1906-1939 Jeep


In 1933, Willys-Overland introduced the 77 (above), powered by the same four-cylinder engine that would eventually power the World War II jeep. See more Jeep pictures.
©Chrysler LLC

If the jeep represented a case of "love at first sight," it was also the culmination of a long search for a go-anywhere sort of utility vehicle. A vehicle that could answer the problems of supply and maximum utility. Almost from the dawn of the twentieth century there had been efforts to develop a machine with four rather than two driving wheels.

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As early as 1902, in Hartford, Connecticut, Colonel Albert Pope's Electric Vehicle Company had built a huge five-ton truck. Power for this unusual machine came from four electric motors, one located behind each of its chain-driven wheels.

Then came the FWD, a product of the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company of Clin-tonville, Wisconsin. In 1906 a blacksmith named Otto Zachow and his partner, William Besserdich, had become sales agents for the Reo motorcar. Their first sale was to Dr. W. H. Finney, who evidently wasted little time in getting his car stuck in the mud. This motivated Zachow to develop some means of applying power to all four wheels, rather than just two.

The result of the blacksmith's efforts was a practical double -Y universal joint that, encased in a ball and-socket arrangement, allowed the driver to steer the vehicle while both the front and rear wheels received power.

Thus was born the FWD Auto Company. The organization stumbled along, one short step ahead of its creditors, until 1911, when its vehicles came to the attention of the United States Army. An FWD truck was subjected to intensive testing, with impressive results; but no orders were forthcoming -- yet. Interest renewed, however, when war broke out in Europe in 1914. That fall, two FWD trucks -- one of three-ton capacity, the other a five-tonner -- were shipped to England for evaluation.

The two machines evidently gave an excellent account of themselves, because an order for 50 additional trucks followed almost immediately. By the end of 1917, nearly 400 FWD trucks were put to use in His Majesty's Army. Closer to home, when a dustup with the infamous Pancho Villa occurred on the Mexican border, the U. S. Quartermaster Corps ordered 147 FWD trucks. Soon the little Clintonville company was delivering 175 trucks each month.

Eventually, domestic and Allied demand combined to outstrip the factory's capacity; and FWD trucks were built under license by Kissel, Mitchell, and Premier. In all, nearly 18,000 of these virtually unstoppable lorries made it to Europe before the Armistice brought the conflict to a close.

Unlike FWD, the Thomas B. Jeffery Company, located in Conch, Wisconsin, some distance to the south of Clintonville, was an established builder of passenger cars and trucks. Before the turn of the century, the organization had manufactured the Rambler bicycle in substantial numbers; and commencing in 1902, the factory turned to the production of automobiles under the same brand name.

Within a year, 1,500 Rambler cars had been built and sold, at $750 a copy. The figure may seem modest by modern standards, but in 1902 it was enough to propel the Rambler into second place in the infant auto industry, right behind Ransom Olds's curved-dash runabout.

Learn more about four-wheel-drive vehicles and how they contributed to the development of the jeep on the next page.

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1913-1936 Jeep

The Thomas B. Jeffery company was purchased by Charles W. Nash in 1918.
The Thomas B. Jeffery company was purchased by Charles W. Nash in 1918.
©Chrysler LLC

The development of the jeep began with a search for a four-wheel-drive utility vehicle, which first came about with various early truck models. These included vehicles built by the Thomas B. Jeffery Company.

In time, there were trucks bearing the Jeffery name, and by 1913 the company was building a four-wheel-drive commercial vehicle called the Jeffery Quadruple-Drive Truck, or simply the "Quad." Designed to meet the requirements of the U.S. Army, the Quad was powered by a 36-horsepower, four-cylinder Bud engine. It had a one-and-a-half-ton capacity (plus 20 percent overload) and was capable under its own power of going anywhere that a four-mule team could haul a load.

