The Little Jeep that Could


With the flames of war raging across Europe, the American military needed a light, cross-country vehicle to move troops and equipment over difficult terrain. The US government made a list of features that they wanted their new vehicle to have and sent it out to 135 American automakers. The three major competitors for the contract were American Bantam, Willys-Overland, and Ford. Bantam was the early frontrunner as its ‘blitz buggy’ fulfilled all the criteria and was ready for testing by the army’s deadline. Unfortunately for Bantam they lacked production capabilities and financial stability, leaving the contract open to Willys and Ford. In the end, Willys won because of their more powerful Go Devil engine, which soldiers loved, and the MB’s lower price to produce ($750/unit). The Jeep nickname most likely came from a monkey-like character named Eugene the Jeep from Popeye who was able to move skillfully through jungle

Willys began production of their MB Jeep but by late 1941 it was obvious that they couldn’t meet production demand. Ford was roped in to help build the MB and named their version the GPW. Between 1941-1945 Willys built 363,000 and Ford built 280,000 Jeeps. Interestingly, it was actually Ford who came up with the now iconic slotted stamped grille. Willys had been using welded steel, but switched to Ford’s design to cut costs. After the war, Willys changed the grille from 9 to 7 slots so they could trademark the design. Ford sued but lost the court case. The vehicle created from various bits of the original three companies’ prototypes was now solely owned by Willys.

The Jeep had an extremely long military service life before being replaced by the Humvee in 1984. Over the course of 43 years the basic design changed little from the original. Willys hadn’t just built a vehicle; they had created a culture. They provided the rural customer with a light, cheap, go-anywhere vehicle. From simple beginnings, recreational off-roading was born and is now a multimillion dollar industry. In the Philippines, surplus WWII Jeeps were sold or given to the locals who then converted them into colourful buses. ‘Jeepneys’ as they came to be known still operate as a form of public transport in the Philippines today.  Brands who now have legendary off-road prowess like Land Rover, Toyota, and Mitsubishi were all inspired to head off the paved track by the little American. The world would likely be a very different place without the Willys Jeep.

Posted @Whippstagram on Instagram, March 30th 2016.

The Little Jeep that Could