Once upon a time, there were capable off-road vehicles that were purposefully designed from the factory to have the odd ability to fold the windshield down to lay flat on the hood! Right about now you’re probably saying that this “Once upon a time” is actually now and that off-road vehicle is pretty much every Jeep ever built. You would be correct. Heck, even a 2016 Wrangler JK has such folding capability; if you have some hand tools and the sudden desire strikes you to eat dragonflies that are smashed head-first into your clinched teeth at 60 mph, you can lower the wind screen in a matter of half a day and satisfy your appetite for insects. Very few people today would find any allure in riding down the road with no windshield, not that it doesn’t provide some thrills for the first few minutes but without a helmet and goggles, the thrill subsides rather quickly- much like the way the fuel gauge needle seems to descend at a rate that is in direct reverse-relation to the rate the speedometer needle climbs. The means just don’t seem to justify the end.
The fact that the windshield is designed to do such a stunt raises some relatively simple questions. Why do we need a windshield to fold down anyway? The fact that Jeep still builds this feature into their production vehicles today is a tougher question to answer.
Today’s Jeeps ancestry can be traced back to World War II where 135 companies were propositioned by the war department to submit bids for building general purpose personnel carriers for the war effort. Among the specifications that were required in the prototypes, an overall height of 36 inches (excluding the top) and a folding windshield were mandatory so that the vehicles could be packed, partially assembled, in low profile crates and stacked on top of each other for shipment overseas. So, the Willys/Jeeps folding windshield is there for a reason but not necessarily given a clearly defined purpose until it was exposed to the battlefield, where a healthy dose of ingenuity from the GI’s could transform this space saving attribute into a beneficial option that served the needs of the users like it was put there for that distinct purpose .
Once the folding windshield was implemented by the troops in the field, the benefits that it provided on the front lines became clearer. Although the rear-mounted machine gun stood on a floor-mounted turret tall enough to clear the windshield as well as the heads of front seat passengers, the front passenger side cowl proved to be an ideal position for mounting a smaller secondary gun that allowed for forward firing from a less-exposed seated position. The folded windshield also proved to be useful in allowing for variable positioning of crew and cargo to extend outside the cab, proving invaluable with interior space being very limited and confined in these relatively small vehicles.
The folding windshield also proved as a crucial element in the task of avoiding detection by enemy troops. Where an upright windshield was prone to cast glare and reflections from sunlight, electric lights and the bursts of fire given off by artillery, the folded windshield avoided such reflections which allowed the vehicles to enable blackout lighting making them nearly invisible, ultimately eluding the watchful eyes of their adversaries which gave troops a greater chance to achieve success in their missions.
Even the Jeeps that were primarily used for medical transport recognized benefit in that folding the windshield down flat to the hood allowed for injured soldiers to be carried on a stretcher that ran long ways with the length of the vehicle, rather than having head and legs overhanging on both sides due to the Jeeps narrow 48-inch track width. The Jeeps practical use as an ambulance, already hindered by the vehicles size, would have severely suffered if not for this design detail.
The fact that this unique folding windshield has continued to appear as a feature on every year model since World War II is really quite surprising. In the last decade, as federal automobile crash testing has become more strenuous, the Jeeps sport bar and windshield have become more unified in an attempt to improve the integrity of the passenger compartment in the event of a crash. For a vehicle to have a windshield frame that is only bolted in place, as opposed to a solid welded structure with the cabin, leads me to believe that it only retains its place on the current JK out of some reverence to its heritage and will likely go the way of the Sears catalog and the rear machine gun mount when the new Wrangler JL comes out later this year. I, for one, will be sad to see it go.