A brief history about the original Jeep
While the Jeep is famous for its history of service in the US military, there are some misunderstandings about who created the original Jeep. Many incorrectly attribute the development of the first Jeep to Willys. The true inspiration for the first Jeep design came from a small and relatively unknown company by the name of the American Bantam Car Company based in Butler, Pennsylvania.
The American Bantam Car Company was first established as a subsidiary of Austin Car Company, a British automobile manufacturer, and was originally called the American Austin Car Company. Austin made a small, inexpensive car called the Austin Seven, which was very popular in England. Unfortunately for the Austin Car Company, the Austin Seven was never popular here in the states and the American Austin Car Company was on the brink of bankruptcy. It was finally taken over by its president, who changed his name to American Bantam Car Company (Bantam). Bantam took the original Austin Seven design and made a number of improvements. It was a slightly larger version than its British cousin and was capable of driving longer.
The Bantam people pioneered and saw the need for a light military vehicle. They provided some of their cars to the National Guard in an effort to sell the use of those vehicles to the military. The military finally realized the need for a light mobile vehicle and finally agreed to discuss a design with Banatm in 1940. The result of this meeting was a proposed 4X4 military hybrid that would weigh less than 1,300 pounds. In 1941 Bantam developed a Bantam Reconnaissance Car in response to a request from the US Army for a military multipurpose vehicle. This vehicle eventually became the prototype for the Jeep, which was later manufactured by Willys (Willys MB) and Ford (GPW).
The US military was concerned about Bantam’s ability to produce the required number of vehicles and therefore decided to offer other manufacturers the opportunity to produce the vehicle. The requirement was to design a vehicle and, with the approval of the US military, the manufacturer had to build and deliver a prototype in 49 days. With the approval of the prototype by the military, an additional 70 work platforms would be delivered in 75 days. The required weight limit drove many manufacturers away from the project with only Bantam and Willys participating initially, with Ford joining later.
The Bantam drawings were the closest to military requirements even though their design had problems with weight restrictions. The company completed its design and built and delivered the prototype on time. The servicemen who had tested the vehicle to its fullest were satisfied with the design and performance, and commissioned the construction of 70 additional vehicles. This is where the military began to worry about Bantam’s ability to produce enough vehicles. The company was quite small and had limited capacity. What the military did was grant Willys and Ford access to testing the Bantam prototype and their actual designs, despite the fact that Willys did not submit a prototype in time and Ford showed little interest in the effort up to that point. Both Ford and Willys were allowed to introduce prototypes, the Quad (Willys) and Pygmy (Ford), well outside the specified timeframe and well over the required weight limit. Both Ford and Willys “borrowed” quite a few versions of the Bantam design.
The Bantam vehicle, Bantam GPV (General Purpose Vehicle), was delivered on time, met most specifications, and performed well in testing. By all accounts, Bantam should have been awarded the contract, and there was a lot of controversy over how the contract was handled. The military, unfortunately for Bantam, identified the strengths and weaknesses of each vehicle. The Bantam was high off the ground and underpowered, while the Quad was well over the weight limit but had a more powerful engine, and the Pygmy was underpowered and suspect steering components, but handled the best of all three vehicles. . The military still concerned about the capacity of two of the companies, Bantam and Willys, decided to order 1,500 vehicles and each company produced 500, provided they met the original specifications and the only change would be an increase in the weight limit. to a little over 2,200 pounds.
The three companies took the best ideas from each other and from Bantam’s original production design to further develop their vehicles, making all 3 vehicles extremely similar. In mid-1941, the military decided that the 1,500 vehicles should have a standardized design and not three different types. Ultimately, they chose the Willys design due to its lower cost, and that version was adopted as the standard army vehicle. Willys went on to secure the contract to provide the next 16,000 Willys. This contract award required a number of design alterations, leading to the classic standard Jeep design.
Bantam continued to produce its production version, known as the Bantam 40 BRC, but the US Army did not want it because it was not standard. Vehicles already produced and new production units were sent to the Russian and British armies. It is very interesting to note that after looking at the test tests, the Russian army chose the Bantam over the Willys and Ford units. Willys’ eventual design closely resembles the 40 BRC.
In the winter of 1941, the military wanted to develop a second source for the vehicle because Willys could not meet production requirements and wanted a safeguard against possible sabotage at the only production plant. In November, the United States Army awarded Ford to build 15,000 jeeps with the Willys design and drawing. The Willys MB and Ford GPW vary in minor details only because the military required the parts to be interchangeable. The GPW in the Ford model name was a reference to G for a government vehicle, P was for its wheelbase size, and W was for a Willys engine. The only change Ford made, which was adopted by the military as the standard design, was the now familiar grille. With Ford now producing the jeep alongside Willys, the Army was able to provide the jeeps to its allies and production of the Bantam 40 BRC was discontinued.
The combined production of Willys MB and Ford GPW during World War II exceeded 500,000 units. A total of 2,675 of the BRC Bantam 40s were built. The company reportedly never produced vehicles again. The US military awarded Bantam contracts to build trailers as a way to compensate them for not receiving the jeep contract.
So who created the original jeep? Well, historically this has seen a bit of controversy dating back to 1943 when the Fair Trade Commission finally charged Willys with false and misleading advertising claims that Willys created the Jeep. The court determined that the Jeep was created and engineered in Butler, PA, by the American Bantam Car Company. The lead designer who worked on the Jeep project for Bantam was Karl Probst, and now you know who actually created the first Jeep.