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Archive 19
The Willys Jeep

The four-wheel-drive Jeep has a most fascinating
history having been built by a host of manufacturers,
including one in France.

Way back in the spring of 1944 the vast majority of wheels on the roads in the Wessex region were attached to military vehicles, mostly belonging to allied forces who were assembling here prior to D-Day and the invasion of Europe. For most of the locals, this was their first sight of real Americans as opposed to the Hollywood versions and, on the whole, it was a pleasant experience, especially for the children for whom rationing was a fact of life.
   But they didn't only bring candy and gum, they also shipped over the Jeep, which was something else that hadn't, until then, been seen in any numbers on this side of the Atlantic. True, we had our utility vehicles which were really nothing more than vans, the Italians their Fiat Balilla and Topolinos and the French their Simcas, but nobody had anything like the Jeep. About the closest to it in Europe belonged to the enemy in the shape of the Kugelwagen, basically a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a re-bodied Volkswagen chassis.

   Of course there were attempts to build a light general purpose vehicle in the pre-war years, but for various reasons they were more often than not adaptations of civilian motors. Indeed, during the inter-war years, the Austin Seven chassis and running gear formed the basis for a number of military conversions, not only in the UK but on the Continent, and also in America, Australia and even Japan.

   Indeed, it might be said that the Austin was the original Jeep, in concept at least. In 1938, the US Bantam Company, who were making Austins under licence, lent three Roadster models to the Pennsylvania National Guard for field trials as reconnaissance vehicles. These trials were so successful that the US Army authorities became interested in the project and, in the nature of all things governmental, a committee
was formed to draw up the necessary military specification for a light
4x4 vehicle.

   Following on from this, in June 1940, tenders were invited from 135 US manufacturers, but given the time scale of just 49 days (from the date of acceptance) for the prototype and 75 days for the delivery of 70 pre-production vehicles for test, coupled with a weight limit of 1300 lbs, the response wasn't very encouraging. In fact, just two firms, the American Bantam Co. and Willys Overland Inc., submitted proposals. In the event Bantam won and actually produced the prototype on 23rd September, two days earlier than specified. The Army then carried out tests over a three-week period, covering over 3,500 miles most of it off-road. Strangely enough and despite protestations from Bantam, both Ford and Willys sent observers along to look over the vehicle and follow the tests.


   Naturally enough there were both mechanical and service problems with the prototype, but not enough to prevent the Army from placing an order for 1,500 vehicles. However, doubts were expressed in the Quartermaster Department as to whether Bantam could produce so many in the time allowed and there were suggestions that production should be split between Bantam, Willys and Ford, but in the end Bantam won through.

   Although the United States wasn't directly involved in the war at that time, it was becoming increasingly obvious that they probably would be before long and, even if not, they had to be prepared. Consequently there was a dramatic increase in military strength and equipment levels, and the (Jeep) order virtually trebled overnight. It was decided that this larger order should be split equally between the three manufacturers, all of whom had by now produced prototypes although none of whom, incidentally, had met the original specification regarding weight. Neither had the word Jeep been applied to any of them. The Ford version was called the Pygmy, Willys had the Quad while the Bantam was just that.

   These 4,500 vehicles were sent out to the various sections of the Armed Forces for further evaluation before the actual supply orders were made. In these trials, the vehicles were used as they would be in the field and consideration was given to service requirements, adaptability and reliability in addition to the main one of performance and cost. In the event Willy's won and in July 1941 received an order for 16,000 units.

   However, it was becoming obvious to the authorities that with the way things were developing in the Far East even more vehicles of all types would be required, so in November 1941 it was decided that Ford should be brought into the production process, albeit to build the Willy's vehicle not their own. They received an immediate order for 15,000 vehicles and over the next few years produced almost 280,000 while, over the same period, Willys built around 360,000. Although both Willys and Ford Jeeps are virtually identical with many parts interchangeable, the earlier Ford versions had the firms emblem on practically every component.

   For reasons that have never been fully explained, Bantam were not included in this extension of production. Indeed during the war years they were restricted to the production of trailers and some aircraft equipment (under license) and in 1956 the firm folded. A sad end to the real originators of the Jeep. Willys Overland is also no more being now part of the Daimler/Chrysler empire.

   But the Jeep production story didn't end with Willys and Ford or, indeed with the end of hostilities, for in the early 1950s the French firm Hotchkiss began refurbishing the vehicles, then moved into assembling them, largely from imported parts.
   In 1960 the French actually started a production line to supply their military and to export to countries (mainly in Africa) with dollar exchange difficulties.The British Army used American Jeeps for a few years before eventually adopting the Austin Champ and later the Landrover.

   And finally what's in a name? The word Jeep was registered as a trade mark in 1945 by Willys, but its origins are unclear. One story has it that the word is derived from the initials GP meaning General Purpose, yet another is that the word was early American slang for any marvellous multi-purpose thing. What is certain is that way back in 1936 there was a Popeye cartoon character called 'Eugene the Jeep' although exactly how this became applicable to a small 4x4 vehicle is not easily explained. What is beyond question is that the word is now synonymous the world over with a small 4x4 cross country vehicle be it a Land Rover, Toyota or any other make.  

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