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The U.S. Army’s “Go Anywhere. Do Anything” vehicle and the race against time to develop it

The Jeep

Different variants of Jeep lined up on Gold Beach in Normandy

In the late 1930s, with war looming on the horizon in Europe, the U.S. Army needed to replace its aging inventory of light motor vehicles. On July 11, 1940, with Europe already dragged into war, the Army submitted a set of requirements to 135 automobile manufacturers for a light reconnaissance and utility vehicle. The requirements were demanding: 4-wheel drive, an 85 lb-ft torque engine, a crew of 3, a 660 lb (300 kg) payload, and a rather unrealistic empty weight of 1,300 lb / 590 kg (which later had to be revised). The deadlines were even worse: the Army wanted to receive bids in 11 days, a prototype in 49 days, and 70 test vehicles in 75 days.
 
Only three companies stepped forward: the American Bantam Car Company, Willys-Overland Motors, and Ford. Only the small Bantam promised to deliver the prototype and the test cars on time, so they received the bid, and produced the “Blitz Buggy” (BRC-60) or “Old Number One”, which became the father of the eventual Jeep. The prototype was tested at Camp Holabird, Maryland, in September 1940.

The Blitz Buggy, the first prototype
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Unfortunately for Bantam, they had neither the money nor the production capacity to build the cars on the scale the Army wanted, so Willys and Ford were encouraged to present their own prototypes for testing. In fact, the War Department forwarded the Bantam blueprints to the two companies, claiming to be its legal owner. This wasn’t actually true, but Bantam was in no situation to complain about it. After the pre-production runs, Willys presented the “Quad” and Ford the “Pygmy” models, both based on the blueprints but modified in various ways.
 
Willys delivered the prototype "Quad" (named after the 4x4 system) Willys MA (“military”, model “A”), to the U.S. Army on Armistice Day (Veteran's Day), November of 1940. Only two prototypes were made, with 1553 MA models produced until 1941. In 1942, the Willys “MB” took over, MB standing for "Military”, model “B". By the end of the war, a total of 335,531 were produced of this version. By July 1941, the War Department decided to settle on a single design. Thanks to its lower cost, silhouette and the powerful 60 horsepower Go Devil engine that made it popular with the troops, the choice fell on the Willys version. However, Willys-Overland couldn’t keep up with production demand, so Ford was contracted to produce the same design as well. Ford called its version the “GPW” because, in the Ford parts nomenclature, G stood for government-contract vehicles, P for an 80-inch / 203 cm wheelbase, and W for the design license that Ford secured from Willys. They produced 277,896 of it. Being completely cut out of the production, the original designer Bantam produced mostly jeep-trailers (around 74,000).

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Reenactors riding a Jeep on the main street of Bastogne

During the war, some 643,000 Jeeps were manufactured by the two companies, 51,000 of which were sent to the Soviet Union with the Lend-Lease Program, mostly Ford versions since troops preferred the Willys. Inspired by the famous DUKW amphibious truck, Ford also constructed 13,000 amphibious cars, the GPA, nicknamed Seep (Sea Jeep), but these proved too heavy and unwieldy. After using them in the Sicily landing, most were sent to the USSR, where they were popular for their ability to cross rivers.

An amphibious Jeep in Normandy

The Willys Jeep was a solid vehicle with a top speed of 65 mph / 110 km/h. Despite being designed for three passengers, it frequently carried up to a dozen men. Its original fording depth of 21 inches was later improved by special kits, and its headlight switch had a special lock on it to prevent the driver from accidentally turning it on and revealing the car’s location to the enemy. For better rigidity and mass production simplification, there were no doors. Between the two front seats, a pintle mount base was also welded on the floor, which could handle any kind of ordnance machine guns, and even a twin bazooka mount. The standard pintle mount was capable of a near-vertical elevation which gave the Jeeps fitted with M1920 cal.50 anti-aircraft capabilities.

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A single soldier transporting captured Luftwaffe personnel on a Jeep

The origins of the word Jeep remain shrouded in mystery. Most people believe it was a corruption of GP for “General Purpose”, but there’s no solid evidence for this. According to another claim, the nickname came from soldiers who named the car after Eugene the Jeep, an animal character from the Popeye comic strips. Yet another, perhaps more likely, theory points out that several other vehicles and pieces of equipment have also been called jeep unofficially. Army mechanics often used the word to refer to untested vehicles; the word was also used for small planes, helicopters and gadgets; and the Navy’s comparatively small escort carriers were sometimes called “jeep carriers.”

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Popeye and his companion, Eugene, the Jeep

We don’t know for sure where the word comes from, but we have a good idea of who made it popular: Irving “Red” Hausmann, a test driver at Willys-Overland. In early 1941, the company staged a publicity stunt in Washington D.C., driving a Jeep up the Capitol steps. A reporter asked Hausmann, who was there to drive around some dignitaries, what the vehicle was called. “It’s a Jeep” – he said, remembering some soldiers who had called it by that name on the test track.

The 1941 press event at the Capitol

Due to its reliability and sturdiness, it was used in almost countless variations: personal carrier, reconnaissance, anti-tank (with a twin-bazooka launcher), ambulance, communications vehicle, etc. Some of them had deep water fording kits, while others were equipped with snowplows or vertical wire cutter poles to prevent soldiers getting hurt due to taut-wire traps. Others were modified for special operations, such as glider-borne operations or we could also mention the jeeps modified by the British special forces unit, the Special Air Service (SAS), for their desert raids in Egypt.

The Jeep in anti-tank role with a twin-bazooka

Several leaders praised the Jeep for its excellent characteristics and importance. Let’s see a couple of them. General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff during WWII, and later U.S. Secretary of State, described the Jeep as "America's greatest contribution to modern warfare". General and later President, Dwight Eisenhower wrote that, according to most senior officers, the bulldozer, the Jeep, the 2,5-ton truck, and the C-47 airplane were the four most vital pieces of equipment to the Allies’ success. In 1991, the Jeep was labelled an "International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark" by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
 
In popular culture, the Jeep can be seen in countless movies ringing the bell to all generations from grandparents to grandchildren. For instance, in Pixar’s animated movie Cars, one of the main car characters, Sarge, modelled after the Willys Jeep, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and received the Medal of Honor for heroism. It wasn’t only Sarge who got decorated, since a real-life Jeep called Old Faithful was awarded an honorary Purple Heart after having served at Guadalcanal and Bougainville and having suffered several shots through its windshield.

Sarge, the Jeep in the movie Cars

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