One of the car world’s most iconic brands began with a vehicle originally designed not for the boulevard but for the battlefield. The Willys Overland “jeep”, the world’s first mass-produced four-wheel drive car was developed during WWII with the help of Bantam, Willys Overland, and Ford. The US Army needed a versatile vehicle for reconnaissance, troop and weapons transport, one ruggedly capable in various terrains and weather conditions, and, perhaps most importantly, able to hold up under the intense rigors of warfare and remain reliable.
The US Army received just such a vehicle starting with the Willys MA in 1941 (first shipped to Allied powers as part of the “Lend-Lease” program), followed by the Willys MB later that same year. It was this model, the MB, which became the ubiquitous “jeep” of legend, described in its patent as “cargo truck, personnel carrier, emergency ambulance, field bed, radio car, trench mortar unit, mobile anti-aircraft machine gun unit, or for other purposes.”
The “jeep” quickly earned the admiration of Allied soldiers for its versatility and uncanny ability to muscle through even the worst field conditions and keep running strong. War reporter Erie Pyle echoed soldiers’ common sentiments on the “jeep” thusly: “It does everything. It goes everywhere. It’s as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It constantly carries twice what it was designed for and still keeps going.” Indeed, the Willy’s MB ¼ ton 4×4 embodied the notion of efficiency through simplicity. It featured 8 ¾ inches of ground clearance, a 3-speed manual transmission and a straight 4-cylinder L134 Willys “Go Devil” engine providing 60 hp and a top speed of 65 mph. All of which added up to a uniquely capable machine popular among enlisted men and officers alike. One such officer was General George S Patton (1885-1945).
During WWII, General Patton campaigned in North Africa and Sicily before commanding the US Third Army in Europe following the D-Day invasion. Patton felt it was important for a military leader to serve as a figure of inspiration for his troops. To that end, Patton often delivered rousing, sometimes profanity laced speeches to his soldiers, carried two ivory-handled pistols (a .45 caliber and a .357 magnum) on his belt, and rode standing high in his command vehicle as he led his column of troops.
It was this last tendency that made famous his customized “jeep.” Patton’s “jeep” was specially equipped with bullet-proof glass, machine gun, an upgraded engine, and two large Buell air horns used to signal his arrival. In addition to these more practical modifications, Patton’s “jeep” also flew a red metal flag from its hood and had three white stars emblazoned along the grill (and later four stars) to indicate the General’s rank.
Patton’s vehicle options did not stop at the Willys Overland “jeep,” however. He also used a ¾ ton Dodge WC57 Command car, an M20 armored car, and a converted GMC ST5 shop van functioning as a mobile HQ. Like his “jeep,” Patton’s Dodge command car was customized with his signature horns, general’s stars, and flag, as well as additional armoring and a .50 caliber machine gun to provide anti-aircraft fire. Indeed, Patton had good reason to fear becoming a target for Luftwaffe planes as the Dodge Command cars tended to stick out when viewed from above and were often targeted by enemy aircraft. But, typical of his lead from the front approach, Patton didn’t seem overly troubled in making himself a target. Plus, the side mounting of the .50 caliber machine gun would have allowed him to personally return fire if need be. The M20 armored car Patton used during his frequent visits to the front lines was outfitted similarly to the “jeep” and Dodge, with stars and air horns, but it was also equipped with a large windshield added to maintain visibility as Patton preferred to ride standing while racing down dusty dirt roads.
After the war, the first “jeeps” manufactured for public consumption were the early CJ or “Civilian Jeep” models marketed as “The All-Around Farm Work-Horse.” The nifty convertible Jeepster, sold as an affordable sports car, was followed not long after by the Willys Overland Jeep brand truck. These were just a few of the early offerings in a long line of what became one of America’s most recognizable automotive brands.
The name “jeep” and its connection to the Willys Overland military vehicle remains something of an etymological mystery. Some source it to the E.C. Segar Popeye comics and the bizarre, bulbous-nosed creature known as the “jeep,” which possessed otherworldly capabilities like walking through walls and teleportation. With similar “go anywhere” abilities, this could be where the Willys Overland got its name. Still others offer the simpler explanation that “jeep” is a rough phonetic version of the “GP,” the name of Ford’s “jeep” prototype. There also appear to be instances of “jeep” being used as military slang for new recruits and for untested/prototype vehicles. Whatever its actual origins, it wasn’t until after many years of legal wrangling with Bantam that Willys Overland was finally granted the official trademark in 1950 and the Jeep brand was born.
Renowned for its toughness, iconic name, and distinctive grill, whether driven by G.I.s in the field or ridden by their hardnosed generals, the greatest legacy of the Willys Overland “jeep” remains its indispensable contribution to practical military mobility and a lynchpin of Allied success in WWII.