©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The 1941 Willys Jeep MA, like all early Jeeps, was constructed for military use.
Fortunately for future Jeep CJ lovers, the Jeep-to-be was an instant hit. With its diminutive 79-inch wheel-base, a track just under 48 inches, and six forward speeds, it could scamper up hills where no four-wheel vehicle had gone before. But though thorough testing confirmed its promise, some officials noted that, at 2,030 pounds, it was 730 pounds heavier than it was supposed to be.
Then one very large colonel commented that the exact weight didn't matter as long as two soldiers could manhandle the vehicle out of a ditch. With the aid of one of his stronger troops, he heaved the Bantam from said ditch, and that was the end of that.
Of course, there's no telling what other companies might have developed had they known Bantam would be allowed to exceed the weight target by 56 percent.
After further tests, Bantam was given 12 weeks to build 70 additional units. Meanwhile, Willys and Ford Motor Company had obtained copies of the firm's project specifications, now military property, and submitted prototypes of their own, though with less concern about deadlines than Bantam.
Willys showed its "Quad" proposal on November 13, finalized under engineering vice-president Delmar G. "Barney" Roos, and Ford displayed its entry within 10 days.
Both were heavier than the Bantam, but the Willys had the most muscle, its "Go-Devil" four producing 60 horsepower. Not surprisingly, all looked much the same.
Bantam duly delivered its pre-production units, which proved successful in yet more tests. Suddenly, it seemed the company just might survive. Then, in March 1941, the Army ordered 1,500 units from all three companies. Acceptable weight was raised to 2,160 pounds, which let in even the Willys. At this point, competition was still keen and the choice of contractor very much a toss-up.
Because Bantam had no high-volume production facilities, Probst sought help from taxicab maker Checker Motors in Kalamazoo. Together they might have been able to meet the Army's 350-unit daily requirement, but Fenn killed the idea. In fact, when he learned that Checker had actually built a Jeep, he and Probst had angry words and then went separate ways.
Ultimately, the Army decided that the Willys Jeep was the sturdiest and most reliable and selected it over the Bantam and Ford designs for the sake of standardization. Designated MA, it measured 130 inches long on an 80-inch wheelbase and differed from the round-nose "Quad" in having a flat, vertical-bar grille, though headlamps were still perched atop the front fenders.
Power was supplied by the 134.2-cubic-inch, 63-horsepower L-head four from the 1941-1942 Americar passenger models. Since Willys was the lowest bidder with the highest production capacity, it won the main contract, with Ford designated a secondary supplier.
Due to its lack of facilities, Bantam was soon phased out of the production picture. In December 1941, just days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Bantam Jeep number 2,675 rolled off the Butler assembly line, the last vehicle the company would ever produce.
Interestingly, most of these were shipped to the Soviet Union, then an ally engaged in a desperate struggle with the Wehrmacht and needing all the vehicles it could get. Indeed, the Jeep would play a critical role in World War II.
Learn more about the Jeep's importance to World War II on the next page.
For more information on cars, see: