The Jeep, a Real American Hero

Nov. 01, 2005 By Michael VanderPloeg

The Jeep, a Real American Hero

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In 1939, the idea of a universal military vehicle was in the making. The jeep ensued and a flourish of tales and stories soon followed its arrival. The square-looking vehicle made it through three wars, not to mention rigorous domestic use. Up until 1981, the jeep was the most used, reliable, and favorite vehicle of the armed forces according to Lt. Col. Manuel A. Conley. The jeep for infantry transportation was to the ground as the airplane was to the sky in World War II.

The history of the jeep is a portrait of American engineering. In 1939, the army wanted a replacement for the aging motorcycle and side cars from World War l, not to mention the vehicles already in use, like the modified Ford Model T (Conley 1981, 19). This machinery was not up to military standards. The military then issued a list of priorities to American car makers for the jeep.

  1. It must have a load capacity of 600 pounds
  2. The wheelbase must be under 75 inches
  3. The height must be under 36 inches
  4. The engine must run smoothly from three to fifty miles per hour
  5. It must have a rectangular shaped body
  6. It must have a two speed transfer case with four wheel drive
  7. It must have a windshield that folds down
  8. It must include three bucket seats
  9. It must have blackout and driving lights
  10. Gross vehicle weight must be under 1200 pounds (Conley 1981, 20)

Of 135 companies invited to compete in the contest, only three complied, Ford Motor company, Willys-Overland, and American Bantam Car Company (Clayton 1982, 7). Bantam was the most aggressive of the three, and had their blueprints of their vehicle in Washington D.C. in five days. Willys was late with their prints, and their model also cost more money (Conley 1981, 20). Needless to say, the initial contract for 70 jeeps was given to Bantam. Their model, though, was a pitiful failure under testing by the army quartermaster (Clayton 1982, 8). World War II had already broken out in Europe, and so more prototypes were accepted from the other two companies. Willys' model was the best followed by Ford, and then Bantam (Conley 1981, 21). Problem arose though, because Willys quarter ton truck carried too much weight according to army specifications. The engineers at Willys stripped their car. Bolts were cut, sheet metal thinned and ten pounds of paint was taken off. When weighed, they had seven ounces to spare (Conley 1981, 21). The Willys model was now universal, but had to use some of the Ford and Bantam parts on it (Conley 1981, 21). In July of 1941, the army was ready for a large number of these four by fours, and for $738.74 a car, Willys won the contract (Conley 1981, 24). Ford agreed to build Willys' blueprint while Bantam built jeep trailers. They weren't awarded a part of the contract because they did not have mass production technology (Conley 1981, 24).

The name "jeep" also has an interesting history. The name is generally accepted to have come from the Ford name for its general purpose vehicle, of GP for short (McCombs 1983, 287). When slurred together it sounds like "jeep." Other theories include the "invisible, fourth dimensional creature of Africa," Eugene the Jeep, of E.G. Segars "Popeye" cartoon (Clayton 1982, 28). The word "jeep" was also widely used in the army before the vehicle came into existence. It had many meanings, from a lazy soldier to a useless piece of machinery (Conley 1981, 24). The jeep was also called a puddle jumper, Bantam Bug, Midget, Quad, and the peep. Willys made the word `Jeep' its trademark after World War II, much to the dismay of Bantam. Bantam felt that since they invented the first jeep prototype that they should have the trademark. The name continued to be passed down when Willys was sold to the Kaiser corporation and then to American Motors in 1970 and in 1987 to the current owner Chrysler (Clayton 1982, 26).

The Willys Military model MB, or as the army called it, "Truck, quarter ton, four by four, and command reconnaissance," was a mechanically simple machine (Conley 1981, 24). In had a four cylinder L-head style engine (where the valves are in the block), which could operate at 4000 revolutions per minute for 100 hours straight (Clayton 1982, 37-8). The air cleaner was improved from earlier models, and the oil filter was placed high up for easy accessibility (Clayton 1982, 10). It also had a fold up cloth roof, which was easily set up. The six volt battery powered the headlamps, which were mounted on swinging levers in order for them to be pointed toward the engine for nighttime repairs. The engine also powered radar, radio, welding, and landing craft equipment (Clayton 1982, 46). Special care was taken to prevent engine noise from interfering with army radios (Clayton 1982, 31). It had a three speed manual transmission and four wheel drive transfer case with high and low gears. Over 350,000 MB's were made to fight in World War II (see graphic).

The first jeeps were used in the United Kingdom before the United States entered in World War II (Gurney 1983, 16). They were issued to infantry personnel to help fight the Nazi attack on England. They weren't shipped to the Pacific theater until 1943 when the Army used it for more civil purposes. The jeep helped build bridges and roads behind the fighting lines by hauling materials and carrying personnel. But its first real test of durability was demonstrated when a fleet of jeeps headed for China were stranded in Burma. The Army turned the jeeps over to the British Army to be driven north in order to get them to their destination. The jeeps pulled other vehicles out of the mud, dodge snipers, carried ammunition and trudged through rice paddies (Clayton 1982, 43).

