In the late-1930s, the U.S. Army set out to define a list of specifications for the ultimate scout car. After testing various vehicles, including the American-made Bantam, the Army settled on a list of requirements. Among them were: four-wheel drive, a maximum weight of 1,300 lb., 85 lb-ft. of torque, and payload of 600 lb. The Army also delineated an aggressive production timeline — selected manufacturers would have 49 days to produce a working prototype.
Military decision-makers then waited with anticipation for American engineers to flex their ingenuity. Soon enough, it became clear that the specs and the timeline of the project were unrealistic. Of the 135 manufacturers that were invited to bid on the contract, only The American Bantam Car Company and The Willys-Overland responded.
Bantam’s bid for the Army contract was a sheer desperation play. The company was grappling with serious financial problems, to the point that there were no engineers on staff and manufacturing operations were closing down. With no in-house engineering resources, the company reached out to a freelancer named Probst . Probst, a patriot at heart, agreed to work without pay to design the new vehicle.
Bantam’s president, Frank Fenn, initially believed Probst’s work would be limited to modifying the existing Bantam car design. But a last-minute increase to the required horsepower dashed those hopes. When Fenn received the final list of specs on July 17, 1940, he gave Probst the bad news: “Our transmission won’t take it, our axles won’t take it, frame, suspension…We’ll have to jack up the horn button so you can design a new car under it!”
The bid deadline was fast-approaching, and Probst had just days to solve the problem. Since there was no time to reengineer parts, he needed to rely heavily off-the-shelf components. He immediately reached out to manufacturers to identify his options. One crucial deal he made was with Spicer to modify the axle used in the 65-hp Studebaker Champion to four-wheel drive.
In just two days, Probst had sketched out the framework for the Bantam Reconnaissance Car, also known less formally as the Bantam Blitz Buggy. This framework was the basis for America’s first Jeep
Bantam won the contract to produce the prototype, primarily because Willys-Overland couldn’t commit to the 49-day deadline. The resulting Bantam prototype met most of the Army’s requirements with the notable exception of weight. Weighing roughly 1,850 lb., the buggy prototype was nearly 550 lb. too heavy.
The Army put the buggy through rigorous testing and, moderately pleased with the results, allowed Willys-Overland and Ford to submit prototypes based on the Bantam design. None of the prototypes could meet the Army’s specified weight limit, which eventually prompted a change to this requirement. That change tilted the scales in favor of the Willys-Overland prototype, which was also too heavy, but significantly more powerful than the Bantam Reconnaissance Car.
Also working against Bantam was the company’s financial situation. The Army was concerned, and rightfully so, that Bantam would have trouble fulfilling the contract. Ultimately, Willys-Overland was selected to manufacture the new Army scout car. Later, Willys-Overland would share the specs with Ford so the two companies could share the
The Willys-Overland MB was the vehicle that eventually saw the battlefield, and it was the most versatile automobile the military had ever experienced. The MB is credited with modernizing warfare, thus inspiring General Dwight D. Eisenhower to conclude that “America could not have won World War II without it.” Reporter Ernie Pyle summed up the MB’s ample functionality as “It did everything. It went everywhere. Was as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, as agile as a goat.”
After the war, Willys-Overland filed a trademark application for the Jeep name and worked to repurpose the MB for civilian use. The transition was a logical one, given that the Jeep had already earned fame as a war hero. Test vehicles CJ-1 and CJ-2 evolved into the production model CJ-2A, which was launched to the civilian agricultural market in 1945. Three years later, Willys-Overland introduced the all-purpose CJ-3A, which is considered the country’s first off-road, recreational vehicle. CJ-3A innovations included a one-piece windshield and an upgraded transmission, transfercase, and rear axle. Five years later, the CJ-3B appeared with a larger engine that produced 25% more horsepower than its predecessor. The CJ-3B remained in production for 15 years.
By the time the CJ-5 arrived on the scene in 1955, Jeeps had won over the American consumer just as they had won over the military. The CJ-5 has the distinction of being one of the most popular Jeeps of all time, remaining in production for three decades.
Chrysler acquired the Jeep line and name in 1987 when it took control of American Motors Corp