As John Gunnell has reported, "After its test the Quartermaster's office announced the following about the Quad in an official report: 'It plowed through hub-deep mud and sand that were absolutely impassable to any rear drive truck. It lifted itself bodily over a bulk of lumber sixteen inches high. It ran up and down seemingly impossible grades with ease. It forded a stream in which only the tops of the tires showed above the water.' "

In some respects, the Jeffery Quad (known as the Nash Quad after 1916, when former General Motors President Charles W. Nash bought the company) was a remarkably advanced machine. Although the truck was large, four-wheel steering allowed a turning circle of only 45 feet. Equally unusual for the time was the Quad's use of four-wheel brakes, said to be capable of stopping the heavy rig within eight feet from a speed of 15 miles per hour. Its builders liked to boast that "it drives, steers, and brakes on all four wheels" -- an impressive claim, and a valid one.

Respected by both military and civilian users, the Quad proved to be enormously popular. Production at Nash's Conch factory peaked at 11,490 units during 1918, with additional trucks built under license by Hudson, Paine, and National. Demand dropped off sharply after the Armistice, of course; but production of the civilian Nash Quad continued -- albeit on a limited scale -- until 1928.

The four-wheel-drive concept had proven its worth beyond any shadow of a doubt. However, for military purposes a smaller, lighter, nimbler machine was needed. For one thing, the big, ponderous FWD and Nash four-wheelers presented altogether too visible a target for enemy gunfire. In addition, these vehicles were far from fleet. Motorcycles were used as messenger vehicles in those days. But even when equipped with sidecars, their carrying capacity was very limited; and their lack of stability over rough and muddy terrain was not satisfactory.

In the years just after World War I numerous experiments were made with "Field Cars." Perhaps the best known of these was a Model T Ford, stripped to the point that it weighed no more than 1,200 pounds. To facilitate its progress through sand and soft mud, fat tires were taken from wrecked airplanes, and the Ford's wheels were cut down to accommodate them. A platform body with two bucket seats was used.

The result was a fairly useful vehicle, capable of outperforming belt-tracked machines in traversing swamps and soft ground. Yet the Model T engine developed only 20 horsepower and of course lacked four wheel drive. Clearly, further development was called for.

In 1931 Walter C. Marmon, head of the Marmon Motor Car Company, teamed up with Arthur Herrington to build four-wheel-drive trucks. Herrington had been a military transport engineer, and Marmon's company was a veteran producer of quality automobiles, among other things.

Initially, Marmon-Herrington produced heavy trucks for the United States and Belgian Armies; but in 1936 -- by which time Marmon was long since out of the automobile business -- Marmon-Herrington conversions began to appear on Ford V-8 half-ton trucks and even on Ford passenger cars. Light, fast, and flexible, these machines could plow their way through almost any type of obstacle course devised by the Quartermaster Corps. The U.S. Army bought 64 of them, and they proved to be so popular that the men referred to them as "Our Darlings."

On the next page, learn why the 1937-1939 four-wheel-drive vehicles would be considered for military use and eventually lead to the first World War II jeep.

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  • History of Jeep
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1937-1939 Jeep

The Belly-Flopper was a lightweight attack and reconnaissance vehicle built for the Army in 1937.
The Belly-Flopper was a lightweight attack and reconnaissance vehicle built for the Army in 1937.
©Chrysler LLC

The development of the jeep continued steadily as World War II approached. In 1937 Marmon-Herrington fitted a doorless four-seater body to its half-ton, four-wheel-drive chassis; and the Command Car was born. The original prototype was based upon a Model 77 Ford. However, when the car went into production, in 1939, a Dodge chassis was used.

The Dodge Command Car and its equally sturdy companion, the Weapons Carrier, were produced in substantial numbers throughout World War II and supplied the basis for the Dodge Power Wagon of the postwar years. Still, the army believed a more nimble machine was needed.

Meanwhile, at Fort Benning, Georgia, Major Robert Howie and Master Sergeant Melvin C. Wiley were developing a new type of vehicle, a combination reconnaissance car and machine gun carrier. Working on their own time, and reportedly at Major Howie's expense, the two men pieced together a highly unusual vehicle, made largely from scrap.

