PITTSBURGH -- Thirty miles north of Pittsburgh, where industrial giants like U.S. Steel started to forge the backbone of the nation's upcoming World War II machine, a tiny firm that made even tinier cars developed the prototype for a vehicle that would revolutionize the way soldiers traveled: the Jeep.
The inaugural Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival, which began Friday and ends Sunday, features a parade of more than 1,200 Jeeps; a "playground" where aficionados can drive over rocky obstacles, hills, and bridges. There also will be fair-like entertainment and food.
But most important, the event shines a spotlight on Butler and the defunct American Bantam Car Co., which has made the city of nearly 14,000 residents almost famous.
"It's not what you would call an invention like a light bulb. It's a design," said Bill Spear, an Alaska Jeep enthusiast and expert on American Bantam. "But, that being said, it's one of the most enduring and original designs in automotive history."
The thumbnail version is that American Bantam was one of just two firms -- out of 135 solicited -- to bid on a contract for a lightweight, all-terrain vehicle as top federal and military officials prepared in 1940 for the United States to go to war.
Willys-Overland is often credited with inventing the Jeep because it emerged from the war with the rights to the vehicle's design and trademarked the name afterward.
But Willys couldn't meet the government's 49-day deadline to build a prototype. Only Bantam did that.
And yet Bantam was pushed to the sidelines.
A congressional inquiry into how that happened was trumped by Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, as Willys and Ford won contracts and made history, producing nearly 650,000 Jeeps for the war.
Bantam survived by making military trailers, torpedo motors, and aircraft landing gear before it was bought by Armco Steel in 1956.
Locals bristle at the oft-repeated history that American Bantam was passed over because the company was in financial trouble and thought not able to deliver a big order.
"There is no more real dispute between any of the corporations," said Jay Margolies, the president and owner of Willys-Overland Motors, of Toledo. "But there is a dispute among aficionados, and they'll go on forever about it. They even argue about how to pronounce Willys."
Mr. Margolies' firm specializes in Jeep replacement parts, but his company is not otherwise in the lineage the original firm or affiliated with it.