1940-1941 Jeep

American Bantam came up with the first jeep prototype in August-September of 1940. See more Jeep pictures.
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By late 1941, the jeep as we know it was coming together in leaps and bounds. However, Bantam was the only automaker that could meet the Army's ridiculous proposal of having a running prototype ready in 49 days. The reason for this was the singular effort of Karl Probst -- who was busy readying Bantam's pilot.

While all this was going on, the Army asked Bantam to build the remaining 69 cars from the original bid -- including eight with four-wheel steering -- without seeing the finished prototype. By confirming their order in advance, the Army did two things. First, this single act cut the silhouette of the original jeep, before Willys or Ford even had a chance to show their prototypes. More importantly, it forced Willys and Ford to get moving on their pilots lest they be left out of the process completely.

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The Army Quartermaster, however, felt the need to diversify jeep production. So copies of Probst's blueprints were supplied to the rival firms despite the vehement protests of American Bantam. The Army did this on the premise that the design had become its property.

Bantam's distress was understandable enough, but the urgency of the situation was such that there was simply no time for the usual niceties. Willys and Ford would soon have prototypes of their own, offering competition to the Bantam. However, the sharing of the prototype drawings cut out a great deal of leg work for Willys and Ford, and took away Bantam's advanced development advantage.

Like Karl Probst at Bantam, Willys-Overland's Barney Roos had concluded that the Army's original weight limit of 1,300 pounds for its proposed new reconnaissance car was unrealistic. But unlike Probst, Roos also concluded that the specified completion date was also impossible to achieve, partly because the Spicer four-wheel drivetrain would not be easy for him to obtain. This explains why the Willys model was late coming out of the blocks.

The Willys pilot, known as the "Quad" (an echo of the four-wheel-drive truck supplied to the military by Nash Motors during the First World War) was delivered to Holabird on November 13, 1940, followed 10 days later by the Ford "Pygmy."

Since both were based upon Karl Probst's design, it is hardly surprising that they looked almost exactly like the Bantam pilot whose testing had been completed the previous month. One obvious exception to this was the flat grille used by the Ford. The Willys, on the other hand, mimicked the rounded grill employed by the Bantam.

The first Bantam jeep was tested at Camp Ripley and Camp Holabird.
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A. Wade Wells, in his 1946 book Hail to the Jeep, quotes Willys test driver Donald Kenower's account of the test exercise that followed the preliminary 4,000-mile highway run:

"The next part of the test was what they called cross-country. This was run in a field, at the camp, which they had fixed up to simulate extremely rough country, ditches, hills, etc. Our job had light springs and rode fairly well. The result was that they drove it about twice as fast as they did other similar vehicles, as the speed was regulated by how fast it was possible to go and still stay in the job."

(It is only fair to caution the reader that Wells was a Willys-Overland employee, so his observations may not have been entirely objective.)

Wells continues: "During the cross-country test the field became a mud lake due to continuous hard rains. At that time we found that the oil bath air cleaner was not properly mounted, and permitted dirt to get in the engine through the air inlet. Before this was discovered, the engine had been damaged, and in order to continue the test and avoid delay an engine was taken out of a Willys passenger car and installed in the pilot model, and it was again running on the course in a few hours."

Ford, meanwhile, had reservations about the project. By this time, the company was committed to larger, heavier passenger cars with much greater engine displacement than the Army specifications called for. But the Quartermaster believed that Ford's enormous productive capacity would ultimately be needed. So pressure was brought to bear, and in the end Ford entered the contest.

The Ford pilot car made use of what was by that time the company's only four-cylinder powerplant -- a modified version of the Fordson tractor engine. This unit, basically half of the Mercury V-8, was roundly criticized by Road & Track's John Bond for such shortcomings as "split valve guides, no adjustment for tappets, semi-steel pistons, no real concept of proper valve timing or even combustion chamber design."

Another problem Ford encountered was the fact that it did not have a suitable transmission. So, the old, non-synchro Model A gearbox was used -- rugged and reliable, but hopelessly outclassed by the competition.

The next section goes into more detail about the differences between the Willys, Bantam, and Ford early jeep designs.

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Differences Between Willys, Bantam, and Ford Early Jeeps

The Willys-Overland Quad made its debut on November 11, 1940.
The Willys-Overland Quad made its debut on November 11, 1940.
©Chrysler LLC

After the extensive testing of the Willys, Bantam, and Ford early jeep models was completed, the QMC placed an order for 1,500 more of the little machines from each company. This represented a compromise, worked out on November 14, 1940, with the help of the National Defense Advisory Commission. The General Staff had wanted the original order to go entirely to Bantam, while the Quartermaster General -- who took a dim view of Bantam's production prospects -- preferred to rely on other suppliers.

