After World War I mechanization soared in importance among the world’s armies, leading to a proliferation in all types and sizes of vehicles. As another war loomed, so did the need for standardization, if mass production was to be achieved. On July 11, 1940, the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps issued a specification to 135 American automotive companies for a quarter-ton, four-wheel drive reconnaissance car capable of carrying useful loads, with proposals to be submitted within just 11 days. Only three contenders responded, and by late November 1940 American Bantam Car Co., Ford Motor Co. and Willys-Overland Motors had delivered prototypes for comprehensive Army trials at Fort Knox, Ky.

Each of the contenders had its merits, but in the end it was Willys’ “Quad”—powered by a 60-hp L134 “Go Devil” engine that produced 105 foot-pounds of torque, compared to 83 for Bantam’s pilot and 85 for Ford’s “Pygmy”—that got the contract. Willys continued to refine its design as the MA in 1941 and finally the MB, of which more than 360,000 were produced between 1941 and 1945. Nearly one-third of that output went to Britain and the Soviet Union.

Soldiers found so many uses for the small general purpose (GP) vehicle that it seemed natural to name it a “jeep,” after the versatile magical creature from the popular Popeye theatrical cartoon shorts. The wheeled jeep became legendary for its exploits over the most inhospitable terrain, and improved versions—including the M151 Mutt, built by Ford—served through the 1990s. A total of 600,000 military jeeps were built during World War II, and countless such vehicles drive on in civilian hands. MH

 

  • Workers lower the body on the chassis of Ford’s “Pygmy” prototype at the company’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich., in 1940. Though Willys’ design prevailed in trials, Ford was among the contractors who produced jeeps. (Armstrong Roberts/Classic Stock/Getty Images)
  • General Dwight D. Eisenhower drives out in his jeep to deliver his Christmas message to the Allies on Dec. 20, 1944. (Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo)
  • A well-armed and fully manned jeep fights its way into a Japanese-held town in China in one of many Willys advertisements extolling the vehicle’s exploits. (Bridgeman Images)
  • An illustration from a 1942 issue of Popular Science relates the mechanical highlights that made the jeep such a useful vehicle. (Popular Science)
  • British Special Air Service commandos take the jeep’s “reconnaissance car” designation in a more offensive direction, striking out across the Sahara Desert with jerricans full of fuel and water to assault Axis targets with multiple machine guns. (Imperial War Museums)
  • On Aug. 10, 1943, Brig. Gen. Carl W. Connell, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Air Service Command South West Pacific Area, hauls a truckload of American aircraft parts in a jeep adapted to the tracks of an Australian railway. (Australian War Memorial)
  • Canadians transport two wounded comrades in a field-modified jeep ambulance of the 9th Brigade, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, at Basly, Normandy, on June 27, 1944. (Photos Normandie)
  • The jeep’s compact size and relatively light weight made it practicable to airlift, here in an American Waco CG-4A assault glider taking on the vehicle for Operation Market Garden, the September 1944 airborne invasion of the Netherlands. (Popperfoto/Getty Images)
  • Rugged the jeep may have proved, but even it couldn’t survive a June 1944 encounter with a German land mine on the road to Saint-Sever-Calvados, Normandy. (National Archives)
  • Three grateful Parisiennes thank a smiling pair of U.S. soldiers parading their jeep along the Champs-Élysées during the liberation of the French capital on Aug. 26, 1944. (AFP/Getty Images)
  • In one of Stars and Stripes enlisted cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s most celebrated cartoons a veteran first sergeant of a U.S. cavalry unit tearfully “dispatches” his crippled mount. (Bill Mauldin Estate, LLC)