At Fort Benning, Georgia, in the late 1930s, Captain Robert G. Howie and Master Sergeant Melvin C. Wiley built a machine-gun carrier made of parts from junked automobiles, but it was not sufficiently rugged. In 1940, Howie was detailed to the American Bantam Car Company in Baltimore to help produce a more robust design. The president of Bantam, Harry Payne, had previously developed a small truck for logging camps and construction sites, and he set about, with Howie's assistance, to modify this vehicle for sale to the army.
Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Army Ordnance Department sent invitations to 135 companies to bid on a quarter-ton 4-by-4 truck. Only Bantam and Willys Overland submitted bids. In short order, Bantam produced 70 small trucks. Although enthusiastically received, these vehicles suffered from numerous mechanical problems. Willys, meanwhile, developed two prototype test vehicles at its own expense and independent of the contract. The company ignored some of the army specifications, which had stressed lightness, and concentrated instead on performance and ruggedness.
Meanwhile, the secretary of the General Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, interceded, touting the Bantam version to the army chief of staff, General George C. Marshall. In November 1940, Bantam received a contract for 1,500 trucks. Doubts persisted that the company could fulfill its contract, so the government also ordered 1,500 of the Willys version, and the Ford Motor Company was talked into building 1,500 of its own design. In addition, the vehicle weight was increased to 2,160 lb. Tests of the three vehicles were conducted. Both the Ford and Bantam versions contained smaller engines, and the Bantam proved unreliable mechanically. The Willys was over the weight limit, but engineers managed to pare it down to meet the 2,160 lb limit—but only if the vehicle was clean.
The new vehicle had a 60 hp engine and was capable of a speed of 55 mph. It could climb steep grades and ford streams up to 18 inches deep. Willys engineers called it the "jeep" after a popular cartoon character, although almost until the end of the war, soldiers generally referred to it as a "peep." "Jeep" was the term used by Willys, civilians, and the newspapers, and it stuck.
The jeep was remarkably successful. It could easily transport four men and 800 lb of equipment and even trail a 37 mm antitank gun. Wartime production amounted to some 650,000 units. The jeep, with some modifications, remained in the army inventory until the mid-1980s. Keith L. Holman
Colby, C. B. Military Vehicles: Gun Carriers, Mechanical Mules, Ducks and Super Ducks. New York: Coward McCann, 1956.; Perret, Geoffrey. There's a War to Be Won: The United States Army in World War II. New York: Random House, 1991.
Keith L. Holman