All three manufacturers had submitted proposals that were essentially satisfactory. There were, however, some significant differences between models, and they are the following:

  • Weight. The Army, in a concession to reality, had raised the limit from 1,300 to 2,160 pounds. At 2,050 and 2,150 pounds, respectively, both Bantam and Ford met that specification; but the Willys weighed in at 2,450 pounds -- an unacceptable figure, as far as the Army was concerned.
  • Fuel mileage. Bantam, powered by a 112-cid, 40 horsepower Continental engine, won this one.
  • Braking distance and steering. Here again, the nod went to Bantam.
  • Driver comfort and convenience. This one was Ford's, all the way.
  • Engine performance. The 61-horsepower "Go-Devil" engine put the Willys far ahead of its rivals in this respect, though both Bantam and Ford had re-rated their engines from 40 to 45 horsepower.
  • Hood configuration. While the three vehicles looked very much alike, the Ford pilot had a broad, flat hood, in contrast to the rounded shape used by Bantam and Willys. The flat design was considered superior because it added usable surface to the body.
  • Deliveries of this new order of 1,500 units from each manufacturer were to commence early in 1941. In addition, each manufacturer was to make certain modifications to correct deficiencies uncovered in the testing process. All three were to adopt the Ford's hood and grille designs, and certain requirements were laid down:
  • A maximum level road speed of 55 miles per hour was specified, at an engine rpm not over the peak horsepower speed.
  • A minimum level road speed of not more than three miles per hour was mandated.
  • The ability to ford hard-bottom water crossings at least 18 inches in depth was required.
  • Construction must permit the installation and satisfactory use of tire chains.

Thus, though all three models differed in several ways, they were becoming increasingly similar. Willys, however, was up against a serious problem, for the Army made it known that the 2,160-pound weight limit was official and final.

The Bantam jeep model was the lightest and most fuel efficient of the jeep prototypes.
©Chrysler LLC

As Wells tells the story, "Only the decision of Under-Secretary of War Patterson broke the impasse." Colonel (later Brig. General) H. J. Lawes, the commandant of the test center at Camp Holabird, told Willys-Overland officials that there was some flexibility in the weight specification. So Patterson agreed to permit Willys to proceed with the production of their 1,500 vehicles with an exemption to the weight limitation.

Not that the issue was forever settled. Ward Canaday later recalled, "We had won a first round, but we still were squarely faced with the threat of losing all future orders beyond the 1,500 if we did not make the 2,160 pounds weight and of losing them anyway, on a performance basis, if we abandoned our own powerful engine and rugged design in order to meet the lower weight requirement."

So it became imperative for Willys to pare 263 pounds -- 12 percent of the total -- from the weight of an already bare-bones vehicle. And, they had to do this with no sacrifice of either strength or power.

On the next page, find out how Willys achieved a lighter jeep that surpassed the designs of both Bantam and Ford.

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Willys Jeep Surpasses Bantam and Ford

The Willys-Overland new jeep unit, eventually designated the model MA, was an improved and lightened version of the original Quad.
The Willys-Overland new jeep unit, eventually designated the model MA, was an improved and lightened version of the original Quad.
©Chrysler LLC

Because of the jeep's lower weight requirement, Barney Roos went back to work on the Willys jeep design that would eventually surpass the Bantam and Ford models. Almost 75 pounds could have been cut by using a smaller engine -- possibly the Continental unit employed by the Bantam pilot. However, Barney Roos had been told that the most impressive feature of the Willys unit had been its powerful "Go-Devil" engine. So that idea was rejected out of hand.

Roos, a patient, determined, resourceful man, disassembled the vehicle. Every bolt, every bracket was analyzed. Surplus material was cut away wherever possible. Studs, screws, even cotter pins were shortened. The sizes of clamps, nuts, and washers were reduced. The heavy carbon steel frame was replaced by one made of lighter alloy.

Lighter steel was employed for the body and fenders. Finally, the task came down to weighing the paint. It was determined that one coat would have to suffice, for a second would have meant exceeding the weight limit. The final product did meet the Army's specified figure -- with just seven ounces to spare.

Roos also undertook some comparatively minor, yet important modifications to the "Go-Devil" engine. The carburetor and intake manifold were altered slightly to get even better performance on steep grades. To better cope with the mud, sand, and dust encountered in battle, special air cleaners and oil filters were used.

The Willys MA differed from the Quad in many ways, including lower, rounded door cutouts, single piece wheels, and a handbrake on the left.
©Chrysler LLC

Praise was heaped upon Barney Roos. In a statement that appeared to completely overlook the critical work of Probst and the Bantam people, Modern Industry magazine noted, "When the Army handed out specifications of what it wanted, Roos went back to work and, with nothing but an engine around which to build a vehicle, He and his Willys-Overland staff designed a highly specialized job while competitors were struggling to have their existing products approved and their assembly lines kept intact."

