LAST year, 4X4 Australia named the Willys Jeep the most significant 4x4 of all time. Here, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Historian (FCA) Brandt Rosenbusch sheds some light on what makes it so special.
The US Army’s WWII Jeep is most commonly known as the Willys-Overland MB, or the Ford GP. It’s named after the two companies that produced the majority of Jeeps during the war, though its design owes far more to the army than any single car company. Of the several car companies involved in its design, the American Bantam Car Company deserves most credit.
In the early days of its design and development it wasn’t even called a Jeep, that name came about later. Even to this day, arguments continue as to where the name originated. The Jeep name wasn’t officially registered until 1950 when Willys-Overland claimed it on the grounds it had produced more Jeeps during the war than anyone else.
The Jeep story starts in 1938, when the US was looking to modernise its military. It put out hundreds of tenders covering a diverse range of military vehicles and equipment, one of them being for a Command Reconnaissance Vehicle. The Army set down very strict guidelines on weight, size, engine power and performance. It also had to have 4WD.
So tough were the Army’s demands that the original prototypes put up by Bantam and Willys-Overland – and later by Ford – were rejected. More prototypes came and went with complaints the Army secretly shared blueprints between bidders, and after a string of redesigns what was roughly the final iteration was settled on by mid-1941. At the core of the design was a separate chassis and live axles at both ends, carried on leaf springs. This became the blueprint for 4x4 design for many years to come.
During the war, Jeeps served as much more than reconnaissance vehicles and did everything the US and Allied militaries asked of it, and then some. They were used as supply vehicles, machine gun mounts, troop carriers, and for towing everything from guns to planes. Hitched together and fitted with steel wheels, they hauled railroad rolling stock when there wasn’t a locomotive to do the job. But more than anything else, the Jeep, as Roothy so succinctly puts it, “was absolutely incredible off-road”.
The Jeep’s wartime versatility ensured its civilian success in post-war USA with returning US soldiers singing its praises. In the words of Ron Moon: “The Jeep began the world’s love affair with lightweight 4x4 vehicles.”