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Jeep History

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In popular songs, romantic novels, Hollywood movies, when young lovers first meet it is a moment of destiny. For no accountable reason, other than the necessity of the plot, they are "made for each other." This is a great romantic myth of our century and young people go forth into the world waiting for the'soundless peal of bells and the invisible burst of light that will tell them they have met their "one and only."

But without the benefit of a Hollywood plot or a carefully staged romantic setting, a great affair was started in the early years of World War II. The scene, duplicated in many places, was usually a dusty motor pool in an army training camp and the hero, this time duplicated in the millions, was a young citizen drafted to serve his country. The object of his affections was a rugged, square, tough-looking utility vehicle called a Jeep.

The Jeep has at times been called the most important piece of military equipment to be used in the second World War, but it had much more than a military appeal to the individual soldier. It became a personal vehicle, sometimes given a pet name; it had the intimacy of a sports car, the power of a tractor, and the ability of a mountain goat. Almost every soldier's ambition was to own a Jeep when the war was over, and the surplus vehicles were sold immediately after going on sale.

During the war these ultimately serviceable vehicles did about every type of transportation job. They served as scout cars, tractors, ambulances, ammunition carriers, mobile radio patrols, and, armed with 50 caliber machine guns, as anti-aircraft emplacements. The broad, flat hood has been used as an altar in the field for religious services. Presidents, Prime Ministers, and other heads of state, have reviewed troops from the seat of a Jeep. The car became the symbol of the American Army wherever it went and even today the sight of a Jeep in a depressed or disaster area of the world means that American relief is on the way.

As a vehicle the Army Jeep is starkly functional. The seats are simple, uncomfortable, and serviceable. The machinery is noisy and exceptionally durable. The Army designated it as a general purpose utility truck, 1/4 ton, 4x4, which means four wheels, four-wheel drive. This simple description is overwhelmingly modest for a vehicle that can negotiate almost any type of terrain, drive in wheel-deep mud, ford hood high streams, and even leap small ditches. Although no one has tried it, many ex-soldiers will unhesitatingly tell you that a Jeep using its four-wheel drive could climb a tree!

It was during the first World War that automobiles made their first contribution to military operations, and Army leaders came to realize the value of an automobile for more than parade transportation. Immediately following that war many discussions were held concerning the development of various engine-powered military vehicles. It was time for the horse to be replaced and the basic need was for a light, maneuverable car that could drive wherever a horse could go.

It was necessary to be able to follow a foot soldier through rough fields, streams, jungles, mountains, and carry ammunition and supplies. The car should be impervious to weather, completely reliable, and be able to carry great loads. In Army posts throughout the country during the twenties and thirties various experiments were undertaken. All types of existing cars were stripped and re-built to cope with military problems.

But the need for specialization was too great and soon Army engineers began to build their own car from the ground up. Many weird machines were created but the most successful design, and the one which finally led to the Jeep, was constructed in 1937 by Colonel Robert G. Howie and Master Sergeant Melvin C. Wiley. It was a rear-engine, lowslung machine with small wheels, which was soon nicknamed the "Belly Flopper." It fulfilled most of the requirements but had trouble on rough terrain.

Delmar Roos, chief engineer of Willys-Overland, saw a demonstration of this crude vehicle and suggested that an all-purpose car with some of the features of the Belly Flopper could serve the Army best. He urged Army engineers to draw up plans and specifications for such a vehicle and by 1940 a set of specifications was approved by the Ordnance Technical Committee.

Credit for the physical appearance of the Jeep goes to William F. Beasley, Chief Engineer of the Ordnance Department, and other military engineers drew up the technical requirements. It was a tall order. Some of the many specifications called for a total weight of 2160 pounds, four-wheel drive, high ground clearance, a reliable and powerful engine, payload of 800 pounds, steep grade climbing ability, and, above all, a low silhouette.

When the bid invitations were released two firms responded immediately, American Bantam and Willys-Overland. Ford reluctantly joined these companies some time later, and a fierce competition began. The Army ordered 1500 cars from each firm and began to test them in the most difficult sections of the country: The cars were run through water, dusty sand, and up rocky slopes. All were fully loaded and the Army drivers were instructed to break the cars if they could.

The Willys model developed the most horsepower and won with ease, withstanding the most severe trials. In addition their price bid was the lowest, and in 1941 Willys-Overland received a contract to produce the Jeep in quantity. Then came the most ironical development. The government asked the Ford Motor Company to produce the Willys Jeep also. It had to be manufactured to the Willys design and all parts must be interchangeable between the companies. It was a revolutionary request in the tremendously competitive field of automobiles, but a war was on and Ford agreed immediately. With the precision assembly lines of Ford on the job, Jeeps were delivered by the thousands.

Various modifications were made as reports came back from the battle zones. Electrical components were moved to higher places to avoid deep water, blackout lights installed, a complete tool kit, heavy combat wheels, trailer connections, and radio spark suppression equipment. All undercarriage linkages were moved above the axles to protect them from damage and the body metal was reinforced: The Jeep finally emerged as a rugged, battle-worthy machine.

Most of the credit for the development of the Jeep must go to Delmar Roos of Willys-Overland who came to the company after working for Pierce-Arrow, Locomobile, and Studebaker. At the Willys firm he found a tradition of automotive excellence that dated back to 1903 when the first Overland Runabout was released. Overland was taken over in 1908 by an automobile salesman, John North Willys, who built it to the second largest firm in the country by 1915: Based in Toledo, Ohio, the company specialized in small cars, only occasionally producing a large vehicle. But by the late thirties they began to feel the economic squeeze that put many other firms out of business. The Army Jeep saved Willys-Overland.

How came the name? There are many stories. The "Popeye" comic strip once featured a four-dimensional animal with an electrical tail called a Jeep, perhaps the first public use of the name. But probably the most authentic derivation is from the designation of the vehicle itself. In Ordnance listing the car was known as a General Purpose Utility Truck with the General Purpose shortened to GP. Since initials and nicknames ran rampant through the armies of World War II, it is quite possible that GP was pronounced Jeep for convenience. It seemed to fit the machine, and like the Duesenberg this little 4x4 truck contributed a new word to the English language. It helped win a war as well.

In 1953 Henry J. Kaiser bought the entire corporation which had once found itself in difficulties. Now known as Kaiser-Willys, the new firm abandoned the production of standard passenger cars and began to develop a line of peacetime Jeeps. Once again the company was saved by the rugged little battle veteran.

Today it is possible to purchase a Jeep for almost any type of automotive use. A descendent of the World War II warrior is available, four-wheel drive and all. In addition there are. many small trucks and one of the finest utility station wagons on the market.

Around the world Jeeps serve in many peaceful ways. The United Nations has adopted this all-purpose machine as the standard field car for its relief agencies. They are superb as emergency vehicles, and farmers use them as small all-purpose tractors. The Jeep is also a favorite among American sportsmen, for it can tackle both bogging sands and the most primitive road. Jeeps still meet adoring glances from ex-servicemen, and a new generation has grown up to supply the cars with eager young swains. In true Hollywood fashion it was "love at first sight" and, like the typical happy ending, it lasts for life.

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