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Soldiers plow through a sugar cane field in Puerto Rico in 1943. (Photo from National Archives)

For more photos of this history-making vehicle, click here.

It was one of Bill Mauldin’s most memorable cartoons: The grizzled old cavalry sergeant presses his .45 against the hood of his disabled vehicle. His distress at having to put down his trusty companion is so great that he has to cover his eyes before delivering the coup de grâce.

His “mount” was that squat, inelegant, box-shaped vehicle known as the jeep. It had been created in record time at the outbreak of World War II, the fruit of a U.S. Army–brokered “collaboration” between Ford and two smaller companies, a motorized replacement for horse cavalry that quickly became the GI’s best friend. Endearing, indomitable, indispensable, incredibly versatile and, in truth, virtually indestructible, the jeep has endured as the ubiquitous icon of American military might.

“Good lord,” wrote the war correspondent Ernie Pyle, “I don’t think we could continue the war without the jeep. It does everything. It goes everywhere. It’s as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat.”

Ever since World War I, the need to replace the horse with a vehicle capable of traversing rough terrain for reconnaissance and communications duty had been evident. The motorcycle with sidecar used in that war had proved too noisy and unstable in the mud of France. During the 1920s, the army experimented with stripped-down Model T Fords equipped with salvaged airplane tires for greater traction. But when loaded down for combat, the Tin Lizzie lost power and maneuverability. During the 1930s, army engineers tested little Austin roadsters developed in England and four-wheel-drive vehicles improvised from Ford delivery vans.

In 1937 they tested perhaps the most interesting machine—a combination reconnaissance vehicle and machine gun carrier developed that year at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. An automotive enthusiast, Capt. Robert G. Howie, working with Master Sgt. Melvin C. Wiley, assembled it largely from scrap parts. It was a simple, low-slung platform with the front wheels powered by a rear-mounted Austin four-cylinder engine. It carried a machine gun and a two-man crew, who lay prone. The driver pushed the clutch and brake with his feet and steered with a hand lever. There were no springs, and it was a hard, punishing ride.

Officially known as the Howie Machine Gun Carrier, the machine quickly earned the obvious nickname: Belly Flopper. Though designers wanted a low silhouette suitable for combat, the Belly Flopper turned out to be slung too close to the ground for cross-country travel and too light for rugged use.

Nonetheless, the army took the idea seriously enough that in early 1940 a demonstration was staged for representatives from the automotive industry. One such witness, Delmar “Barney” Roos, executive vice president and chief engineer at Willys-Overland, said the contraption looked like “a cross between a kid’s scooter and a diving board on wheels.” Still, Roos and others were inspired by the demonstration and went away thinking about how to create a practical reconnaissance car.

The outbreak of war in Europe and the remarkable mobility demonstrated by the German forces brought new urgency to that quest. After France capitulated in June 1940, the Army Quartermaster Corps issued specifications for a lightweight reconnaissance vehicle that could also carry men and equipment across rough terrain.

The specifications included four-wheel drive, a load capacity of 600 pounds, a maximum height of 36 inches, and a folding windshield.

Requests for proposals to make 70 such pilot models went out to no fewer than 135 companies associated in some way with the automotive industry. But the army’s schedule was so tight—this totally new vehicle was to be designed and delivered in just 75 days—that only two companies responded: Willys-Overland and American Bantam Car Company. Both were relatively small, financially troubled automakers that had already tried to interest the army in their lightweight vehicles.

On the face of it, Bantam appeared unlikely to succeed in the competition for a contract. Bantam was the successor to American Austin, which had gone bankrupt, and it made a competent small roadster not unlike the British-made Austin. Bantam was now struggling, however. It had only 15 employees; its plant in Butler, Pennsylvania, had shut down; and it no longer even had an engineering department.

At the same time, Bantam had experience building small, lightweight vehicles that were something like what the army wanted. Three specially modified roadsters provided by Bantam had been tested with success by the Pennsylvania National Guard in summer training in 1938. In fact, the Quartermaster Corps had based its specifications for the proposed new vehicle largely on Bantam’s work and consultations with its engineers.

