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Army Engineers Saw a Need in WWII. One Iconic Vehicle was Created to Fill It

Jeeps come by their rugged reputation honestly—after all, they were created to assist troops in WWII.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Long before the development of JEEP prototypes, soldiers nicknamed a tractor that hauled guns a "jeep"—often used also as slang for new recruits, as their duty was to haul equipment on behalf of seasoned soldiers. 

As the United States prepared to enter WWII, we were faced with many logistics issues—mules, horses, and traditional battlefield movements were just too slow for the modern battlefield. Since US military planners knew that eventually, the nation was going to have to get involved with WWII, they quickly realized that the only way to ensure a victory would be to revisit their approach to troop and equipment movement.

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We had no guns or equipment.

jeep history
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  • A British howitzer being set up during World War I.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Army was ill-equipped to handle entering a global conflict, thanks in part to neglect, budget constrictions, and Washington bureaucracy. Remember that in WWI, troops had to borrow howitzers from the French because they were so underfunded and had no arsenal or weapons stockpiles. It was just about the same setting for WWII... only with a greater sense of impending doom.

Horses and mules were just too slow

Just like planners in WWI recognized that light infantry fire wasn't going to win a trench war, planners in WWII quickly saw that the reliance on horses and mules to transport equipment was antiquated and slow.

Related: Watch Unbelievable Footage of an Actual WWII Tank Duel

WWI showed strategists that 4-wheel trucks and motorized transports were not only faster at moving across the battlefield but could also move troops and weaponry in and out with greater consistency. This not only could save lives, but it could save morale, too. After all, who wants to be stranded in the middle of a field somewhere?

A committee is formed.

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  • Bantam's first prototype—the BRC Pilot model.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In true Army fashion, a committee was formed to study the "need" for light motorized transport vehicles that could support infantry and cavalry troops. The Army concluded that there were no vehicles available on the civilian market that could hold up in combat—nothing was durable and rugged enough to handle the terrain or the weight load of the equipment that needed to be moved.

The Army hoped to find a small go-anywhere recon scout car that might help deliver battlefield messages, transmit orders, and function as a weapons carrier. But the commission failed to locate a vehicle that could support the needs of the Army, so they turned to the civilian sector to see if any American companies could design this kind of vehicle from scratch.

In June 1940, 134 bid invitations were sent to companies that might be able to design the kind of vehicle that would suit the Army's needs. The bid was on a short deadline since war was already in full-swing and gave the companies just one month to come up with something. That's tough even by today's standards but almost impossible in 1940 before the computerization of draft work.

Because of the short deadline, just two companies responded to the Army's call—American Bantam and Willys-Overland. These were the only two companies still selling four-cylinder vehicles, and they both specialized in selling cars smaller than the (then) American standard size car. Both companies were relatively small and on the brink of bankruptcy, proving the old adage, "Necessity breeds innovation".

Bantam gets the contract for a few weeks.

The drawings submitted by Willys-Overland weren't nearly as comprehensive as the plans provided by Bantam Car Company. So Bantam was awarded the contract, and an order for 70 vehicles was placed. However, Bantam was such a small company that the Army worried it wouldn't be able to meet the military's needs once the war effort ramped up. So, while they loved the concept that Bantam presented, the Army ultimately sought out Ford Motor Company and reinvented Willys-Overland to rejoin the mission.

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Both companies, Ford and Willy-Overland, watched the Bantam car's testing and were allowed to examine the vehicle and the blueprints, then created their own take on the vehicle based on Bantam's designs.

Testing took forever, but eventually one company emerged.

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  • Testing of the Ford GP.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

All three companies submitted new designs, and their vehicles were tested over and over, with little tweaks made along the way. By the end of the trials, each company has a finalized design to submit for bidding. 

Ford called its vehicle the GP; Willys-Overland called theirs the Willys MA; and Bantam came up with the very original name of the BRC-40 and the MK II. In all, thousands of prototypes were built, tested, and discarded.

The prototypes shared the same military designations for a truck, ¼ ton, 4x4. No one knows precisely where the word "JEEP" comes from, but since all of the Army vehicles are General Purpose, and since soldiers love a good acronym, it's more than likely that someone along the way slurred the GP into what we now know as JEEP.

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In 1941, on being interviewed by a journalist about the type of vehicle he was driving, a soldier replied that it was a JEEP and the name stuck. Willys-Overland, whose vehicle the soldier happened to be driving, quickly trademarked the name.

During the war, JEEPS were modified to operate in desert conditions, plow snow, and function as a fire truck, ambulance, and tractor. They were capable of laying cable, operating as generators, and could be reconfigured to become a small railroad engine. JEEPS were small enough to be loaded onto aircraft, could fit in gliders, and were a significant part of the D-Day invasion.

As we know them now, JEEPS are as much a part of military culture as they are part of regular driving vehicles. Who knew that their predecessors could have been reconfigured to be so useful for wartime battlefield operations?