Designed to carry two passengers lying prone, the machine quickly became known as the Howie Belly-Flopper. Major chassis components, including the engine, came from an old American Austin. The wheelbase, like that of the Austin, was 75 inches. Front-wheel drive was employed, with the powerplant mounted at the rear. A machine gun was located forward of the riders. The Belly-Flopper's silhouette was very low, which presented obvious advantages for combat purposes; but ground clearance was insufficient for use in rough terrain. Anyway, it lacked the advantage of four-wheel drive.

The Howie rig must have provided a punishing ride, for it had no springs. Only a set of fat tires cushioned the jolts experienced by its two prone passengers. The driver operated the clutch and brake with his feet while stretched out flat on his stomach. Steering was by means of a lever. However, the Howie was highly maneuverable, and although its top speed was no more than 28 miles an hour, its lightweight construction provided a reasonably good horsepower-to-weight ratio.

Major Howie was convinced that his machine, despite its obvious shortcomings, could be developed into a practical vehicle for military use. The Army took the proposal seriously enough that in March 1940 representatives of the automobile industry were invited to examine it.

Largely the reaction was one of laughter. Barney Roos, executive vice president and chief engineer at Willys-Overland, later commented, "That Belly Flopper looked like nothing any automobile man had ever seen before, a cross between a kid's scooter and a diving board on wheels." Yet this odd contraption evidently set several people -- including Roos himself -- to thinking about the possibility of a practical light reconnaissance car.

Meanwhile, Frank Fenn, president of American Bantam, caught wind of the Army's need for this light car. Bantam was a company that had been on the verge of bankruptcy ever since its incorporation in 1929 as the American Austin Car Company, and Fenn was determined to save it. With the knowledge that America was moving toward war, Fenn began to develop his company's small car to meet the Army's need for a light reconnaissance vehicle.

The car used by Fenn stemmed from a late 1920s effort to meet the demand for a "second car in every garage." Bantam had converted Britain's diminutive Austin to better meet American needs and began to sell the car on June 21, 1930. However, due to several factors the car failed miserably, and by June 1934, American Austin was bankrupt.

Reorganized as the American Bantam Car Company, by 1938 the Butler factory was producing a much improved automobile, called simply the Bantam. This, with assorted mechanical modifications, made possible the elimination of the $7-per-unit royalty paid to Austin of England.

In 1939 Bantam was building a very competent little automobile. By lengthening the stroke and increasing the compression ratio, engineers had boosted the horsepower to 22 -- a 69 percent increase. A third main bearing eliminated the problem of crankshaft "whip." A belt-driven generator combined with conventional Babbitt bearings to reduce the noise level. And of course performance was greatly enhanced. Flat out, the Bantam would do a mile a minute, and it would cruise all day at 50 mph without complaint.

Still, sales failed to materialize in significant numbers. By June 30, 1940, the factory doors had closed, though a few leftover cars were sold as 1941 models.

Bantam's only hope for survival was to get in on the war effort. In 1938 three Bantams, supplied by the manufacturer to the Pennsylvania National Guard, created a very favorable impression. In August of that year, the Quartermaster Corps recommended the establishment of a formal project to develop a suitable body for the Bantam chassis. This would facilitate testing against the three-passenger motor tricycle.

On the next page, get the specifications for the Army vehicle that Bantam built which would later become the prototype model for the jeep.

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Beginning of the World War II Jeep

In May 1940, Bantam officials invited members of the Quartermaster Corps Ordnance Technical Committee to inspect the reconnaissance cars they had developed from the stock Bantam roadster. The Bantam had its share of shortcomings, but evidently the committee was impressed, for specifications were shortly drawn, laying down parameters that would ultimately lead to the development of the World War II jeep.

