Today’s popular Jeep Wrangler did not start out as a mainstream recreational vehicle. As the world watched Germany’s Hitler conquer neighboring nations in the late 1930’s, America preemptively began looking at ways to beat Hitler’s aggressive war machine in Europe. The Jeep was born from a request of United States military leaders who needed a light reconnaissance 4×4 vehicle for the conflict in Europe and northern Africa. Karl Probst, lead engineer at the now defunct American Bantam Car Company, rose to the challenge and succeeded in meeting a 49 day deadline to produce a prototype vehicle in 1940. Out of over 100 other automobile manufacturers that were asked to submit ideas, only Ford and Willys-Overland Motors also contributed vehicles for consideration based on Bantam’s design. Willys-Overland became an early frontrunner favored for their simple design and easy maintenance. During a difficult test-drive up the Capitol steps in Washington, D.C. in 1941, a bystander asked Willys-Overland test driver “Red” Housman what the odd little vehicle was called and he replied, ‘It’s a Jeep’ (Allen 17). An American icon was born and branded. Three American automobile makers, Willys-Overland, Ford and Bantam, entered into contracts with the military for mass production and “the problems the military had identified may have had their roots in Europe, but the solution would come from Butler, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., and Toledo, Ohio” (Foster 35). All three companies reworked the original design for the military including improving engine power and streamlining the manufacturing process. American citizens have pride in the heritage of this invention, “because Jeep is by any measure the most American of all vehicles” (Foster 5). With professional ingenuity, creative design, and torturous testing, the United States military developed a light-weight vehicle with multiple purposes. Even after the success of World War II, automobile manufacturers began to build the Jeep brand for veterans and non-veterans alike. Not only was the Jeep a trendy vehicle for Americans, but it was also a workhorse for soldiers returning from war to reenter the national labor force. The Jeep had become so popular after the war, that the Willys-Overland sales slogan was “The Sun Never Sets on the Mighty Jeep” claiming there were enough American-made Jeeps spread across the world that at least one was always covered in sunshine (Jacobs 12). Over the past 60 years, “this simple four-letter word [Jeep] has been a symbol of everything good about America” and “has become an integral part of American culture” (Allen 7). A few years after the Second World War, five-star General Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president. In his autobiography, he recalls, along with a few other pieces of equipment, the Jeep as “among the most vital to our success in Africa and Europe” (Eisenhower 164). The invention of the American Jeep, born out of necessity with aggressive mobility, simple maintenance and diversified utility, helped the Allied Forces defeat Hitler’s Third Reich in Europe during WWII.
Aggressive mobility, one of three unique characteristics of the Jeep that helped win the war, allowed it to outmaneuver the motorcycles and tanks of Germany’s forces. US military commanders asked for a general purpose, personnel, or cargo carrier, 1/4-ton 4×4 truck especially adaptable for reconnaissance or command. This unprecedented vehicle was “combat-ready, with a low profile and a high ground clearance” (Jacobs 12). The Jeep’s final design allowed passengers and cargo to travel across rough ground during harsh European winters. The Jeep “could travel well in snow or mud, desert and jungle” allowing the Allied Forces to advance or retreat quicker than the German equipment (Jacobs 12). Furthermore, to help meet the weight limitations of the military specifications, a smaller four cylinder engine was connected to the versatile 4×4 transmission. The Willys-Overland’ ‘Go-Devil’ four cylinder engine produced 105 pound-feet of torque, 20 more than either Bantam or Ford (Jeep: American Icon). The engine was quick, powerful and durable. The successful, rigorous testing by US military officials solidified the exclusive Jeep vehicle as a primary component in the European battlefields during World War II.
Secondly, simple maintenance of the Jeep allowed quick repairs and fast deployment into the European battles against Hitler. Barney Roos, Willys-Overland’s chief engineer, stated that the Jeep was “purely a combat vehicle, designed with simplicity” (foster 63). This uncomplicated design included interchangeable parts that were manufactured by Bantam, Willys-Overland, and Ford. Multiple production facilities in the US allowed for quick parts replacement for the Jeeps across the ocean. Surpluses of axles, transfer cases, engine components and metal panels kept the Jeep ready for battle. Army specifications asked for “a simple body” (Allen 15) and the flat body panels were designed for quick and easy replacement under combat conditions (Jacobs 12). Any soldier, under combat stress, could replace damaged exterior panels with ease and speed. The Jeep could even be tipped over on their side to work on them (Jeep: American Icon). Working on a Jeep was not limited to male soldiers. Many female mechanics were photographed during the war servicing the various mechanical components of the engine and transmission (Foster 64). Jeeps were assembled here in the states, shipped in crates to their destination, and a soldier would install the tires and drive away. American ingenuity created a simplistic vehicle, capable of quick repairs, to help Allied Forces to confront the aging and bulky German machines.
