History of the Jeep (part 1) : Willys MB

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In June 1940, the U.S. military informed automakers that it was looking for a “light reconnaissance vehicle” to replace the Army’s motorcycle and modified Ford Model-T vehicles. The Army invited 135 manufacturers to bid on production and developed a lengthy specification list for the vehicle, including the following:

  • 600-lb. load capacity
  • wheelbase less than 75 inches
  • height less than 36 inches
  • smooth-running engine from 3 to 50 miles per hour
  • rectangular-shaped body
  • two-speed transfer case with
  • four-wheel drive fold-down windshield
  • three bucket seats
  • blackout and driving lights
  • gross vehicle weight below 1,300 lbs.

At first, Willys-Overland and American Bantam Car Manufacturing Company were the only two companies answering the call. Soon, however, Ford Motor Company entered the picture, and competition began among the three over which company would receive the lucrative government contract.

Each company produced prototypes for testing in record time. Bantam’s chief engineer, along with a team of Bantam executives, worked out a design, and the company built its field car within 49 days.

Willys-Overland Vice President of Engineering Delmar G. Roos designed the Willys Quad. Ford developed its Model GP (General Purpose), known as the Pygmy, which was powered by an adapted Ford/Ferguson tractor engine. Each company delivered its prototype to the Army in the summer of 1940 and received approval to build 70 sample vehicles.

The Army took possession of these vehicles in November 1940 at Camp Holabird, Md. Each of the three designs exceeded the Army’s specification of 1,300 lbs., but the Army soon realized that limit was far too low and raised it for the next round of vehicles.

The Army issued the next round of contracts in March of 1941. Bantam was to produce 1,500 Model 40 BRC vehicles, Ford would build 1,500 modified and improved GP Pygmies, and Willys would build 1,500 Quads. Further testing and evaluation led to the Army’s selection of the Willys vehicle as the standard.

Subsequently, most of the Bantams and Ford GPs (also known as GPWs) produced were sent to Great Britain and Russia as part of the lend-lease program. In Great Britain, the Ford vehicle was popularly known as the “Blitz Buggy.”

Willys MA/MB

With modifications and improvements, the Willys Quad became the MA, and later the MB. But the Army, and the world, came to know it as the Jeep®.

Some claimed that the name came from the slurring of the letters “GP,” the military abbreviation for “General Purpose.” Others say the vehicle was named for a popular character named “Eugene the Jeep” in the Popeye cartoon strip. Whatever its origin, the name entered into the American lexicon and, for awhile, served almost as a generic title for off-road vehicles, while the Jeep itself became an icon of the war.

The Willys MA featured a gearshift on the steering column, low side body cutouts, two circular instrument clusters on the dashboard, and a hand brake on the left side. Willys struggled to reduce the weight to the new Army specification of 2,160 lbs. Items removed in order for the MA to reach that goal were reinstalled on the next-generation MB resulting in a final weight of approximately just 400 lbs. above the specifications.

Willys-Overland would build more than 368,000 vehicles, and Ford, under license, some 277,000, for the U.S. Army. The rugged, reliable olive-drab vehicle would forever be known for helping win a world war.

Willys trademarked the “Jeep” name after the war and planned to turn the vehicle into an off-road utility vehicle for the farm – the civilian Universal Jeep. One of Willys’ slogans at the time was “The Sun Never Sets on the Mighty Jeep,” and the company set about making sure the world recognized Willys as the creator of the vehicle.

Source: Jeep

One comment

  1. JFCost says:

    Thanks for a great historical piece on the world’s greatest vehicle! I have always been fascinated by the Jeep, and it remains the classic off-road vehicle. The early ones are still the best ones, aren’t they?!!! Most of the military old-timers I’ve talked with believe the GP theory about its name. It sounds like a military thing, always shortening things to letter abbreviations. “Corporal, bring around the Genreral’s GP…..” Probably sounded too sissified for the Army, Jeepy, so “let’s call it a Jeep!” I saw some good deals on soft-tops at this site for Jeeps. I know any “real man” would never have a top on a Jeep, but on the day you’re driving it to work in the rain in your best suit… Thanks again for a great article. Am now looking for the next one!

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