From this the Army sent out a request for bids on 70 pilot models. The specifications for this vehicle were as follows:

  • Four-wheel drive, not used on the stock Bantam, was specified.
  • Wheelbase, width, and height were delineated.
  • A crew of three was anticipated, and a .30-caliber machine gun was to be mounted on a pedestal attached to the car.
  • Standards were set for engine power, cross-country performance, and grade climbing ability.
  • Cooling capacity was to be such as to allow a sustained low speed of three miles an hour without overheating the engine.
  • Minimum ground clearance was set at 6-1/4 inches.
  • Payload was to be at least 600 pounds.
  • Overall weight limitation was set at 1,300 pounds, a ridiculous number.

Word went out to 135 manufacturers, inviting them to submit proposals for a quarter ton reconnaissance vehicle based on the rough specifications set forth by the Army. This totally new machine was to be delivered in just 49 days!

Bantam's hopes of adapting its diminutive passenger car to meet the military specifications were dashed by the horsepower and four-wheel-drive requirements. To design a brand new vehicle in the allowed time appeared impossible -- particularly since the beleaguered company no longer had an engineering department.

The only hope for the project rested on the possibility of securing the services of a highly competent outside consultant, someone capable of bringing off a near miracle within the allowed time.

Frank Fenn knew just the man: Karl Probst, a Detroit-based engineer who had worked for several automotive firms. Yet with no cash on hand, any work would have to be undertaken on a contingency basis. Fenn called Art Brandt, a former Bantam executive then working for the National Defense Advisory Commission; and Brandt called Probst, urging him to undertake the assignment.

Probst demurred until he received a message from his old friend William S. Knudsen, former president of General Motors and now head of the National Defense Advisory Committee. Probst later recalled, "On Tuesday, July 16, I was reading of Winston Churchill's bulldog determination: '. . .we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. . . .' " Appealing to Probst to forget about salary (there wasn't any), Knudsen's message added, "We think you can do this job faster than the big companies."

In the next section, find out how Karl Probst got the job done and made jeep history.

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Jeep Makes History

Besides the original design work for the jeep, American Bantam also produced cars such as the 1938 Model 60 speedster.
Besides the original design work for the jeep, American Bantam also produced cars such as the 1938 Model 60 speedster.
©Chrysler LLC

Designing the military utility vehicle that would later become the beloved jeep was an appeal that Karl Probst could not refuse. He knew the weight limit was impossible, but nobody else could meet that requirement either, so he put that concern out of his mind.

That night, driving his 1938 Buick coupe, he headed for Bantam headquarters, at Butler. By 1 P.M. the following day, Probst was seated at a drafting table, laying out plans for what was to become the immortal jeep.

And by Friday evening -- no more than 33 hours later -- the first jeep design was completely roughed out. Karl Probst couldn't have known it at the time, but he had created a phenomenon -- and a legend.

Saturday was spent in estimating costs and weights, making blueprints, and filling out bid forms. The estimated weight came to 1,850 pounds -- more than a quarter of a ton over the limit. But on Sunday, when Probst and Fenn met with Bantam's Washington representative, retired Navy Commander Charles Payne, they were told that the bid should be made on the basis of the fictional 1,300 pound estimated weight, lest it be rejected on that alone.

On Monday, July 22 -- five days after Karl Probst first put pencil to paper -- Bantam submitted its bid, complete with layouts. Willys submitted only a time and cost bid. Ford and Crosley representatives hadn't progressed even that far. The Willys bid was the lowest, but it was deemed unacceptable because the company's chief engineer, Barney Roos, could see no possibility of building 70 pilot units by the Quartermaster Corps's deadline. So the struggling American Bantam Car Company got the initial contract.

Actually there was very little of the vehicle that was of Bantam's own manufacture. Its small engine fell far short of the required horsepower; so a Hercules four was selected, later superseded by a 40-horse-power Continental. Axles were modified from units built by Spicer for the Studebaker Champion. The transfer case was also from Spicer, the transmission from Warner Gear. And so it went.

The 70 pilot cars were to be divided among the Infantry, Cavalry, and Field Artillery. Eight of these pilots would be equipped with four-wheel steering. Each was to cost no more than $2,500 -- enough, Probst correctly figured, to allow a reasonable profit to the manufacturer. And the first car was to be delivered to the Holabird Quartermaster Depot at Baltimore, Maryland, by 5 P.M. on September 21, 1940 -- a ridiculously short time line.

