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SciTech Tuesday: The Anniversary of the Jeep

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On September 27 of 1940 a vehicle prototype made by American Bantam Car Company began testing at Camp Holabird in Maryland. Bantam was the only company to respond to a request from the military for a small, lightweight, powerful, 4-wheel drive vehicle. The car tested well, but there were concerns about Bantam’s size and financial state, so the government gave Willys Overland and Ford a chance to study the vehicle and copies of its blueprints.

Willys and Ford submitted prototypes in November of 1940, and they also tested well, and were not-surprisingly all very similar. Orders were placed for 1,500 vehicles from each company.

In July of 1941 the military decided it would be best to standardize and choose one vehicle to use. They awarded the contract for the next 16,000 vehicles to Willys because it was less expensive and had a more powerful engine. In the end Willys could not meet production targets and Ford was licensed to make some of the vehicles too. During the war Willys made 363,000 and Ford made 280,000 ‘Jeeps.’

There is much conjecture and not a lot of evidence on the etymology of the term ‘Jeep.’ My favorite is that the soldiers loved the vehicle and named it after a popular cartoon character, Popeye’s sidekick Eugene the Jeep. The name was first used in print when Willys staged a publicity event and invited photographers to see the vehicle drive up the Capital steps in Washington, DC. The caption refers to the vehicle as a ‘jeep.’

The first 4-wheel drive vehicles were made for the military in WWI by the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company and Thomas B Jeffrey Company. After WWII, Willys produced the CJ (Civilian Jeep), and when American Bantam went bankrupt in 1950 Willys was granted the Jeep trademark.

Happy 76th birthday to the Jeep.

Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

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