Everyone is well-aware of how the early Willys/Jeeps played such an integral role during World War II. It wasn’t like the Jeep had been ‘drafted’ for active duty- the Jeep was developed, specifically based on the militaries directives, to suit the needs of the job at hand. Based on that, what I find even more compelling is how Willys-Overland was able to seamlessly bridge the enormous gap that laid directly ahead for Jeep at the end of the Second World War. How could you take a vehicle that was purpose-built so specifically for one thing, reinvent it and sell it for purposes outside of hauling troops, ammunition and supplies? That answer is not as simple as one might think…apparently having proven your worth does not necessarily establish your value.
One vital element to its continued success can be found in the fact that the war-time Jeep was highly- revered as a HERO by the folks back home, as well as by the enlisted men who knew them best. One particular early 40’s Willys-Overland advertisement featured a real-life letter written by a young girl named Sarah, from a little farm in Connecticut, declaring her and her brothers undying admiration for the Jeep and her passionate plea for any pictures the automaker might be willing to provide to her so that she would not have to cut up her parents Life magazines- an act that her father severely frowned upon. The final paragraph of that war-time ad relays a hope-filled few sentences, a sort of premonition in that the lessons learned by Jeep during the war would likely be put to good use by folks back home- a Jeep in civilian attire, or“civvies”, as they called it.
While being labelled a wartime hero is a pretty grand notion, what Willys truly needed was to prove to the American buyer that the trusty Jeep was a versatile and highly-functional utility vehicle stateside as it had proved to be overseas. While the average family income in 1946 was only a scant $2,600 and veterans that were returning from the war were making, on average, 10% less than those who had NOT served; trying to persuade farmers and small-industry that a $1,241 civilian Jeep was not only a financially sound decision, but, better yet, a wise one seemed to be quite the challenge. The early CJ’s (Civilian Jeeps) were commonly touted for their incomparably reliable drivetrains, capable of performing the work of a tractor while maintaining acceptable on-road abilities too, claiming unmatched nimbleness, finger-tip steering, even highway speeds of up to 60 miles per hour (possibly downhill with a full payload of paving stones?). What could set the civilianized Jeep apart from, say, a Chevy Fleetmaster- a family car whose price is only fifty dollars more BUT can haul the whole family in comfort and a simplistic style? In a single word…Utility.
Surely, there were more comfortable and spacious modes of transportation available, but none had near the level of utility of the Jeep. Purely as an off-road conveyance, the Jeep was agile, equipped with great low gear torque to trudge through mud and still haul the wife to town for sundries. The whole concept of utility took flight with the implementation of the PTO (Power Take-Off) which enabled engine power to do more than just turn the four wheels. Suddenly, Jeeps were cast in the same light as a comic book superhero, using their 134 cubic inch engines to power a vast number of implements including welders, compressors, mowers, saws, and sprayers in addition to their ability to tow any number of farming appliances and trailers. Simply put, if you want the ability to get more work done, you’d better ‘Get a Jeep’.
With its hard-working credentials firmly founded, the early civilian Jeeps began to see widespread usage in farms, factories and commercial operations all across the country. With all this work getting done so efficiently by the new CJ, it was important that people didn’t forget that Jeeps were just as useful for play as they were at work. What better time to pull out all the marketing stops and promote the real-world sensibilities of the CJ by showing one blasting down the road, windshield folded down, with a typical-of-the-time family of five cheerfully contained inside. Just to make sure the point is driven home that this is average folks at leisure, we’ll put the lady of the house behind the wheel of the CJ (a practice that was not a popular custom of the day) and the gentleman’s Sears & Roebuck necktie will be flailing in the wind, leaving no doubt that these Jeepers are enjoying life and, in no way, working. However comical it may seem, in retrospect, in comparison to the usual images we see of 1940’s America, it must have worked as the CJ slowly adopted a new image that was focused more on adventure and the ability to go anywhere than on having to prove itself worthy of our attention.
For whatever reasons, the Willys/Jeep was able to adapt its skillset and prove its ability to provide benefits that reached far beyond its original design. While the bulky radio backpacks of the war seemingly vanished along with the final maturing of war bonds, the Jeep CJ’s reimagined purpose has enabled it to truly stand the test of time. OlllllllO