It’s hard to overstate the importance of the original World War II Jeep. By the war’s end, 647,925 had already been built, and the Jeep’s further development as a civilian vehicle spawned one of America’s most popular automotive brands. Even today, the original Jeep’s specifications, capabilities and performance are impressive, and it has never been replaced by anything as small, simple, robust and efficient.
While the eventual Jeep design was highly refined, the U.S. Army had been tinkering with 4-wheel drive trucks as far back as World War I. They tended to be tall and large, but in June 1940 the Army sent its specifications to 135 U.S. manufacturers with a request for a small ¼ ton 4x4 light-duty military truck. In addition to certain specifications, the military emphasized urgency – a prototype had to be delivered in 49 days and a batch of 70 vehicles had to be ready within 75 days. Just two companies bid – American Bantam and Willys-Overland.
Even then it was complicated. Willys bid lowest but knew it couldn’t make the 75-day deadline and asked for 120 days. Bantam therefore got the nod, but Bantam’s design exceeded the Army’s weight requirements and everyone knew that Bantam had neither the production capacity nor the financial resources to meet the Army’s needs.
More work was therefore needed. The Army reset its weight limit to 2160 pounds, and as Bantam revised its design both Ford and Willys developed their own. In testing, the Bantam design still performed well but Bantam still couldn’t meet the necessary production capacity, so the Army also contracted with Willys and Ford.
Willys’ version was called the “MA” for “Military” model “A.” Ford’s version went into production as the “GP” with “G” indicating a government contract, and “P” to designate a vehicle with 80-inch wheelbase. It could manage 55 mph on the level, crawl at 3 mph and ford 18 inches of water at 3 mph. An initial order was placed, with most of the vehicles built by all three companies going to Britain or the USSR. In July 1941 the War Department hoped to standardize the next, larger order, and gave the contract to Willys thanks to its more powerful engine, but also incorporated elements of the Bantam and Ford designs. These later, standardized versions were called the “MB.” After it became clear that Willys-Overland couldn’t keep up the pace of production to the military’s needs, Ford received a contract to built Jeeps to the same specifications, including the Willys engine. Ford versions were called the “GPW” with the “W” standing for “Willys.”
The MB/GPW Jeep would serve in every theater of WW2 and carried every allied army, navy, and air force. It proved indispensable as a scout car (only 52 inches high with folded windshield), troop transport, makeshift ambulance, machine gun and anti-tank bazooka platform. On the march Jeeps could carry men and packs, and transport soldiers across rivers up to 25 inches deep (much deeper with a snorkel intake). A Jeep could tow an aircraft or be carried in one. Two or more Jeeps could pull a tank. Eight men could even carry a Jeep.
As the war drew to a close, though, Willys was faced with a problem. The company had no body builder of its own, so a new sedan was out of the question. The company had brought in a young designer named Brooks Stevens, who was tasked with adapting the MB to a line of civilian vehicles.
Stevens had thought he was called in to be fired, so he set to work with a will. Handicapped by presses that could only stamp panels 6 inches deep, Stevens came up with an entire line, including a pickup truck, box truck, station wagon panel delivery and a handsome roadster.
The MB became the CJ-2A (Civilian Jeep model 2 first revision). It had larger headlights, the name Willys stamped on the opening tailgate, more comfortable seats and was available in several colors. At an MSRP of $1090 it was a huge hit, and the company made $2.7 million profit in 1945.
Farmers loved the multiple uses for the little vehicle. It could pull a disc harrow, a plow, a cultivator and the power take-off could drive a water pump, sawmill or rotary auger for drilling wells. At the end of the day, it could go shopping. When the seven-seat station wagon was introduced in July 1946 at $1495, it could take the entire family into town. A four-passenger Jeepster sports phaeton joined the lineup in 1948.
Meanwhile the military MB Jeep was uprated in 1950 as the MC, which the Army called the M38. It had larger headlights, a 24-volt electrical system a one-piece windshield and increased ground clearance. A taller F-head engine upped power to 72hp in 1953 and required a higher hood.
Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower said the three tools that won World War II were the Jeep, the Douglas DC 3 airplane, and the landing craft. Note that he listed the Jeep first.