Finally, Allied Forces used the Jeep’s distinctive and diversified utility to overcome Hitler’s armies. Nothing like the Jeep existed before 1940 in terms of a 4×4 ¼ ton truck (Allen 12). The Jeep had a windshield that folded down flat, a soft convertible fabric top, with later versions having a removable hard top configuration, and seating for three with a machine gun mount (Allen 15). No other vehicle in its debut could perform the actions of a Jeep with its original purpose as a reconnaissance car. Along with “military-utility roots” (Jacobs 7), the Jeep could also “go anywhere, carry a fairly impressive load…communicate, deliver, and fight” (Man and Jeep). Additionally, the Jeep could be used for:
the soldier’s mascot, servant, burden hauler, weapons carrier, supply truck, mail van…altar for serving Mass…tow planes…mobile Control Towers…dig trenches for telephone lines…work water pumps at wells…source of hot water [radiator] for a comfortable shave. (Foster 59-60)
The Jeep could also be configured into other purposes. For example, a floating version by Ford, called “The GPA Amphibian,” was a short-lived idea that did not get any traction (Sessler 11). After the war, soldiers were still fond of the Jeep and looking for jobs. Willys-Overland invested heavily in adapting the Jeep to farming and called it the ‘AgriJeep’ (Allen 50). A P.T.O. (Power Take-Off) was added to the Jeep’s transmission allowing farmers to utilize certain agricultural equipment. Although most of the utility items are not found in the modern-day Jeep Wrangler, the original Jeep’s purpose overcame the outdated equipment of Hitler’s army.
The Allied Forces, with the help of a new vehicle called a Jeep, defeated Hitler’s armies in Europe during World War II. Jeep’s small lightweight 4×4 drive-train provided assertive mobility and superior combat posture. With simple maintenance like interchangeable parts and easy access to the engine compartment, the Jeep outlasted any of Hitler’s war-damaged equipment. Jeep’s multiple purposes allowed manufacturers to mass produce one single small vehicle outnumbering Hitler’s bulky and clumsy military convoys. The invention of the Jeep “revolutionized mechanized warfare” (Foster 61). No one knew the level of importance the Jeep would be to winning the war and to influencing American culture. Maj. Lawes stated, “I believe this unit will make history” (Foster 51). Moreover, Gen. George C. Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, called it “America’s greatest contribution to modern warfare” (Foster 62). Allied Commanders loved the Jeep, soldiers used the Jeep to its fullest potential and civilians bough the Jeep after the war. If a vehicle ever deserved a medal, the Jeep would be first in line (Allen 32). The popularity of the military Jeep continued into the civilian models including the Wrangler. Buyers all over the world fell in love with the brand. Jeep quickly became the most recognized trademark around the world (Sessler 5). Farmers used them to plow fields, father’s bought them for family use, fighters returning from the war bought them for nostalgia. Jeep is the “favorite recreational vehicle of off-roaders & weekend outdoor adventurers, and is a uniquely American symbol of rugged go anywhere, do anything, individuality” (Jeep: American Icon). From its earliest military roots to its legendary global popularity, the Jeep carries the American banner and displays it proudly.
Allen, Jim. Jeep (Collector’s Library). St. Paul: MBI Publishing, 2004.
Eisenhower, Dwight D. Crusade in Europe. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1948.
Foster, Patrick R. The Story of Jeep. 2nd ed. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2004.
Jacobs, David H. Sport Utility Vehicles: The Off-Road Revolution. New York: Todtri, 1998.
“Jeep: American Icon.” A CARography. Fine Living Channel. Episode 309.
“Man & Jeep.” Discovery Times. Discovery Channel. 14 Oct 2006.
Sessler, Peter C. Jeep: 1941-2000 Photo Archive. Hudson, WI: Iconografix, 2000.