Hoping a government contract would revive the company, Bantam recruited a well-known and highly respected Detroit engineer named Karl K. Probst to head up its desperation effort. Lacking funds to pay him a salary, the company promised Probst a fee contingent upon winning the contract. Probst showed little interest until, as he later put it, “I was reading of Winston Churchill’s bulldog determination after the debacle at Dunkirk—‘…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the streets.’”

Thus inspired, Probst drove that very night—July 17, 1940—to Bantam’s Pennsylvania headquarters in Butler. The following day, he sat down at the drafting table. Building on Bantam’s previous work, Probst designed much of what would become the jeep in just five days and delivered the proposal to the army on the deadline.

His design won the contract to produce 70 vehicles. The prototype had to be delivered in a mere 49 days. Probst and his colleagues frantically improvised their first jeep. Most of the major parts were outsourced, with the axles, transmission, transfer case, and even the engine brought in from other manufacturers. To a remarkable degree, their hand-built prototype resembled the later standardized jeep, though its grill was rounded rather than flat.

The Bantam prototype was up and running and on the road by the deadline of September 21, 1940. To break in the engine, Probst and another driving force behind the jeep, Bantam plant manager Harold Crist, decided to drive the 170-odd miles to Camp Holabird, Maryland, the army’s testing center for wheeled vehicles. “We drove slowly at first,” Probst recalled, “telling ourselves it was important to break the vehicle in. But as we wound through the hills of Pennsylvania, the five o’clock deadline we had worked toward for those seven weeks seemed to come closer. To make Holabird come closer too, we were soon pushing the car to the limit, and it really was fun.” They arrived with half an hour to spare.

After Holabird’s purchasing and contracting officer, Maj. Herbert J. Lawes, put the Bantam prototype through its paces, he told Probst: “I have driven every unit the services have purchased for the last twenty years. I can judge them in fifteen minutes. This vehicle is going to be absolutely outstanding. I believe this unit will make history!”

While the Bantam underwent further testing, the other competitor, Willys-Overland of Toledo, Ohio, had not given up. Like Bantam, Willys was foundering despite a tradition of excellence that dated back to its founding in 1903. Willys had lost out in the competition even though its bid came in under the price of Bantam’s. It had needed a time extension of 120 days to produce the 70 pilot units, and the $5-a-day penalty imposed by the government pushed its bid higher than Bantam’s.

Nonetheless, Willys’s chief engineer, Barney Roos, was so determined to build a practical vehicle that he and his staff started work on their version without any guarantee of army funding. Though he had made his mark designing large automobiles for such major carmakers as Pierce-Arrow, Studebaker, and the British Rootes Group, Roos had long harbored an interest in small vehicles, and the Belly Flopper demonstration had stimulated his interest in the army’s problem.

Willys’s four-cylinder engine was central to Roos’s thinking. He had been hired in 1938 to revamp the company’s old 45 hp engine, which was notorious for its leaking cylinder heads, excessive use of oil, and for frying its bearings and knocking so hard it shook loose its starter. When the army’s call for a new vehicle came, Roos had already been laboring for nearly two years to perfect the engine. He tunneled out the intake ports and increased the diameter of the intake manifold. He developed closer tolerances, used tougher alloys, changed the pistons from cast iron to tin-plated aluminum, installed graphite micro precision bearings, and modified the cooling system. The resulting 60 hp engine—dubbed the Go-Devil—could run at 4,000 revolutions per minute for 100 hours without failing.

For Willys’s belated entry into a competition that, technically, the company had already lost, Roos installed his high-endurance power plant in a body closely resembling the Bantam prototype. The resemblance was not coincidental: the army had previously shown Willys the Bantam drawings and its test results. The Willys vehicle arrived at the Camp Holabird test center in November 1940, six weeks after the arrival of the Bantam.

Twelve days later, both companies had further competition: a Ford Motor Company prototype showed up for testing. The army, concerned about the relatively modest production capabilities at Bantam and Willys, was attracted by Ford’s huge manufacturing capabilities. As a result, Ford engineers, like those at Willys, had been given access to the Bantam drawings and test information.

There would now be a second round of competition. The army invited all three companies—Bantam, Willys, and Ford—to produce 1,500 vehicles each for further testing. Bantam, which thought it had wrapped up the deal with its timely delivery and positive test results, protested loudly, but to no avail.

