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Trucks at Work

A “classic” controversy

So, for many years I always thought the term “jeep” for perhaps one of the most iconic vehicles used by the Allies during World War II (which you can see below) derived from the government-given acronym “GP,” short for “General Purpose” or “Government Purpose” vehicle.

[This is also the same the same way that the contemporary “HMMWV” vehicle, short for “High-Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle,” became known as the “Humvee.”]

Yet in the process of reviewing the storied history of this military vehicle to help illustrate the photo you see at right, snapped during a one-of-a-kind classic car show organized for “Living History Day” at Sugar Pines State Park on the shores of Lake Tahoe, CA, this past weekend, I discovered there’s something of a dispute over the origins of the word “jeep.”

[And if you are a “classic car” buff, click here to see photos of the other historical vehicles on display.]

You can read more details about that controversy by clicking here, but I’ll provide a quick summary below.

First is what’s been dubbed an “alternative view” of how the jeep name came to be launched by R. Lee Ermey on his television series Mail Call. He said that the vehicle never was referred to as "General Purpose" as it instead was designed for specific duties such as reconnaissance. Ermey also said that it would’ve been highly unlikely that the average jeep-driving GI [another government acronym, this time for “General Infantry,” that is also now iconic in its own right] would ever have been familiar with the "GP" designation.

Ermey instead posited that soldiers at the time were so impressed with the new vehicles that they informally named it after the comic strip character  “Eugene the Jeep,” a hardy and lucky “jungle pet” of Popeye that sailor that first appeared in 1936. Since the jeep didn’t formally come onto the military scene until 1941, this is certainly plausible.

A second theory is that “jeep” derived from Ford Motor Co.’s abbreviation for the vehicle: GPW, which with the “G” standing for “government use,” the “P” designating its 80-inch wheelbase, and the “W” for its “Willys-Overland” designed engine.

[For fun, check out the short film "Autobiography of a Jeep" below made back in 1943; a history of how the jeep came to be but told from the jeep's perspective!]

As an aside, here’s an interesting twist to the “GPW” theory: Ford never designed this vehicle at all. Rather, the famous jeep was the brainchild of freelance specialist Karl Probst who got hired by the bankrupt American Bantam Car Company to create a vehicle design per a government RFP [short for “request for proposal,” yet another charming acronym.]

Probst’s design – for the Bantam Reconnaissance Car or BRC – won the day, but because Bantam was bankrupt, the U.S. government gave the design and the production contract to Ford and rival Willys-Overland, which went on to build “Pygmy” and “Quad” variations, respectively, of the BRC.

Finally, there’s a third "alternative" version of where the “jeep” name comes from – in this case from a broader military slang term.

In the book Words of the Fighting Forces by Clinton Sanders, a dictionary of military slang published in 1942, the term “jeep” described a wide range of equipment: four-wheel drive vehicles of one-half to one- and one-half-ton capacity for reconnaissance or other army duty; bantam-cars and occasionally other motor vehicles in the Air Corps; in the armored forces, the half-ton command vehicle; any small plane, ship (a la the Navy’s “jeep” aircraft carriers), helicopter, or gadget.

But how did this one vehicle and term end up becoming so inseparable? That part of the story is below.

In early in 1941, Willys-Overland demonstrated the vehicle's off-road capability by getting test driver Irving "Red" Haussman to motor it up the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Haussman, who had recently heard soldiers at Fort Holabird referring to the vehicle as a "jeep," relayed that name to syndicated columnist Katherine Hillyer for the Washington Daily News. Hillyer's article, published nationally on February 20, 1941, included a picture of the vehicle and referred to the vehicle as “the Army's new scout car, called ‘jeep’ or ‘quad’” in her story.

From that point on the name "jeep" got stuck on that little 4x4 Willys-Overland quad ... and got stuck for good.

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