Old Jeep History

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A quick succession of jeep military model history. From left, the Willys MA, the MB, the M38 and the M38A1.

The ball got rolling in the summer of 1940, as things were heating up in the war in Europe. The 22nd of June saw an Army sub-committee composed of Infantry, Cavalry and quartermaster officers convene and propose the specifications for a new vehicle to fill a niche that had been unsuccessfully toyed with since the end of the First World War. It was to replace not only the motorcycle, but the horse and pack mule as a light weapons and personnel carrier as well as having a reconnaissance role.

The specifications were drawn up and sent out to the automotive world at large. Two automotive companies, American Bantam and Willys-Overland were the first two to show any interest with their bids submitted by the morning of July 23, 1940. The Ford Motor Company did as well, but not until after it sniffed money in the water. It was also talked into the bidding process in part by the Army, among whom there were many who believed that a large automotive company was needed to meet production needs.

The Bantam Mark I, sometimes called the GPV or simply Number One arrived at Camp Holabird in Maryland on the 23rd of September, 1940, driven by Karl Probst, Bantam’s Chief Engineer and fellow engineer, Harold Crist. The following presentation given to the Army was attended by representatives from both Willys-Overland and Ford Motor Company at the behest of the Army. Notes were surely taken and ideas must have been running through the competition’s heads as they observed what was to evolve into one of the most famous and influential of military vehicles.

Both Willys-Overland and Ford Motor Company soon followed suit with their own pilot models submitted in November of 1940. The Willys became known as the Quad and the Ford as the Pygmy. Both superficially resembled the Bantam Number One for the simple reason that notes were being taken two months prior and the Army’s position was that the design belonged to the Army. Bantam, naturally, could not object. It was then decided that the Army would purchase 1,500 vehicles each from the three manufacturer’s and the testing would resume.

By the spring of 1941, the first of the prototypes were starting to be delivered. Each of the three had their pluses and minuses. The Willys model had the superior engine with the Go-Devil flathead, but still hadn’t the leg up on the competition. As it turned out the Go-Devil engine, which had its origins back in Willys-Overland’s early days, was the one big factor that eventually swung the decision in their favor. Both the Ford and the Bantam models had underpowered engines that just were not suited to the needs of the jeep.

Nonetheless, testing continued and many of the prototypes were sent to bases all over the country. By the Summer and Fall of 1941, it was time to select a model to use as the basis for the standard jeep. There was controversy that still exists today between the known production giant, Ford and the little company that produced the first model, Bantam. In the end, the Willys model with the help of the Go-Devil engine pushed the MA to the finish line. Perhaps it was a best of all worlds compromise. Perhaps Bantam was treated unfairly having only ended up with the contract to produce the trailer for the jeep, but the Willys ended up with the contract and Ford took over some of the slack as a secondary supplier of the jeep. The contract awarded on July 23, 1941 called for 16,000 jeeps at a cost of $738.34 apiece. The composite design became known as the MB model.

The jeep served honorably and garnered attention and respect wherever it went with both Americans and our allies, throughout the Second World War and on into occupation duty and peacetime. The last model MB rolled off the assembly line in the summer of 1945. It was, of course, not the last time that the jeep would see action in the military or overseas.

Bantam BRC-40’s, the ultimate Bantam design Note that the top two and left photos were one of eight subcontracted models, built by Checker Cab Co. with four-wheel steering in 1941. The bottom two were Bantam built, left,1941 and the right dates from 1940.

The Number One in front of American Bantam’s Butler, Pennsylvania headquarters on September 21, 1940, two days before they presented her to the Army. Harold Crist is driving and Karl Probst is at far left with hand on spare tire. ( Photo courtesy )

Ford GP being tested at Camp Holabird, Maryland.

The Willys MA model.

Thanks to for the help sourcing many of these old photos as well as some of the help with this quick historical reference guide!

The MB model in action at Ft. Riley, Kansas, April 1942, above and the nearly identical model Ford GPW, below at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland, September 1943.