December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
If somehow a car could have dog-face drawn into its very styling, it was the Jeep, a homely hero that became one of the most vivid symbols of World War II. Just a very practical vehicle, it had little to do with the great issues of the war but rather had a great deal to do with the soldier’s lot, his work, and his days.
Designed in peacetime as a reconnaissance car, the wartime Jeep was a little showoff, ever awaiting the job that it could not do. It was only forty inches tall and weighed about twenty-two hundred pounds so that it could be set right by just two men if it overturned. With four-wheel drive and six forward speeds (two reverse), a Jeep could climb sixty-degree hills and cruise at a top speed of sixty miles per hour. It was intended to carry three people; four in a pinch, and six in an emergency. The accessories it had addressed the heated concerns of life at the front: a pole on the front, for instance, protected passengers from decapitation by breaking through wires stretched across roadways.
Development of the vehicle that would evolve into the Jeep began as far back as 1932, when the Infantry Board, needing a reconnaissance car to replace the motorcycle, ordered an American Austin roadster for field tests. The request was denied; cars were not in the Army budget that year. (The War Department later made a special dispensation and allotted $286.75 to buy the car.) By 1940, however, Adolf Hitler’s blitzkrieg was overwhelming countries with armies that were bigger and much better equipped than ours. On July 25, 1940, the reconnaissance-car project became a priority as the American Bantam Car Company, formerly American Austin, received a contract to design and build a demonstration model. When the president of Bantam called his project engineer, Karl Probst, he was so excited that he couldn’t help shouting everything, even the bad news, signing off with “And it’s gotta be delivered in forty-nine days!”
The joke around the plant was that the engineers started with a horn button and designed a car around it. Actually Probst started with a Bantam roadster frame and fitted it with heavy-duty components from independent suppliers. It was a masterly job of practical engineering, one that should have taken a major auto company six or eight months to complete, but Probst finished a plan in three days. The Bantam staff sweated out the details and hand-built an example. On the forty-ninth day, with a half-hour to spare, Probst delivered it to the Holabird Quartermaster Depot in Baltimore. It survived thousands of miles in testing there and, for a finale, climbed out of a mud lake, carrying two generals and a colonel. The Army christened it a “quarter-ton four-by-four” and tried to ignore the dozens of nicknames that instantly attached to it. The only one that stuck, of course, was “Jeep.”
After further tests the Quartermaster Corps placed orders for forty-five hundred Jeeps with Ford, Willys, and Bantam, at about $950 each. With that, the vehicle began to draw serious attention in Washington, hardly the same city that had once fussed over a single check for a single car. Indeed, the federal government would spend more than a billion and a half dollars on motor transport from 1940 to 1942. Walls of alliance formed between various government agencies and automakers competing for contracts, making a maze out of Jeep procurement. Bantam got lost in the turns and angles, while Willys-Overland persevered and was awarded the first major Jeep contract in July 1941.
The case was a mirror of the new Washington: tightly wrapped in secrets, polished by both greed and good intentions, and moving very quickly. Willys and Ford split ensuing orders and made an excellent job of producing more than 630,000 vehicles through 1945. After the war Willys produced Jeeps for the civilian market, a model run that has continued ever since. (Today’s Jeep, built by Chrysler, is bigger, safer, and more comfortable than ever, though it retains the rugged insouciance of the original.)
It was versatility that made the wartime Jeep a reflection of the everyday life of the soldier, testing his ingenuity or his desperation. According to the quartermaster general, the Jeep had over fifty official jobs, from direct combat to the Medical Corps. In North Africa a story went around about a French guard who watched four men in American uniforms walk up to his encampment. They showed identification, asked to pass, and he shot them all dead. A search showed that they were indeed Nazis in disguise. “Americans arrive in Jeeps,” the Frenchman muttered. During the euphoria of the liberation of Paris in the autumn of 1944, a Jeep full of American soldiers was seen backing down the steps of the Opéra Métro station. Then it climbed up and out again as passing Parisians, jaded though they were by years of occupation, stared in astonishment. It was a celebration. The Jeep could do that too.