The first hand-built prototype, officially the BRC Quarter-Ton General Purpose Vehicle, was complete and running by September 21. To a remarkable degree, it resembled the later, standardized jeep, though its grille was rounded rather than flat.

To break in the engine, Probst and plant manager Harold Christ drove the prototype to Holabird under its own power, arriving just half an hour ahead of the 5 P.M. deadline. As Karl Probst later recalled the experience, "We drove slowly at first, telling ourselves it was important to break the vehicle in. But as we wound through the hills of Pennsylvania, the five o'clock deadline we had worked toward for those seven weeks seemed to come closer. To make Holabird come closer too, we were soon pushing the car to the limit, and it really was fun."

By way of an initial demonstration, the Bantam undertook to climb a 60-percent grade, accomplishing the feat easily in second gear. Then Major Herbert J. Lawes, Holabird's purchasing and contracting officer, put the vehicle through its paces.

When he brought it back he said to Probst, "I have driven every unit the services have purchased for the last twenty years. I can judge them in fifteen minutes. This vehicle is going to be absolutely outstanding. I believe this unit will make history!"

Keep reading to learn about the involvement of Willys-Overland in the history and creation of the jeep.

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  • History of Jeep
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1930s Willys Jeep

The 1928 Whippet Coach was one of the low-priced automobiles that Willys-Overland produced before the jeep.
The 1928 Whippet Coach was one of the low-priced automobiles that Willys-Overland produced before the jeep.
©Chrysler LLC

The first design for the military unit that would eventually become the jeep was declared to make history. Following this declaration was a series of merciless tests, designed to show up even the slightest weakness in design and construction.

The test took the Bantam over 3,410 miles, only 247 miles of which were logged on paved roads. Twenty separate flaws were detected, ranging from a loose grille to the failure of both frame side rails. But in their final remarks, the testers concluded, "The vehicle demonstrated ample power and all requirements of the service."

On hand to observe the Bantam's performance were representatives from both Willys and Ford. While Ford's involvement in the war was to be expected, the inclusion of Willys might seem a bit strange. However, Willys's involvement would come to play a very important role in the final development of the jeep that Bantam had pioneered.

Over the years, Willys-Overland had built some interesting products. The mainstay of the line, traditionally, was the Overland, a conventional, moderately priced four-cylinder machine. In mid-1926, Willys-Overland introduced the perky little low-priced Whippet. And it was this car that was responsible for the company's spectacular sales gain during the late 1920s.

However, the Whippet's success proved to be of short duration. By 1930 an L-head "six" bearing the Willys name was the company's mainstay, augmented by a trickle of four-cylinder Whippets and a handful of Willys-Knights.

In an attempt to tailor the product to the times, in Depression-racked 1933 Willys-Overland dropped all of its full-sized lines to concentrate upon the diminutive, four-cylinder Willys 77. Priced as low as $335 for the coupe -- $105 less than the four-cylinder Ford-the "77" was expected to revive the company's fortunes by making a new car available at what amounted to a used-car price. The old four-cylinder Whippet engine was dusted off for this application, providing the new model with a highly favorable power-to-weight ratio, and thus with sparkling performance.

Sales, however, failed to live up to expectations, though production for 1935 showed a 150-percent gain over 1934's low point. John North Willys died that August, and the task of reorganizing Willys-Overland fell to financier Ward M. Canaday. Canaday managed somehow to raise three million dollars, with which he bought up the company's outstanding bonds for 70 cents and claims for 25 cents on the dollar.

In a year's time, he and his associates held a two-thirds common stock equity in the reborn Willys-Overland Motors, Inc. Canaday served as chairman of the board, while the presidency of the company went to Dave Wilson, whose Foundry and Machinery Company had been supplying Willys-Overland with castings.