With 4,500 jeeps in service, there was ample opportunity to evaluate the respective merits of the three makes. Preference clearly went to the Willys, principally because of its more powerful engine. However, the Willys had other advantages as well, such as skid plates mounted under the motor and transmission, heavier gauge steel in the body, and durable two-piece tubular front steering rods.

On the other hand, there were complaints that the Bantam had "too many bugs." It overheated. The transmission was to be too light for the job; gears soon wore out, and the synchromesh was weak. The windshield wiper was hand-operated; and the battery hanger was too light and required constant welding.

The Ford, meanwhile, was rated a distant third. In the opinion of one of the testing officers, the Ford Pygmy "had the most trouble with the motor, which was designed to work on a governor's speed, and there was considerable bearing trouble." As well, the non-synchro transmission did not win any friends for the Ford.

However, the Bantam and Ford jeep models still had desirable qualities that were included in the standardization of the jeep. Learn more in the next section.

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Standardization of the Jeep

At this point, the Army had two possible solutions to the problem of achieving standardization of the jeep given the existence of three types, each having its own virtues. The most satisfactory was to manufacture a vehicle combining the most desirable features in a virtually new machine. The second was to take the best vehicle of the three and graft on to it, as far as possible, the good points of the other two.

In the interest of saving time and money, the latter course was chosen. Incredibly, the Quartermaster Corps elected to give Ford, whose vehicle had placed dead last in the field tests, a negotiated contract for 16,000 units.

The Office of Production Management intervened, however, at the behest of William S. Knudsen. Though the Ford Motor Company vigorously protested, the contract was awarded to Willys-Overland. Willys, in reality, had not only supplied the best of the test vehicles but had underbid Ford by a hefty $640,000. The QMC's stated rationale for favoring Ford had been that the larger firm was considered a more dependable source of supply.

However, critics called the Ford Motor Company "the country's foremost violator of the Wagner Act," citing six Labor Board decisions then outstanding against it. The potential for serious labor problems was as real as it was obvious. In any case, Knudsen, an acknowledged expert in matters concerning production, was convinced that Willys-Overland was a competent source of supply.

A conference took place at the Holabird Quartermaster Depot to consider changes in the design and specifications of the Willys unit, now designated the Model MA. As a result, several modifications were made in the forthcoming Model MB:

  • An improved carburetor air cleaner was installed.
  • A 40-ampere generator, known as the "QMC Standard Generator," was used with a government-standard voltage regulator.
  • A 15-gallon fuel tank replaced the 11 gallon tank of the Model MA.
  • Larger (five-inch) sealed beam headlamps were adopted.
  • A larger, government-standard battery was used.
  • The handbrake was relocated from the driver's left to the center of the car, where the passenger could reach it in case of emergency.
  • The gearshift lever was moved from the steering column to the floor. The rationale here was that all Army trucks should have uniform controls, to save confusion when drivers moved from one vehicle to another.
  • In order to protect the steering tie rods from damage, they were carried as high above the axle as possible.
  • Suitable protection was provided for hydraulic brake hoses.
  • A double bow-top replaced the single- bow type, providing increased head room without raising the jeep's silhouette.
  • Spring shackles were sealed, to keep out water and dirt.
  • Provision was made for the vehicle to carry a shovel and an ax.
  • Standardized blackout lights, already used on other government vehicles, were adopted.
  • A power take off was recommended and later utilized in operating special equipment used by the Navy and Marine Corps.

The standardized MB jeep ended up two inches longer than the MA. Its weight was 2,450 pounds, a reasonable figure for so stout a vehicle. As time went along, experience with the MB led to further modifications.

Larger (6.00/16) tires and heavier "combat" wheels were added. Electrically, a radio spark suppressor; an extra blackout driving light, mounted on the left front fender; and a taillight connector socket, for use when a trailer was being towed, were specified. For emergencies, a five-gallon fuel can was mounted at the back.

Find out what the Army had to say about the standardized jeep on the next page.

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Praise for the Jeep

Though testing continued, the Army ordered 1,500 jeeps each from Willys, Ford, and Bantam to be released in the Lend-Lease program.
Though testing continued, the Army ordered 1,500 jeeps each from Willys, Ford, and Bantam to be released in the Lend-Lease program.
©Chrysler LLC

Just how effective a weapon of war the now-standardized jeep had become can be judged from an account given by Major J. H. Chamberlain after he had been given an obviously strenuous demonstration ride:

"Grueling tests showed that the jeep could fight as well as run," wrote the Major. "And it could go places a motorcycle couldn't. Besides, a motorcycle dispatch rider is vulnerable; a single sniper can cut him down, letting vital orders fall into enemy hands. A jeep, carrying armed men and machine guns, is a far tougher proposition. And, vital for combat strategy, the jeep is a clawing, climbing hellion in reaching good places to shoot from.

