Jeep brand born in Army trenches

U.S. Army personnel drive a Willys-built Army Jeep in this Dec. 7, 1940, file photo.
U.S. Army personnel drive a Willys-built Army Jeep in this Dec. 7, 1940, file photo.

Jeep is Toledo’s heritage.

First it became instrumental for the United States in World War II. Then it became the genesis of today’s prevalent sport utility vehicles by every automaker.

Toledo is still the only place in the world making the Jeep Wrangler and Jeep Liberty.

The brand was born when the Army wanted a reconnaissance and message-dispatching vehicle to replace the motorcycle with something more rugged.

“The Jeep had a personality the soldiers bonded with,” said Brandt Rosenbusch, manager of historical services for Chrysler Group LLC. “Soldiers get attached to things that work.”

Those Jeeps, precursors of the Wrangler, were in the gliders that landed in Normandy on D-Day and were the first vehicles off the landing crafts in the South Pacific when the Allies invaded islands. Intended to run messages to the front line and to scout out the enemy before an attack, the military was quick to use the first Jeeps as ambulances, weapon carriers, and more.

The Jeep was lower than trucks used in combat, so soldiers could avoid some fire and stay more discreet.

Its light weight also allowed it to be flown on airplanes. Jeeps could take damage and continue running, and because they were standardized, parts could be quickly exchanged.

“It was there in the trenches with them,” Mr. Rosenbusch said. “It never let them down. It was as important as their rifle at the end of the day.”

The brainchild of three companies — American Bantam Car Co., Willys-Overland, and Ford Motor Co. — the first model, the “MB,” was a combination of ideas. The Army originally invited 135 manufacturers to bid on production, given a lengthy list of specifications that required features such as blackout lights, a 600-pound load capacity, and a height of less than 36 inches.

American Bantam delivered the first prototype after Ohio State University engineer Karl Probst spent 18 straight hours designing the “Blitz Buggy,” a name later popularized in Great Britain. The prototype was complete within 49 days.

Willys-Overland set the precedent for a superior engine, the “Go-Devil,” when it sent the Army its “Quads,” later called “MAs.” The company approved a $40,000 expenditure to send the Army the two Quad prototypes. The prototypes featured “a gearshift on the steering column, low side body cutouts, two circular instrument clusters on the dashboard, and a hand brake on the left side,” according to the Walter P. Chrysler Museum.

The Army drew other features from Ford’s Model GP (General Purpose), known as the “Pygmy.”

The Army approved the three designs and requested 70 test vehicles of each. They were delivered in 1940 to Camp Holabird, Md., but each model exceeded the Army’s weight limit. The limit was raised to 2,160 pounds, and each company sent another 1,500 vehicles for testing. Willys-Overland’s 1,500 MAs were produced in Toledo. The final MB product was 400 pounds overweight.

Willys-Overland obtained the first major production contract in July, 1941. The three bidding companies produced 642,000 Jeeps during the war, and 361,000 came from the Willys-Overland plant in Toledo.

The Spicer Manufacturing Co., another Toledo firm, is credited with developing Jeep’s four-wheel drive.

These Jeeps were used not only by the United States, but were among the most valuable items sent to Great Britain and Russia. The British, who attached machine guns to the vehicles to attack German fuel supply lines, nicknamed the Jeeps “desert rats.”

Production of the military vehicle kept Toledo’s Willys-Overland plant busy during the war. A Jeep rolled off the assembly line every two minutes. A typical work shift was 10 hours, six days a week, in hot, dirty conditions.

With many men overseas in the war, the plant hired women, paying them 95 cents an hour, or a nickel less than men.

For many women, it was the first time they wore slacks to go to work. Ron Szymanski, a retired Jeep employee who worked at the Willys-Overland plant for 35 years, said many women who had been working in the plant during the war were entitled to keep their jobs when the war ended. The women, he said, did not work at any task that would require them to lift more than 10 pounds.

The origin of the Jeep name remains unclear. Some say it came from a phonetic version of the “GP.” Others attribute it to the small character, Jeep, from Popeye comic strips. Like the car, Jeep the character could travel anywhere despite his size. There are accounts, Mr. Rosenbusch said, of soldiers using the term “Jeep” for any light and small test vehicle before the introduction of the MB.

After the war, Willys-Overland attempted to capitalize on the relationship its go-anywhere, do-anything vehicle had forged with the millions of soldiers, sailors, and Marines who had used the vehicle to accomplish their missions.

In 1946, Willys-Overland copyrighted the “Jeep” name and debuted the Jeep CJ-2A, a “civilian” version of the military Jeep that traded its gun mounts for more mundane tasks. It featured a power takeoff, allowing engine power to be used for operating other equipment, that made it capable of serving as a small tractor, But it also could take four people to church on Sunday.

A year later, attempting to broaden the new brand’s appeal, the Toledo company expanded its product lineup to include two and four-wheel-drive trucks, and by 1948, had brought out a much-improved Jeep CJ-3A model to address some of the earlier civilian Jeep’s more notable comfort shortcomings.

All the while, the company’s Toledo plant continued to turn out military versions of the Jeep, and in 1950, the plant’s 17,000 employees produced 151,415 civilian and military vehicles, with civilian models outnumbering their military counterparts.

Willys-Overland tried several times to bring the Jeep name to passenger vehicles, including the Jeepster, a two-door convertible top vehicle built between 1948 and 1950 that might be considered one of the first “crossover” vehicles. But sales were lackluster for the rear-wheel drive Jeepster.

In 1953, Kaiser Manufacturing Corp. bought Willys-Overland Motors Inc. for $62.3 million, and a year later introduced the Jeep CJ-5, a rounded-over version of the civilian Jeep that would stay in production with some modifications for the next 29 years.

While Jeep’s corporate ownership changed a few times over the next several decades — Kaiser begat American Motors Corp. in 1969, and French automaker Renault took a big stake of AMC in 1980 — Jeep’s vehicles remained relatively consistent throughout much of the period, with the brand experimenting in different segments of the auto market. That changed in 1983, when the first versions of what would become one of the best-selling sport utility vehicles of all time, the Jeep Cherokee, or XJ, debuted.

A much smaller version of the full-sized SJ-model Jeep that had carried the Cherokee name since 1974, the new XJ was a lighter, boxier, unibody vehicle that found broad market acceptance and is credited with helping to ignite the SUV craze in the late 1980s and 1990s. More than 2 million XJs were built from the now-gone Jeep Parkway plant over the vehicle’s 17-year production run, overlapping Jeep’s replacement of its CJs with a new version — now called Wrangler — in 1987, and introduction of the new Detroit-built Grand Cherokee in 1993.

Two of the Jeep brand’s most recent vehicles each had significant impacts on the brand’s hometown work force in Toledo. In 2001, four years after Chrysler Corp. agreed to build a new state-of-the-art production facility in Toledo, the first Jeep Liberty, a new compact SUV intended to replace the aging Cherokee, rolled off its Toledo assembly line.

Six years later, the brand debuted its first four-door version of the Wrangler, called the Wrangler Unlimited, from a second new assembly plant in Toledo.

Contact Larry Vellequette at
or 419-724-6091.