Jeep's history: From military vehicle to high school status symbol

The 1941 Willys Jeep was first created to

The 1941 Willys Jeep was first created to satisfy the U.S. Army's need for a vehicle to transport vital equipment and troops. (Credit: Chrylser Group)

Most people think little about Jeep's glorious past when they meet one on the highway or spot one in a nearby Chrysler showroom.

Sure, the design seems a bit quaint, but that's a major part of the appeal. These days, Jeeps (the Wrangler version and not the tame Compass and Liberty) are just plain cool to drive or be seen in.

But the original Jeep was not designed as a status vehicle for the high school or college set, nor was it geared for recreational or sporting use by millions of outdoors types, or anyone else with an urge to venture off the main roads for some fun and frolic.

No, the Jeep's original purpose was as a vital transportation device able to reliably move troops and equipment both on, but mainly off, anything resembling a thoroughfare.

The vehicle's original specifications called for a utility-type machine that would weigh not more than 1,600 pounds, be able to carry a payload of 600 pounds, be equipped with four-wheel drive and travel at a rate of at least three mph. Of the 135 requests for bids sent out by the United States Army's Quarter Master Corps in June of 1940, only three companies eventually produced prototypes: Willys-Overland; American Bantam; and Ford.

A little more than two-and-a-half months later, each company's prototypes were ready for evaluation. After exhaustive testing by the Army's engineers, the Willys was deemed superior in terms of acceleration, maximum speed and its ability to climb the steepest grades.

The Willys' chief advantage was its superior power. The company had earlier developed plans to upgrade its aged 2.2-liter flathead four-cylinder automobile engine that would eventually be used in their submission. After chief engineer Barney Roos was finished with it, horsepower had been increased to 60 (from its original 48). Among his many revisions, Roos enlarged the intake manifold, replaced the iron pistons with aluminum, redesigned the crankshaft, added a Carter downdraft carburetor and upped the compression ratio.

The only problem with the winning entry was weight. Despite the fact that it lacked doors and had only a flimsy canvas top, the Willys was 750 pounds over the military's specified maximum. Fortunately, the specifications were revised to around 2,100 pounds from 1,600, and - just barely - the designers were able to meet the new requirement.
Much controversy continues today concerning the origins of the Jeep name. However, the most probable explanation lies in the term GP, short for General Purpose in military-speak.

Initially, there were only a relatively small number of Jeeps assembled in the first year. However, after the United States formally entered the World War II on Dec. 7, 1941, production dramatically increased.  A year later, more than 100,000 of these basic go-anywhere "iron ponies" had been readied for duty. By war's end, Jeep production totaled more than 650,000 units with the United States Army paying $875 for each one. Although the majority were built by Willys, some 40 percent were also constructed under licence by Ford.

The Jeep saw action in virtually all theaters of the war, including Europe, North Africa and the Far East. As both generals and privates alike began singing its praises, the seemingly unstoppable little 4x4 quickly became the stuff of legends. The propaganda opportunities that these Jeep stories created were not lost on the Army, and the public was soon being inundated with heroic newspaper accounts and magazine articles touting the Jeep's prowess serving the various Allied forces in their march to victory. None of these tales required exaggeration or massaging of any kind. The Jeep turned out to be the wonder vehicle of the conflict, and was referred to by U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall as "America's greatest contribution to modern warfare."

In 1945, Willys began producing civilian Jeeps, or CJs as they were called, from its plant in Toledo, Ohio. At around $1,100, the CJ wasn't cheap compared to the cost of the company's more versatile pickup truck, but CJs soon became popular with farmers, ranchers and others requiring a rugged workhorse that could handle the rough stuff and was simple to service.

To cash in on the now-famous Jeep name, Willys produced spinoff models, such as the all-steel Jeep station wagon and the sporty Jeepster convertible. Both were available with an optional overhead-valve six-cylinder engine as well as a number of interior/exterior trim options.

Although the Jeep brand has endured, its parent, as well as a number of successors, have not. Willys was absorbed by Kaiser-Frazer in March of 1953. Seventeen years later, American Motors acquired the Jeep name from Kaiser, holding it until the Chrysler takeover in 1987.

But as tough as the original was during war, the peacetime variant has proven impossible to kill as its ownership - and its heritage - changes hands.

Today's Jeep Wrangler, although vastly better handling and more powerful, remains somewhat true to the original concept.

The Army may have moved on to bigger and stronger alternatives (the HUMVEE for example), but, like a grizzled veteran, the Jeep remains ready, willing and able for action.

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