Rarely does a vehicle design change the course of history. Even more rarely is such a design the result of government-formulated specs and prototype development that can be measured in days, not years.
Yet that's exactly the case of a vehicle celebrating its 60th birthday this year. I am, of course, talking about the jeep; more precisely, the Willys MB, developed originally by the long-defunct Bantam Car Co. for the U.S. Army on the eve of World War II.
Don't think the jeep is a big deal? Consider this: Dwight Eisenhower, who commanded the Allied invasion of Europe aimed at defeating Nazi Germany, called the jeep one of four technological innovations that helped win the war. The others were the atomic bomb, bazooka and C-47 ‘Dakota’ cargo plane that carried paratroopers. That's pretty good company for a little 4×4.
This vehicle is an important milestone in our industry because it forever changed the direction of light-truck development. Just look out your window. All those pickups and SUVs owe their birth (for good or ill) to the jeep.
The striking thing is, it should have been a bust — worse even than, say, Ford's Edsel. After its experience in Europe during WWI, the Army realized it needed a small all-terrain reconnaissance vehicle. But it wasn't until Nazi armies were literally rolling across Europe that they decided to do something about obtaining such a unit.
On July 17, 1940, the Army put a bid out to 130 companies inviting them to design a 1,300-lb., four-wheel drive vehicle. Specs included engine torque of 85 lb.-ft.; 80-in. wheelbase; ground clearance of 6.25 in. or more; payload capacity of 600 lb.; and the ability to sustain low speeds without overheating the engine. Oh, and one more thing — if you wanted to bid on the contract, a prototype had to be ready for testing in 49 days.
Only two companies bid on such an unrealistic request. One was Willys-Overland, whose design didn't even come close to what the Army wanted. The other, however, came from the struggling Bantam Car Co., courtesy of a little-known engineer named Karl Probst.
In two days, Probst completed the design of what would become the MKII. The bid was submitted on July 22; on September 21 a hand-built prototype was ready for testing. The Army manhandled that test vehicle, pushing it over 3,400 miles, only 250 of which included paved roads. The model was way over the specified weight, but the Army liked it enough to approve construction of 70 units.
But Bantam and Probst didn't get the contract. The Army was worried that the shaky financial health of Bantam would compromise production. So it let the Willys-Overland and Ford Motor Co. build the jeep based on Bantam's design. By the end of the war, Willys and Ford had churned out over 700,000 jeeps for the U.S. armed forces.
The term “jeep” actually comes from Ford, which called its version of the army's vehicle a Ford GP, for “general purpose.” Referred to soldiers in the field as a “gee pee,” it was quickly shortened to ‘jeep.’
To the delight of soldiers and officers alike, jeeps proved extremely rugged and were used either as ambulances or mounted with machine guns to become fast-attack trucks. In Asia, U.S. troops used jeeps to haul supplies over the rugged mountains of Burma and nicknamed them “‘mules” because of their dependability. And during the Korean War, the famous Marine Corps General Chesty Puller eschewed a staff car in favor of a jeep.
If there's a lesson to be learned from the jeep's tale, it's this: The right kind of vehicle can change the outcome of almost any situation, be it war or the economy. Much like the way in which the famous deuce-and-a-half, 6×6 half-ton truck in WW II forever changed the medium-truck business.
But that's another story…