"In Mississippi I learned firsthand what it was like to ride in a jeep across pine-studded acres at 50 miles an hour . . . . [The driver] slowed down our jeep and straddled a half-burned log, front wheels tilted to the sky. I visualized a shattered crank case but was shown guard bars underneath for just such protection. Grabbing special handles on the body, we lifted the car and shoved it easily off the log.

"Army strategists especially admire the jeep's low silhouette. Only three and a third feet high, the jackrabbit-like jeep is hard to spot in brush country, still harder to line a gun on.

"At 25 miles per hour he headed for a huge live oak with gnarled branches close to the ground. I was expecting [the driver] to swerve suddenly to demonstrate the jeep's maneuverability. Soon I saw that it was not his intention to swerve at all.

"'Duck!' he yelled.

"I ducked.

"We roared under the lowest branch-the top of our car missing it by inches. Only then did I realize that I had stowed my 190 pounds in the narrow space between seat and cowl-and had lots of leg and arm room to spare.

"'Plenty o' clearance,' my driver remarked.

"We crossed a small stream, water flowing over the floor, but we had no trouble, for electric units are placed so high that the 40-inch jeep can keep going through water 18 inches deep. We clawed our way up the 30-degree bank-twice as steep as you'll ever meet in a passenger car on the highway."

The MB and GPW jeep models went on to create history.
©Chrysler LLC

In Major Chamberlain's view, and in the minds of most Americans, the jeep had come to represent the inventive imagination that had made this nation's industries the envy of the world.

Willys and Ford soon received contracts to continue manufacturing jeeps, while Bantam was left behind. Learn more on the next page.

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1941 Willys and Ford Jeeps

The jeep quickly proved its worth in battle.
The jeep quickly proved its worth in battle.
©Chrysler LLC

By October 1941, it was apparent that the jeep's versatility and usefulness would far exceed the Army's original expectations. A second source was sought, partly to increase the supply, but apparently largely as insurance against the possibility of sabotage at the Willys plant. And so began the production of both Willys and Ford jeeps.

Bypassing Bantam, Quartermaster General E. B. Gregory sought out Edsel Ford with the unprecedented request that his company manufacture jeeps according to the Willys design-including the Barney Roos "Go-Devil" engine. All parts, Edsel was told, were to be interchangeable between the Willys vehicles and their Ford-built clones.

Edsel Ford agreed without hesitation; and on January 10, 1942, it was announced that a negotiated contract had been made, under which Ford would produce 15,000 GPW (General Purpose Willys) vehicles, to cost $14,623,900.

Willys turned over to Ford its patents, specifications, and drawings -- without compensation, according to one report, although another source indicates that a royalty was paid. In any case, it was an almost unparalleled example of wartime cooperation between two competing firms. Indeed, the agreement may even have been illegal, yet it was considered vital to the war effort.

Incidentally, despite its similarity to the Willys MB, the Ford-built GPW is readily distinguished by its inverted U-shaped front frame cross member. The Willys version, in contrast, uses a tubular brace.

Over at Bantam, meanwhile, President Frank Fenn was understandably furious. In a letter dated March 23, 1942, he wrote, according to historians Denfield and Fry, that he "could not understand how Bantam had been denied a chance to bid when it had performed the major part in the jeep's development. . . ."

Instead of receiving a contract to produce more jeeps, American Bantam built carts to be pulled behind jeeps and other light trucks.
©Chrysler LLC

Fenn went on to say that his company had been first to make the proposal that the standardized vehicle should be built around the best elements of the three pilot models and had wished to share in the building of the car that would result. On the financial side, he said that he had paid Spicer, in the reasonable expectation that Bantam would benefit from the work it was doing, more than $130,000 in tooling costs for axle production. He had, in effect, subsidized Ford's and Willys's production.

Despite Fenn's protests, no more jeep contracts came American Bantam's way. By the time the war ended, Willys had produced 362,841 of the little quarter-tonners, while Ford had built 281,448. Bantam, the firm responsible for starting it all, had been granted contracts for only the initial 2,643 units -- a proverbial "drop in the bucket."

Bantam's final, forlorn hope was that it would be asked to produce the four-wheel-steer jeep, of which eight pilot models had been submitted. But the Quartermaster Corps -- despite pleas from the using arms -- abandoned that proposal, evidently on the grounds that the vehicle's advantages were not sufficient to outweigh the added complexity and the potential service problems in the field.

Given the shaky condition of American Bantam and the limited capacity of its factory, the decision to go with Willys and Ford, however harsh it may seem, may not have been entirely unreasonable. Certainly the product the larger companies produced was a good one. More than that, it became one of World War II's most enduring legends.

For more information on Jeeps, see:

  • History of Jeep
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