The Jeep firmly rooted itself not only in American automotive circles but throughout American culture across the board. “Jeep” represents the literal manufacturer as much as it does the general concept of 4×4 off-road vehicles, at this point. How did Jeep become synonymous with sport utility vehicles?
Jeep’s role in WWII certainly set the stage for the world to recognize the Jeep as a symbol of America. The origins of the Jeep are a long and curvy series of intersections of government contracts and varied companies’ attempts at building a tough and general-purpose vehicle for the American military. No matter how they came to be, their role in assisting the Allies in WWII is undeniable.
How Jeep got its name
“Jeeps” were once just a nickname for the Willys-Overland model MB. After over seven decades, the origins of the name “Jeep” are still unclear. There are several theories that try to explain where the nickname originated.
One of the most popular explanations is that Jeep comes from the acronym “GP” standing for “general purpose,” according to Military History Now. Another popular theory is that the American GI’s nicknamed it “Jeep” after a character from the ’30s cartoon, Popeye. He had a four-legged, agile little sidekick named Jeep. The Military History Now article further delves into these theories. Whether it’s a U.S. Army acronym or cartoon character, the name Jeep stuck and stuck hard.
Enzo Ferrari weighs in
But was the Willys MB really a sports car? Enzo Ferarri thought so. Enzo was in his mid-40s by 1942 when the Americans came to Europe from the war, so he likely saw his share of little Willys-Overland Model MBs bopping around Modena. He once said, “The Jeep is America’s only sports car.” Coming from the father of Ferrari, it can be tough to know if he meant that as a dig or not. I’ll choose to take it at face value and keep it moving.
The Willys MB experience
But was Ferrari right? “Only” feels like a stretch, but I do think he was on to something. Todd Lassa from MotorTrend spent the day with a Willys MB and its owner, Ren Bernier. Lassa describes the interior Willys MB as having a stark interior, primitive seat belts, small and uncomfortable front seats, and a rear bench for two. For the Army’s practical purposes, the Willys MB didn’t use a key for the ignition, only a choke and a switch. It sounds like a sports car to me.
The drivetrain is equally stark and purpose-built, according to Lassa. He describes the driving experience as being intuitive, and the four-cylinder runs smoothly. The Willys has an H-pattern, three-speed gearbox. Lassa recounts plenty of gear grinding, yet a clutch “as light and progressive as a modern Honda’s. He recalls the steering being “light and quick” if not maybe too quick even due to its short wheelbase. Bernier’s Willys MB has a manufacturer’s plate on the dash informing the driver that 65 mph is the safest top speed for the Jeep, but Lassa says 55 mph was terrifying.
So, are Jeeps sports cars?
Jeeps have gone through a vast series of massive changes, updates, and complete overhauls. Jeep has also expanded from the Willys-esque models like the CJ and Wrangler, offering a wide variety of economy and SUV, focusing on more road-going designs. The CJ and Wrangler models mostly stayed simple, bare-bones vehicles throughout the years. It wasn’t until the JK model that these style Jeeps got interiors with luxury appointments.
So, are Jeeps (Willys, CJ, and YJ and TJ Wranglers) sports cars? They are small, uncomfortable, impractical, stark, flashy graphics packages, easily modified, loud, purpose-built convertibles that, at one point, had switches instead of keys. Now, I doubt I’d argue that they are the best sports car, but I don’t know, y’all –that kind of sounds like a great sports car to me.