For Willys, however, there was a hitch. Even though the maximum weight under army specs had been raised repeatedly and now stood at 2,175 pounds, Willys’s vehicle weighed 2,423 pounds—248 pounds too many. Barney Roos’s heavy Go-Devil engine was the obvious place to start losing weight. But Roos knew that this powerful engine was the strength of his prototype, and he did not want to abandon it in favor of a lighter power plant.

Instead, he and his staff ruthlessly attacked the body and chassis. They shortened bolts and cotter pins, reduced the sizes of nuts and washers, and cut the thickness of steel in the body and fenders. In the frame, they substituted lighter alloys for the heavy carbon steel. They even stripped down to just one coat of olive-drab paint, shedding nearly 10 pounds in the process. When their weight loss program was finished, Willys met the army specification—with just seven ounces to spare.

Vehicles from Willys, Bantam, and Ford were then subjected to millions of miles of tests. Along the way, the army recommended that certain features of the Bantam and Ford be incorporated into a standard based on the Willys’s design. The slimmed-down Willys, its powerful engine intact, was the clear winner—“superior in acceleration, maximum speed, grade climbing and cross country,” as the Infantry Board report concluded. In the final round of bidding ending in July 1941, Willys’s superior engine and low bid of $738.74 per vehicle won the first large production contract of 16,000 jeeps.

But the army then took an unprecedented step. Concerned that Willys might not be able to meet the increasing demand and wanting a backup facility in case of sabotage, it persuaded Ford to build jeeps according to the Willys blueprints. Jeeps produced by both companies would be essentially the same, with interchangeable parts.

Bantam, the company that had helped pioneer the whole concept, lost out. In all, it produced 2,675 jeeps, most for shipment to the Soviet Union and Great Britain in late 1941 under the Lend-Lease Act. The company survived the war economically by fulfilling government contracts for torpedo parts, aircraft components, and special trailers intended to be towed by the jeeps Bantam no longer manufactured.

If credit for the jeep’s development was mired in controversy, the origin of its very name would be debated for decades after the war. Conventional wisdom focused on the name as a slurring of the letters GP, for “General Purpose.” But the army did not use the “General Purpose” designation for the jeep, instead opting for the ponderous “Truck, Quarter-ton, Four-by-four, and Command Reconnaissance.”

The word “jeep” had actually been around since at least World War I—“an old Army grease monkey term,” according to Maj. E. P. Hogan, who in 1941 compiled a brief history of the vehicle’s development. Jeep, he wrote, “was used by shop mechanics in referring to any new motor vehicle received for a test.” Soldiers also employed it as a derogatory reference to new recruits.

During the 1930s, several different army vehicles, including an all-wheel-drive tractor and a half-ton Dodge command and reconnaissance car, were referred to as jeeps. In 1937 the Popeye comic strip even introduced a popular dog-sized character named Eugene the Jeep, a magical creature that solved complex problems; some authorities insisted the new and remarkable army vehicle got its name from the comics. Someone joked that the jeep, in its stripped-down simplicity, was so austere its name had to be an acronym for “Just Enough Essential Parts.”

But as the designation for Willys’s new vehicle, “jeep” almost certainly entered the public consciousness one day early in 1941 in Washington, D.C. As a publicity stunt, Irving “Red” Hausmann, chief test driver for Willys, demonstrated the vehicle’s capabilities, even driving up and down the steps of the Capitol. As Hausmann recalled it, he had heard soldiers at the Camp Holabird test center referring to the prototype as a jeep. So when a bystander asked him, “What is that thing?” Hausmann replied, “It’s a jeep.” A reporter for the Washington Daily News, Katherine Hillyer, overheard the remark and mentioned it in her story, and the name stuck.

By the time America entered the war in December 1941, the jeep rolling off the Willys assembly lines—and soon those at Ford—was a starkly functional marvel. With its canvas top and windshield folded down, it presented the desired low silhouette for combat. The vehicle could rev up without strain from 3 to 60 mph, carry a load up a 40-degree slope, turn in a 30-foot circle, and tilt sideways to an angle of 55 degrees without turning over. It could plow through wheel-deep mud, ford hood-high streams, and leap over small ditches. And the jeep was so durable that GIs and generals alike considered it practically indestructible. The army’s chief of engineers, Maj. Gen. Eugene Reybold, later said that in all his travels he had “never seen a jeep that would not run when it was needed.”