A dramatically styled new Willys was introduced for 1937. The drivetrain was essentially unchanged, and the wheelbase remained at 100 inches. Tread was widened by five inches, both front and rear. Bodies were roomier; and the appearance of the Willys 37, though still unusual, was far more attractive than that of its predecessor. Production quadrupled, to 76,803 units for the year.

Problems, however, remained. Chief among these was the dismal (and only partly deserved) reputation of the aging Whippet engine. Thanks in no small measure to the merciless beating it had received from lead-footed owners of both the Whippet and the Willys 77, the little four-banger had become known for excessive oil consumption, fried bearings, water pump failures, and leaking cylinder heads.

Since the driving habits of American motorists were not likely to change, something would have to be done to beef up the engine if the Willys reputation was to be restored. Learn about this new jeep engine in the next section.

For more information on Jeeps, see:

  • History of Jeep
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1939 Willys Jeep

Following John North Willys' death in 1925, Ward M. Canaday assumed the leadership of Willys-Overland.
Following John North Willys' death in 1925, Ward M. Canaday assumed the leadership of Willys-Overland.
©Chrysler LLC

Ward Canaday was not an engineer. He was not really an automobile man at all, although he was responsible for introducing installment buying to the industry. But he did his homework, and in time acquired some understanding of the major engineering problems involved in automobile production. This was a major step in the development of the jeep.

It came to Canaday's attention that Delmar G. "Barney" Roos, formerly chief engineer at Pierce-Arrow, Locomobile, Marmon and -- more recently -- Studebaker, was working for the Rootes Group, in England. Roos had evidently never regarded this as anything more than a temporary assignment, and in 1938, having been out of the country for a year, he was ready to come home.

Canaday hired Roos, installing him as executive vice president and chief engineer of Willys-Overland. It was an inspired choice, for Barney, a former president of the Society of Automotive Engineers, was one of the finest engineers in the industry. And best of all, he had -- despite his earlier affiliations with gargantuan automobiles like Locomobile and Pierce-Arrow -- a particular interest in small cars.

Had Barney Roos been hired by an industry giant -- General Motors, perhaps -- or even a well-financed independent such as Packard or Nash, his obvious course of action would have been to design a new engine from scratch (something he had done several times). However, at Willys that was impossible -- the company was virtually broke.

So the resourceful Roos wrought a low-cost miracle. Taking that venerable Whippet-cum-Willys 77 four-banger, he tunneled out the intake ports and increased the diameter of the intake manifold. A Carter 1-1/4-inch plain tube downdraft carburetor was fitted. The compression ratio was boosted from 5.70:1 to 6.48:1; Aluminum pistons replaced the old cast iron jugs. Cleveland graphite micro precision bearings and manganese valve springs were fitted. The crankshaft was strengthened and counterweighted. A quieter air cleaner and fan were devised. Taken together, these modifications raised the horsepower from 48 to 61 and resulted in much greater durability, as well.

Just to be sure he had it right, Barney directed his staff to run test engines wide open (4,400 rpm) continuously for 100 hours. That kind of abuse would have destroyed the original engine in short order. In fact, a test in which one of the older jobs ran for 22 minutes at 3,400 rpm resulted in scored cylinders and burned-out rod bearings. But the Roos-designed version held up admirably.

The initial application of the Roos engine (eventually dubbed the "Go-Devil") came in 1939, in a new Willys model bearing an old name: Overland. It bristled with improvements, including hydraulic brakes and a larger capacity cooling system. Beneath it all was a stout new frame, reinforced by a rugged X-member. By any measure, it was a much-improved car with a much-improved engine.

Without knowing it, Bantam and Willys had separately created what has become known as the jeep. Bantam, with its original body design, and Willys, with Barney Roos's "Go-Devil" engine, had conspired to lay the groundwork for the vehicle that would change the face of modern warfare and continue unchanged for generations to come.

However, the two companies were still far from sharing their information. It would take the U.S. Army and a world war to bring them together.

For more information on Jeeps, see:

  • History of Jeep
  • Consumer Guide New Jeep Prices and Reviews
  • Consumer Guide Used Jeep Prices and Reviews