Jeep: Born for the Battlefield

A group of Soldiers assist the driver in pushing his Jeep out of the mud  Oct. 4, 1944. (Courtesy of the George C. Marshall Foundation)

In 1940 things weren’t exactly peachy in Europe and Southeast Asia. Hitler had invaded Poland, Norway, and by June that year, most of western Europe. Japan had invaded China and would soon bomb Pearl Harbor before spreading its tentacles over southeast Asia.

During World War I, the U.S Military mainly relied on inefficient gas-powered vehicles and horses for scouting and transporting troops and weapons. By constantly pestering the Army at their offices and cocktail parties, a persistent car company lobbyist was able to convince military brass that his company could design and build the light-weight, all-wheel-drive vehicle they had dreamed of for decades.

Thus, the Jeep was conceived. 

A Determined Car Salesman

Author’s Note: The inception of the Jeep is often misreported. Writer and historian Bill Spear contributed greatly to this article and helped me set the record straight. If you’re a Jeep junkie, I highly recommend checking out his thoroughly researched book, War Baby: The True Story of the Original Jeep.  For additional information see The George C. Marshall Foundation, which graciously provided photos and further context for the creation of the Jeep.  

With war on the horizon, the timing was perfect for a lobbyist and salesman, Charles H. “Harry” Payne, who had been hired by American Bantam Car Company to find work for the manufacturer in Washington D.C. 

American Bantam, formerly American Austin, was flat broke from lackluster vehicle sales in the 1930’s and was hoping to secure government manufacturing contracts to keep its doors open. 

Payne, a retired Navy pilot and Commander, was hired to seek airplane part contracts, but also, on his own volition, saw an opportunity to obtain a government contract from the Army Quartermaster Corps (QMC) to design and build a lightweight, four-wheel-drive reconnaissance car based on the tiny Bantam civilian cars. 

As far back as 1933 the Infantry and QMC had bought and tested Bantam trucks to be evaluated for scouting purposes, but despite the yearned-for small size and weight, they just didn’t make the cut. The 1,200 pound trucks were simply not powerful or tough enough for use in combat, had narrow tires, and were only two-wheel drive. 

Not one to give up easily, Payne promised the Infantry that a stripped down, hopped up, four-wheel-drive recon car could be built from the existing Bantam trucks. Payne continuously harassed military officials about a nonexistent four-wheel drive Bantam design that could replace horses, motorcycles, and half-ton trucks for reconnaissance purposes. 

He was hawking a vehicle that didn’t exist, and the customer (the Infantry) was lapping it up. QMC, who had real automotive engineers on board were skeptical to say the least and considered Payne an “obnoxious pest” with an inferior product.

Payne eventually worked his way to the top of the military chain-of-command and secured a meeting with Major Walter Bedell Smith, personal aide to George C. Marshall, the legendary American who served as Army Chief of Staff during WW2, then Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense under President Truman. 

Smith liked Payne’s idea and Marshall pushed Smith to take action in their struggle to practically build an Army from scratch, since America’s military had fallen into a sorry state in the years after WW1.

The renowned leader backed his subordinate in his efforts and, ignoring the chain of command, let Smith send a committee of several high-ranking officers to visit Bantam’s factory in Butler, Pa, to evaluate their ability to produce the wonder vehicle and work out the details of a design roughly based on the Payne/QMC idea of a hot rod Bantam. 

It was at this meeting that Payne’s promises met the realities of physics, and the hard task of designing and building the vehicle fell to Bantam’s factory manager and chief engineer Harold Crist to make good on the Infantry’s vehicle daydreams. 

After about a month of back-and-forth between the QMC and Bantam, the Army, over Bantam’s objections about weight and power, developed specs for their four-by-four war machine:

-four-wheel drive 

-two-speed transfer unit 

-85 foot-pounds of torque

-be able to carry 660 pounds, including a machine gun and three passengers 

-fold-down windshield

-3 to 50 mph speed range

-1,300 pound weight limit

Crist knew that the vehicle the Army was specifying was not possible to build. He also knew the four-wheel drive had to be built from scratch, and made the absolutely key decision to ignore the Army weight specifications, instead focusing on performance. 