If the jeep could go almost anywhere, it was also compact enough for delivery to the battleground in multiple ways. Air transports carried them easily. During the D-Day invasion of France, gliders carried jeeps into combat. Operatives of the Office of Special Services parachuted jeeps into France for use by their units working with the French Resistance. Landing craft disgorged jeeps onto the beaches of the Pacific.

The British even strapped a jeep on the deck of a submarine and transported it underwater to a Mediterranean island to support a commando raid.

No enemy vehicle could match the jeep. The Japanese tried but failed with a version of the Datsun automobile. The German Kübelwagen—short for a longer word meaning “bucket-seat car”—was designed by the automotive genius Ferdinand Porsche and produced by Volkswagen. Like the familiar Volkswagen Beetle, it was powered by an air-cooled four-cylinder engine mounted over the rear wheels, which gave the Kübelwagen exceptional traction. But it lacked the power of the jeep’s Go-Devil engine and the handling over rough terrain afforded by the jeep’s greater weight and four-wheel drive. In comparison tests conducted at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1943, a Kübelwagen captured in North Africa finished a poor second to the jeep.

The jeep performed its primary missions superbly. As a scout car, it went virtually everywhere. Equipped with radio, it became a communications center and command post. It hauled ammunition, supplies, and, in a pinch, up to a half-dozen troops. With a .30- or .50-caliber machine gun mounted in the backseat, it became an antiaircraft weapon or, towing a 37mm antitank gun, a threat to enemy armor. With the windshield folded down and a litter placed on the flat hood, it became a battlefield ambulance. With pipes mounted on the bumpers, it could be rigged with up to four stretchers.

Ingenious GIs devised other uses that could scarcely have been imagined by the jeep’s designers. They plowed snow and bulldozed piles of dirt. They towed airplanes into revetments to protect against enemy air attacks. They rigged a belt drive to a wheel to drive a circular saw and cut wood. They fitted flanged steel wheels to the jeep to run on railroad tracks as replacements for damaged locomotives. In the Philippines, a jeep pulled a 52-ton supply train for 19 miles, averaging 22 mph. In Australia, jeeps laid underground cable at an airfield: one jeep pulled a plow to dig the ditch, a second jeep towed a reel of cable, and a third pulled a roller to cover the cable and level the ground.

Perhaps most surprising, the jeep proved to be an effective offensive weapon. On the Pacific island of Saipan, U.S. Marines outfitted their vehicles with rocket launchers to assault the dug-in Japanese. In North Africa, the British put their Lend-Lease jeeps to highly effective use against Erwin Rommel’s Afrikakorps. On one occasion, British Eighth Army commander Bernard Montgomery dispatched a small squadron of jeeps behind German lines, where they ambushed a convoy of enemy fuel transports, leaving Rommel’s tanks in a fix when they arrived at their appointed station the next morning.

Even more audacious were the jeep-borne forays behind Rommel’s lines, led by an elusive Scottish aristocrat the Germans dubbed “the Phantom Major.” Still on crutches from a parachute accident, David Stirling blithely hobbled into headquarters one day in 1941 and fast-talked the generals into letting him form an elite commando unit called the Special Air Service (SAS). Striking behind enemy lines variously via parachute drop, boat, truck, and jeep, his SAS detachment conducted a series of bold lightning raids on munition dumps and airfields.

The most spectacular strike targeted a German airfield near Sidi Haneish, 70 miles west of El Alamein, a seaport in northern Egypt. Stirling’s attack force consisted of 75 men and 18 jeeps, each armed with four Vickers K machine guns. Under cover of darkness, the jeeps climbed steep cliffs and then, as Lt. Stephen Hastings described it, “plunged out of sight beyond, engines growling in low gear, like a pack of mechanized wolves.”

The jeep force arrived on the field, guns blazing, and destroyed some 25 Luftwaffe planes before melting back into the desert, their legendary status assured.

Between battles, American GIs appreciated the jeep’s everyday utility. The flat hood served as a table for chow or playing cards or for communion performed by the chaplain; the radiator ran hot enough to heat water for shaving. “It can do everything but bake a cake,” a British field marshal noted. GIs also loved that it would go anywhere—“more places than mules,” observed a cavalry veteran. “Lots of times a mule will balk if he doesn’t think his leader is using good judgment, but a jeep will always try.”

