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1946-1986 Jeep CJ

Jeep CJ Origins

As unlikely as it seems, the Jeep CJ was prompted in part by Adolf Hitler and his politically motivated "people's car" project, the Volkswagen. Once Dr. Ferdinand Porsche began adapting his lightweight, rear-engine, air-cooled car design for military use, it was clear that America and her allies needed something similar for scrambling across the battlefields of Europe.

1940 willys quad
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The Willys' 1940 Quad prototype was one of the several models built by companies anxious for a government contract.

Accordingly, the Army issued a request for bid (RFB) in June 1940, the month France fell to the Nazis. But rather than just a modified version of an existing vehicle, the Army wanted a totally new rig with capabilities that seemed quite unbelievable at the time. In fact, the requirements were so daunting that of the 135 companies invited, only two made serious bids.

The original specifications called for a combination of light-duty truck and what we'd now think of as a motocross motorcycle. Besides four-wheel drive, it was to have a low silhouette, weigh no more than 1,300 pounds, pack at least 40 horsepower, and be able to travel over rough terrain while carrying a 600-pound payload. To top it off, the RFB mandated that plans be submitted within a week -- and a prototype in just 49 days.

Enter the tiny American Bantam Car Company of Butler, Pennsylvania. Organized by Roy S. Evans in 1935 out of moribund American Austin, it had been no more successful than its predecessor in selling four-cylinder minicars to a public that, despite the Depression, remained devoted to big iron.

By 1940 it was on the ropes, with fewer than 20 employees and lots of red ink. Bantam thus had little to lose -- and everything to gain -- by trying for this potentially lucrative government contract.

Sometime before the Army issued its RFB, Bantam's Frank Fenn contacted Detroit automotive engineering consultant Karl K. Probst about developing a small military vehicle based on the firm's 22-horsepower, 75-inch-wheelbase automobile. That idea was nixed once the RFB appeared, but Probst did agree to develop an all-new design.

He thus became an engineering department of one, working without salary in the hope of a fat, future payment once Bantam landed the contract.

In less than a week, Probst had lined up subcontractors to supply components for the vehicle, which he had on paper for presentation to Washington in just five days. There was only one problem: The calculated weight was 550 pounds more than the RFB specified, and there was no time for changes.

But Bantam was desperate. Rather than risk losing the contract, the firm simply decided to lie and see what would happen.

Delivering its paperwork only an hour before the deadline, Bantam found itself the only company in the running. Rival bidder Willys-Overland actually submitted a lower quote, but this was "with exception," the company saying it needed 75 days instead of 49. Thus, Bantam got the job.

The Army needed two weeks to process the order, so this was added to the schedule. Still, Bantam had only 63 days to produce its prototype -- and there was a $100-a-day penalty for being late.

Squarely facing its "Catch-22" predicament, Bantam hustled, hiring three more engineers and squeezing every possible ounce of expertise from its subcontractors. Its running prototype -- what would eventually become the Jeep CJ -- was ready for testing by September 21, 1940, just two days before it was due for military review at Camp Holabird, near Baltimore.

Powered by a 45-horsepower Continental four, it passed inspection with a brief test drive at Butler, though the engine wasn't broken in until the trip to Maryland.

The Jeep came into being due to military needs. Read more about the relationship between the military and the Jeep on the next page.

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