Bantam thought it had been working under an exclusively negotiated contract arrangement with the QMC and given them all of their expertise in small car construction developing the specifications. They were shocked when the QMC informed them that the bid would be a competitive one and the specs and drawings they had helped create were sent out to 135 American manufacturers. 

Only three manufacturers responded: Bantam, Willys-Overland, and Ford. QMC made it clear they preferred Ford, but Payne had remained persistent in his advocacy for Bantam. 

The race was on to submit a formal design and bid by July 22, 1940, which put the penniless and almost staffless Bantam at an extreme disadvantage.  

General Marshall is shown in a Jeep with Generals Clark, Devers, Barr, Coulter, and Gerow on a trip to Fifth Army. June 18-19, 1944 Italy (Courtesy of the George C. Marshall Foundation)

The Jeep Dream Team 

Crist, a race car builder, had already begun the layout of the recon car the old-fashioned way, by chalking out a design on the factory floor, and he had identified several engine and other component options: anything he could do without spending money. 

He was laying out a car identical in appearance and dimensions to the drawings and specs he had helped develop for the QMC bid documents. When Crist completed the pilot car, it looked exactly like the drawing but it was far more robust, powerful, and yes, heavier.

Not only would the bid require some basic formal drawings of the car Crist was laying out, if they won the bid, highly detailed plans to build the car were required to be submitted with it, literally thousands of drawings down to the nuts and bolts. 

A company like Ford employed plenty of men at drafting tables to do such work but Bantam had no engineering department or staff. That’s when Karl Probst, an independent engineer from Detroit, was persuaded to sign on as nominal head of the project.

Probst did a fine job of what he was hired to do and produced drawings sufficient to win the bid, and over the course of the build, put down on paper what Crist and his crew developed on the floor. 

The work sessions that followed, of Crist and his crew, and Probst with his crew for both design and build were marathon and remain legendary in automotive history. Crist completed the “pilot car” and Probst was able to complete it’s blueprint, cost calculations, supplier specs, and the required bid forms in a breathtaking 49 days.

At the bid opening, Ford decided to sit out and see what its competitors submitted, and Willys-Overland submitted an incomplete bid. Bantam submitted plans from which an actual car could be built, but Payne, dauntless in his persistence, told them to lie about the 1,850 pound weight. 

As the old adage goes: it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. 

However reluctantly, QMC had no choice but to approve the Bantam design. Approval of the contract was the last act of the Army, Infantry or QMC. Nearly two months later on Sept. 21, 1940, Probst and Crist stood proudly next to the first completed Bantam Reconnaissance Car, or BRC, considered the first Jeep.

Only briefly driven and completely untested, the BRC engine was broken in with a drive from Butler to Baltimore 250 miles away. It was delivered for testing at Camp Holabird motor depot in Maryland on Sept. 23, 1940, thirty minutes before the contract deadline. 

Testing the First Jeeps

One of the first military men to drive the prototype at Camp Holabird, Army Major Herbert Lawes, said the new four-wheel drive would certainly “make history.” 

The vehicle was an immediate and stunning success and still stands as one of the most elegant industrial designs in American history. Word spread up the Army chain of command and into the private sector. QMC called Ford and Willys, telling them the BRC was exactly the car they wanted. The rest of the Jeep story pretty much involves the two companies taking advantage of Bantam’s work with the QMC.

The testing at Holabird Motors was intense: 50,000 miles in 30 days with 24-hour testing. The BRC did 200 miles of laps all night and all day and was driven off a loading dock at 40 miles an hour.

The BRC’s ability to tackle tough terrain and withstand severe abuse left several Army officers floored. The chief test driver, Captain Eugene Mosely called it the best prototype ever submitted at Holabird.

Throughout testing, QMC engineers relayed adjustments and modifications to the pilot car back to Bantam in Butler, Pa, but it was clear well before the 30 days were completed that the manufacturer would get the contract for the 70 additional pilot cars required for further field testing. 

In late September and October of 1940, Crist was in the Butler, Pa, factory already racing to meet the deadline to produce those cars in just two months. And deliver he did, including eight four-wheel steer variations. These 1940 Bantams are referred to as “prototypes”, but even the pilot car had been called a “Jeep” the first week of its test.