Like flight crews christening their planes, some drivers bestowed pet names on their jeeps—typically female names. Soldiers sometimes described personal feelings aroused by the vehicles. A favorite story was told of a corporal found weeping in the charred wreckage of a jeep that had been shelled. Assurances from his buddies that he would get a replacement vehicle failed to comfort him. “You don’t understand,” he said between sobs. “I loved this one.”

Such was the jeep’s popularity that theft was commonplace. “Borrowing” a jeep in a combat zone was perhaps the most frequent cause of enlisted men losing a stripe. Until 1943 the vehicle required a key to turn the ignition but lost keys proved to be too big of a problem, and a simple switch was installed. Anyone could jump in a jeep and flip the switch to start it. Savvy drivers often removed the distributor head while their jeeps were untended; enterprising thieves then started carrying distributor heads of their own.

Affection for the jeep persisted despite the discomfort of the ride. “There were only two ways to sit in the vehicle, bolt upright or slouched down to the middle of the backbone,” observed Lt. Col. Manuel Conley. “Either way, the teeth-chattering ride caused many a case of pilonidal cyst, labeled ‘jeep disease’ by the Medical Corps.”

From the comfort of a front seat, prominent national leaders—president Franklin Roosevelt, prime minister Winston Churchill, and even England’s Queen Elizabeth—reviewed the troops. Leading generals like Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur preferred the jeep to the more luxurious vehicles at their disposal. George S. Patton’s personal jeep was outfitted with a large red leather seat and two long brass horns mounted on the hood to signal his presence. Maxwell Taylor jumped up on the hood of his jeep to welcome reinforcements to his 101st Airborne Division in early 1945 in Germany.

The men and women who reported on the war shared the affection for the jeep shown by GIs and generals alike, along with the tendency to humanize it. Ernie Pyle, the poet laureate of the jeep, called it “a divine instrument of military locomotion.” Bill Mauldin, who depicted the jeep in many of his cartoons, named his vehicle Jeanie. He drove it more than 10,000 miles through Italy and France—thanks, he said, to the tender loving care of army mechanics who “called her the most neurotic jeep in Europe.”

Two American correspondents, Daniel DeLuce and Darrell Berrigan, contributed to jeep mythology. After the Japanese seized Mandalay in 1942, they fled 1,300 miles by jeep from Burma to India. When they arrived in Imphal, someone questioned their odyssey, pointing out there were no roads in the area they had crossed. “Shhhh! Not so loud,” the Chicago Daily News quoted one of them as saying. “Our jeep hasn’t found out about roads yet, and we don’t want to spoil it.”

The Red Army’s reaction to the jeep was summed up in the report of an American correspondent from the Associated Press. Riding in a jeep through the mud on the Russian central front, he asked his driver how he liked the car, and the driver replied, “Zamechatelno!” “That,” wrote the reporter, “is the Russian equivalent for ‘swell.’” Stalin told an American diplomat that “this is a war of motors,” and kept asking for more. The United States sent some 50,000 jeeps to the Soviet Union via Lend-Lease. Stalin did nothing to dispel the claim by his propagandists that these remarkable machines, bearing the unlikely name of Willys-Overland, were Russian-built in a secret factory beyond the Ural Mountains.

More than a quarter of wartime jeep production was shipped to the Allies via Lend-Lease. By the end of the war, the United States had produced a total of 647,343 jeeps—about 350,000 from Willys, 280,000 from Ford, and the early 2,675 from Bantam. The assembly line at Willys and its successor companies went on turning out military jeeps until 1981, when the army ended its jeep orders to make way for the new bigger, stronger Humvee—the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle.

In 1946, Willys began manufacturing a civilian model of the jeep—trademarked with a capital J. The civilian Jeep, in a variety of models from Willys and its successors—Kaiser, American Motors, and Chrysler—became the forerunner of the ubiquitous four-wheel-drive sports utility vehicles produced and marketed by automakers worldwide.

Meanwhile, in the years following World War II, the army deemed surplus, and thus disposable, thousands of combat-weary jeeps. These surplus jeeps were sold to the public at prices between $400 and $600. At the head of the line of buyers were returning GIs who wanted to own the indomitable vehicle that had helped them win the war.

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of World War II magazine.