Its performance in World War II was superb. The jeep could operate without strain from three to 60 miles per hour. It could handle a forty degree slope, turn in a thirty foot circle, and tilt left or right on a fifty degree angle without tipping over (Conley 1981, 25). It would "go places where tankers quit and birds would go back exhausted." The jeep went up rocky mountains in Switzerland and moved snow off roads in Belgium. Although the tank had an influence on the war too, it could not go as many places as the jeep. Army official Ernie Pyle stated,

Good Lord, I don't think we could continue the war without the jeep. It does everything. It goes everywhere. It's as faithful as a dog, strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It constantly carries twice what it was designed for, and keeps on going. It doesn't even ride so badly after you get used to it. (Conley 1981, 26)


Jeeps were coming out of the Willys plant at one jeep per one and a half minutes, so there were plenty to go around. The extra jeeps were used to haul trailers, artillery, operated timber saws, and also pulled railroad cars. The latter was achieved by replacing the wheels with cylinders that were made to run on railroad tracks. In fact, one jeep was known to have pulled 25 tons at 20 miles per hour (Clayton 1982, 46). The jeep's flat hoods served as altars for chaplains and as playing tables for infantry men's card games (Conley 1981, 26). The fold down windshield helped to make the jeep into an ambulance. Pipes were mounted on the bumpers in order to hold the stretchers (Clayton 1982, 53). Americans drove the jeeps so much that they were associated with them to the utmost degree as illustrated by many stories. In France, three American soldiers walked up to a guard post and told the sentry that they were lost. The Frenchman immediately told them to surrender and found that they were German soldiers in disguise. When he was asked how he knew, he replied that Americans always travel in jeeps (Clayton 1982, 40). Another example happened in Belgium when a guard ordered three German soldiers to surrender after he saw that a colonel was riding in the back seat. He explained later that if they were American that the officer would be driving and the infantryman would be in the backseat (Gurney 1983,19). The axis powers had their versions of the jeep, the German Volkswagen and the Japanese Datsun, but both were miserable failures (Clayton 1982, 31).

After the war there was a considerable demand for the jeep. Servicemen were so impressed that they all wanted jeeps of their own after returning home (Gurney 1983, 44). The United States Department of Agriculture also thought of hundreds of uses for a peacetime jeep and even made a pamphlet for agriculture purposes (Clayton 1982, 59). The jeep could also be found to aid the worker in forestry, ranching, mining, or industry. The addition of power take off increased the number of operations the jeep could perform by adding machinery that could be run off the jeep's engine. Minor alterations on the transmission, transfer case, axle ratio and the steering made it more desirable for the domestic market (Clayton 1982, 63). The Willys post-war jeep was called the CJ-2A (CJ stands for civilian jeep.) The produced over 73,000 in 1946 and 60,000 in 1947 (Gurney 1983, 44). Other jeeps were made as technology increased.

The engineering that went into the jeep helped make it an extremely reliable vehicle. The jeep was the servicemen's best friend, always trying to do its best for its driver. It would go, or at least try, where ordinary vehicles or animals would not or could not go. "The jeep became a sign, the emblem, the alter ego of the American fighting machine (Conley 1981, 27)." For this reason, the men grew attached to their jeeps. It was said that more jeeps were ruined by drivers pushing their jeeps too far than were in combat (Conley 1981, 27). Jeeps would carry generals and privates alike and helped in combat, rushed the wounded to medic units, and surprised the enemy in ambushes. The jeep seemed to do everything, form climbing mountains in Italy to crossing the scorching hot desert of Northern Africa to roaming beaches in the South Pacific. One army officer said "It can do everything except bake a cake. (Conley 1981, 26)"

The end of an era came in 1981. The armed forces ended their orders for jeeps and a new vehicle was ushered in. The High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (Hummer) replaced the quarter ton jeep in order to keep up with the new age of computers and technology. This machine took over for the half ton truck and the heavy duty one and one quarter ton truck. This vehicle was designed every bit as tough as the original jeep. It had to withstand tests of TNT explosions under the gas tank to driving under water (Clayton 1982, 93). AM General won the contract for these new vehicles, and designed them with accessories from air conditioning to missile launchers (Clayton 1982, 93). According to army officials, the Hummer performed excellently in Panama and the Persian Gulf (Time 1991, 56).

The jeep, proven through the test of time, is an accomplished vehicle. The jeep's history certainly make it eligible for the most valuable player award, if the army had such an honor. Civilian jeeps also have their place in the glory, also, trekking through mud and climbing over rock. The jeep was a very important factor in the transportation of infantry, officers, and equipment by showing its extreme versatility. One author said, "the mechanical jeep, after all, could almost do anything!" (Clayton 1982, 28)


Clayton, Michael. 1982. Jeep. Vermont: David and Charles Inc.

Conley, Lt. Col. Manuel A. 1981. "The Legendary Jeep." American History Illustrated (June) 18-28.

Groliers, 1990. "Jeep." Groliers Encyclopedia.

Gurney, Gene and Kurt Willinger. 1983. The American Jeep in War and Peace. New York: Crown Publishers.

McCombs, Don and Fred L. Worth. 1983. World War II Strange and Fascinating Facts. New York: Greenwich House.

Rivele, Richard J. and W. Calvin Settle, Jr., eds. 1988. Jeep 1945 to 1987. Pennsylvania: Chilton Book Company.

Time. 1991. "Humvee in the Driveway." Time (July 1) 56.

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