As far as the recognizable name goes, “Jeep” was a common slang term used in the 1930’s and early 1940’s to describe an odd vehicle, new army recruit, or foolish person. 

The 70 prototypes were sent to camps and forts all over the country and the timeless love affair between the Jeep and the GI began with dozens of variations and weapons adaptations being tried and tested, including attempts to mount a 75mm cannon in the back seat.

With field testing complete, the QMC gave BRC blueprints to Willys and Ford, and access to the Bantam pilot car for inspection. Top military brass asked Bantam’s competitors to modify, build, and submit their own pilots which they did in November 1940, with Ford submitting the “Pygmy” and Willys the “Quad”. 

While QMC’s treatment of Bantam may seem unfair, war loomed on the horizon and the military was responsible for securing the best performing, cheapest machine they could mass produce in a short time. Eventually contracts for 1,500 prototypes were handed to all three companies and these became the 1941 BRC, the Ford GP, and the Willys MA. A handful of these cars still remain and are highly sought after by collectors. 

Due to bureaucratic shuffling, QMC delayed moving forward for a year while the Infantry and Cavalry were screaming for Jeeps, any Jeep. Military heads exerted pressure on QMC, telling them to order some Jeeps fast, and Ford’s political enemies in FDR’s administration ensured that the bid would be a competitive one. 

QMC declared that, although different in strengths and weaknesses, any of the three prototype Jeeps would be fine to work with. 

Willys somehow submitted a bid far below even what the gargantuan Ford could manage and landed the contract. Despite Willys winning the bid Ford, with QMCs help, managed to wind up building over half of the WWII jeeps (the GPW) which had interchangeable parts with the Willys MB. 

Having lost its grip on the big contract, Bantam faded away as a car company, but the manufacturer lived on building trailers for the Jeeps it had created. Bantam built over 100 thousand of them, many still seeing service today. It made torpedoes for our British allies, one of which reportedly sank the Bismark, and also aircraft landing gear and many other manufactures. 

This giant production effort certainly proved that the factory was not “too small” to have produced at least some portion of the hundreds of thousands of Jeeps eventually ordered. Though Bantam fathered the Jeep, it wasn’t their destiny to build them.

87th Infantry Division crossing the Rhine with a Jeep. March 27, 1945 Germany (Courtesy of the George C. Marshall Foundation)

The Jeep Hits the Battlefield

Because they were in existence the Ford and Bantam prototype Jeeps were among the first weapons shipped to the Allies in Lend Lease purchases. It is said that Bantam was not only the first Jeep, but the first one to be used in combat in North Africa. 

Others were sent to Russia where they are spotted in photos at Stalingrad and the Japanese captured a BRC in the Philippines, sending it to Tokyo for reverse engineering.

“The present transport … is more or less confined to roads, which means they are highly vulnerable targets for dive bombing or machine gun,” General George C. Marshall wrote in a 1942 memorandum to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. “On the contrary, the little jeep … in bombing attacks can take to the woods with greater rapidity than foot troops or even cavalry.” 

As a result of the Jeep’s battlefield performance, Eisenhower, later Supreme Allied Commander during WW2, requested that hundreds be sent to England. 

In total, about 650,000 Willys MBs and Ford GPWs were built, 277,896 by Ford and 359,489 by Willys. 

Each branch of the military used the mythical four-by-four to carry .30 or .50 caliber mounted guns for combat and reconnaissance, transport medical casualties, fight fires, lay cables, and even drive on railroad tracks with modified tires. During the war, the MB and GPW earned a solid reputation for their reliability, adaptability, and effectiveness over rough terrain.

The creation of the world’s most recognized four-by-four and outcome of humanity’s greatest war was partly decided by a stubborn car salesman and a handful of hard working Americans in a warehouse in Pennsylvania.

The graphic below illustrates the evolution of the Jeep from the mud and mire of the battlefield to the suburban garage. This graphic only covers models that started production in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Jeep website has a very thorough overview of each Jeep ever made.

Also, check out our tour of Mike Hasselbauer’s 1948 Willys-Overland Truck. (Video below)