When we think historic American cars, there’s a short list that immediately comes to mind. The Ford Mustang, Chevy Corvette, Dodge Charger, Chevy Suburban, Ford F-Series, and Lincoln Continental would all make it without question. And despite their utter lack of prestige and sex appeal, firsts like the Dodge Caravan (first minivan), and AMC Eagle (first crossover) have a pretty strong case too. But while gearheads could spend years debating the finer points of what makes an American car a legend, one stands proudly and immovably above the rest.
In what could be the most star-spangled unveiling of any car in history, the original Jeep debuted on February 19, 1941, by driving up the steps of the Capitol in a display of what the U.S. Army’s new four-wheel drive utility vehicle could do. Four years later, it was a war hero. And in the 74 years since, it’s gone on to become one of the most recognizable vehicles on the planet, as well as famously earn the endorsement of Enzo Ferrari, who declared: “Jeep is America’s only real sports car.”
While Jeep the brand is happy to tout its impressive history every chance it gets, the Jeep story is anything but fairy-tale. In fact, if things had turned out any differently, there’s a good chance the Jeep would’ve ended up with a big blue Ford badge above its iconic seven-slot grille.
The world was an uncertain place when the Army began looking to replace its small, aging fleet of light vehicles in the late ’30s. But the project took on a sense of urgency in late 1939, when Hitler’s blitzkrieg stormed across most of continental Europe. It looked like America was headed for war, and the Army needed a small, rugged vehicle as soon as possible. On July 11, 1940, the Army reached out to 135 American auto manufacturers to design a very specific type of vehicle: It needed a 75- (later upped to 80) inch wheelbase, a 47-inch track, a fold down windshield, room for three, be able to carry a 660-pound payload, and weigh less than 1,300 pounds. It needed to have four-wheel drive, produce at least 85 pound-feet of torque – and automakers had 11 days to respond.
Only three companies went for it: American Bantam, a Pennsylvania-based builder of British Austin cars, Willys-Overland, and Ford. The companies had 49 days to deliver a prototype to the Army, and 75 days to build 70 mules for testing. While Willys and Ford delivered remarkably similar prototypes, Bantam won the contract. Unfortunately, the company was too small to deliver on the scale the Army wanted, so Bantam’s winning designs went to Willys. Speaking with soldiers during testing, Willys test driver Red Hausmann learned that “jeep” was army slang for test vehicles. Some months later, when asked by reporters in Washington what just climbed up the Capitol steps, he responded, “It’s a Jeep.” The rest is history.
Scrambling to get up to speed, the Army placed an initial order for all three Jeeps, with production starting on March 31, 1941. By the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, Bantam had sputtered out, providing the government with trailers for the rest of the war. The Army wanted a minimum of 75 Jeeps a day, and with even top-dog Willys failing to keep up with demand, the government also tapped Ford to shoulder some production burden.
Until April 1942, Jeeps used Willys’s original design, which had an open face, with welded steel bars protecting its inboard headlights and radiator. Ford designed a simple, cheaper stamped steel face with a nine-slat grille, creating the iconic Jeep front end we all know today. And through President Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program, Jeeps landed in Europe long before any Americans did. During the war, some 51,000 Jeeps went to British, Polish, and Soviet troops, instantly making it the vehicle of choice for the Allies.
By the spring of ’45, with the end of the war beginning to come into focus, and Jeeps spread out all over the globe, Willys began to plan for the future. For hundreds of thousands of soldiers, the Jeep was more than a piece of equipment. With its simple mechanicals and tireless four-wheel drive system, it became something to trust and depend on. There wasn’t much that could go wrong, and if it did, it was usually something that could be fixed in the field. When the war ended in 1945, Willys had built over 363,000 Jeeps (and Ford some 280,000), and was confident that there would be a market for the little trucks. By 1948, Willys was offering a full lineup of Jeeps, with the CJ (Civilian Jeep) 2A, a station wagon, pickup truck, and Jeepster roadster. Ford sued Willys over its use of the Jeep name, but the lawsuit was unsuccessful. Today, Ford’s involvement in the Jeep story has all but absent from the brand’s official history.
By the end of the ’40s, the biggest difference between the CJ Jeep and the military MB jeep was their seven-slat grilles. Other than that, it was exactly as Willys predicted: CJs were incredibly popular with ex-GIs, farmers, and small business owners. But by the 1950s, it just couldn’t compete with the Big Three anymore. In 1953, it merged with Kaiser Motors to become Kaiser-Willys, then after 1960, Kaiser-Jeep. The company expanded throughout the decade, adding the Wagoneer, Gladiator pickups, and a revived Jeepster, but its marquee model was still the CJ-model. In 1970, Jeep was sold again, this time to American Motors Corporation, which quickly began to rely on Jeep as its top-performing lineup.
In the ’70s, AMC added the Cherokee SUV, the short-lived Commander, and updated the CJ-5 to the CJ-7. But by the ’80s, the company was on its last legs, and despite the iconic redesign of the 1984 Cherokee, it was in trouble. Safety and emissions laws had put the CJ-Jeeps on the endangered species list, and with army and civilian models no longer interchangeable, the last CJ-7 rolled off the line in 1986 – the last direct descendent of the truck that climbed to the Capitol 45 years before.
But the original Jeep story doesn’t end there. Over the years, the military had left hundreds of thousands of Jeeps behind, usually auctioning them off to local populations. In the Philippines, Jeeps were customized with outrageous bodies and paint jobs, used as everything from taxicabs to buses, and today, the Jeepney is considered to be a symbol of national pride. In other parts of the world, early Jeeps were licensed out to other manufacturers, and as a result, companies like Hotchkiss in France made a version of the World War II era MB until 1981, Indian Mahindra sold a ’50s-era CJ-3B as the MM540 until 1995, while Mitsubishi’s CJ-3B soldiered on in Japan until 1998. And in a bizarre twist of fate, Willys survived in Brazil until 1967, when Ford took it over and sold CJ-5s in that country until 1983.
AMC Jeep launched the more civilized YJ Wrangler for 1987, and it was an instant sales success. When Chrysler bought AMC (primarily for the Jeep brand) in 1987, it kept the Wrangler in production relatively unchanged until 1995. For 1997, round headlights returned in the TJ Wrangler, which begat the JK Wrangler in 2007, and carries on today. So while the Wrangler isn’t a true CJ, it’s as close to the go-anywhere off-roader that helped win the war 70 years ago. Today, Jeep is parent company Fiat Chrysler’s best-selling brand, and despite its body-on-frame construction and solid axles that offer a rough ride on pavement, Wranglers sell so well that dealers can’t keep them in stock. The reason is simple: In nearly 75 years, the descendants of the Willys MB have never been more complex than they legally need to be, they can take just about anything, and if something breaks, it’s likely fixable with an afternoon’s worth of work. In 2015, we can still buy a (relatively) compact, four-wheel drive, open-topped two-door with removable doors that can be driven in anger miles from the nearest paved road. That alone proves Enzo Ferrari right.
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