cycles and side­cars but also (incred­i­ble as it seems) some Ford Model Ts. As early as 1937–1938, seve­ral proto­types were pre­sented to Army offi­cials. How­ever, Army require­ments were not for­mal­ized until July 11, 1940, when 135 U.S. auto­mo­tive com­panies were approached to quickly sub­mit a design con­forming to the Army’s specifi­ca­tions for an inex­pen­sive, robust, four-wheel-drive recon­nais­sance or command vehicle.

On this date, July 17, 1940, a talented free­lance designer from Detroit, Michi­gan, accepted the chal­lenge. Five days later Karl Probst sub­mitted a bid, com­plete with blue­prints. A proto­type, dubbed the “Blitz Buggy,” was hand-built in 49 days by the Amer­i­can Ban­tam Car Com­pany of Butler, Penn­syl­vania, mostly using existing off-the-shelf auto­mo­tive parts. Tested in Septem­ber at the Army’s motor research and develop­ment facility out­side Balti­more, Maryland, the vehicle failed only to meet engine torque criteria.

The blueprints, which the govern­ment claimed it owned under terms of the award, were turned over to Willys-Over­land and Ford Motor Com­pany. Both com­panies made design modi­fi­ca­tions, though the resulting proto­types looked simil­ar to Probst’s “Blitz Buggy.” The War Depart­ment, requiring a large num­ber of vehicles to be manu­fac­tured in a rela­tively short time, granted Willys-Overland the pro­duc­tion con­tract to build the nearly 11‑ft long, 4‑cylinder vehi­cle for $648.74 apiece. Ford, licensed to manu­fac­ture the vehi­cles using Willys’ speci­fi­ca­tions, produced 56 per­cent of all Jeeps made. Between them, Willys-Over­land and Ford pro­duced about 640,000 of the legen­dary general purpose (GP) vehicles, a number repre­senting about 18 per­cent of all wheeled mili­tary vehi­cles built in the U.S. during World War II. (Poor Bantam was contracted to build the light trailer pulled by Jeeps.)

“The world’s greatest fighting machine” saw ser­vice as scout vehicles, commu­ni­ca­tions vehicles, resupply vehicles, staff cars, and battle­field ambu­lances, among other utility chores. Versatile and rugged, these vehicles could trans­port 5 soldiers, carry 800 pounds of cargo, or tow a 37mm anti­tank gun. Typically, U.S. Army infantry regi­ments were out­fitted with 149 Jeeps. In 1944 infantry glider regi­ments had 24 Jeeps and parachute regi­ments had 17, providing much-needed transport and weaponry behind enemy lines.





U.S. and German Military General Purpose Vehicles

Bantam No.1 "Blitz Buggy" Bantam’s BRC40 4x4 Light Reconnaissance Vehicle

Left: The Bantam No.1 “Blitz Buggy,” the test vehicle delivered to Camp Hola­bird, Mary­land, on Septem­ber 23, 1940. “Old Number One” was the first vehicle of a 70‑vehicle con­tract between the U.S. Army and the American Bantam Car Company.

Right: The BRC40 4×4 Light Recon­nais­sance Vehicle, the final evo­lu­tion of the Bantam design. Bantam built 2,765 of these nimble BRCs (Bantam Recon­nais­sance Cars), of which more than half went to the British Army, while some were sent to the Soviet Union. The term “Jeep” made its first appear­ance in print in late Febru­ary 1941, after Willys-Over­land staged a press event of its general pur­pose (GP, pro­nounced “jeep”) ascending the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

Willys MA, Desert Training Center, Indio, CA, June 1942 Eisenhower in Jeep, December 1944

Left: Willys MA Jeep at the Desert Training Center, Indio, Cali­for­nia, June 1942. Most MA Jeeps were sent to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease pro­gram. Indeed, the Soviets and the British were recipients of nearly one-third of all Jeeps built. Willys made its first 25,000 1/4‑ton, 60‑hp MB Jeeps (for­mally, Truck, 1/4 ton, 4×4) with a welded flat iron “slat” radi­ator grille. It was Ford that first designed and imple­mented the now fami­liar and dis­tinc­tive stamped, slotted steel grille into its Jeeps. MB Jeeps were given other modi­fi­ca­tions, among them longer wheel­bases, 6×6 drive trains, skis, armor plating, rail­way wheels, and pedestal mounts for various weapons, usually .30 or .50 caliber machine guns.

Right: Allied Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower behind the wheel of a Jeep, Decem­ber 1944. Often referred to as “the war­time limou­sine,” the Jeep trans­ported every­one from royalty to presi­dents and prime minis­ters, to gene­rals and pri­vates. Eisen­hower remarked, “The Jeep, the Dakota (Douglas C‑47 Sky­train) air­plane, and the landing craft were the three tools that won the war.” U.S. Army chief of staff Gen. George C. Marshall called the Jeep America’s greatest contribution to modern warfare.

Ernie Pyle and Jeep, Okinawa, April 1945 Kübelwagen, Eastern Front, June 1943

Left: War correspondent Ernie Pyle (seated) and jeep driver, Oki­nawa, April 10, 1945, ten days before Pyle’s death on the island. “Good Lord,” Pyle said, “I don’t think we could con­tinue the war with­out the jeep. It does everyt­hing. It goes every­where. It’s as faith­ful as a dog, strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It con­stantly carries twice what it was designed for, and keeps on going. It doesn’t even ride so badly after you get used to it.”

Right: A German Type 82 Kuebelwagen (literally, tub or bucket car) on the Eastern Front during Germany’s Opera­tion Cita­del, June 21, 1943. In Janu­ary 1938 the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) approached renowned designer Ferdi­nand Porsche of Volks­wagen Type 1 fame about designing an inex­pen­sive, light-weight, on- and off-road mili­tary trans­port vehicle, suggesting that his Volks­wagen Kaefer (we know it today as the Beetle) could provide the basis for such a vehicle. Full-scale pro­duc­tion of the Kuebel­wagen started in Febru­ary 1940, over a year before Willys and Ford began delivering Jeeps to the U.S. Army in the spring of 1941. Between 1940 and 1945, 50,435 of these reli­able and dur­able German vehicles with their rear-mounted, air-cooled engines were pro­duced, including a Schwimmwagen version.

“Autobiography of a Jeep,” a 1943 Film Narrated by a Talking Jeep


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