In 1940 the world was erupting into war. At this time America was still sitting on the sidelines, however, Germany was about to start sinking American merchant vessels moving resources to Britain. Also, the Japanese were about to overrun American held Philippines, while pressure from allied countries urging the Americans to get in the game made it clear that the US couldn't stave off conflict much longer. The US Army at this time was still using the aged Ford Model-T as their General Purpose (GP) vehicles. It was clear that a new vehicle would be needed for the coming war that would require a highly mechanized force.
In June 1940, the U.S. military informed automakers that it was looking for a “light reconnaissance vehicle.” The Army invited 135 manufacturers to bid on production and developed a lengthy specification list. They wanted a vehicle with a 600-lb load capacity with a wheelbase less than 75-inches, a height less than 36-inches, a gross weight below 1,300-lb, a fold down windshield, three bucket seats and blackout driving lights. But most importantly, this vehicle needed to have a two-speed transfer case and four-wheel-drive. Only three manufacturers answered the call, Bantam, Ford and a newly reorganized company called Willys-Overland.
Willys-Overland was founded by John North Willys who bought Overland Automotive from the Standard Wheel Company back in 1908, then renamed the company Willys-Overland. During this time Willys began buying up several automotive companies to the point that they had become the second largest automaker in the US by 1918, behind Ford. However, with the great depression the company fell into bankruptcy. By 1936, they had sold off all their acquisitions to become a viable automaker once again when the Army came calling.
In the summer of 1940, Willy's along with Ford and Bantam got approval to build 7 test examples of their respective designs. The Willys prototype, named the Quad, was initially thought to be too heavy. For a second round of field testing, the Government released Bantams blueprints to both Willys and Ford sighting that Bantam did not have the resources for war-time mass production. As a result Willys incorporated several of the Bantams designs in the new Quad and the engineers stripped out all the weight they could find. Bolts were cut, sheet metal thinned and ten pounds of paint was taken off. When weighed, they had seven ounces to spare, and renamed it the “MA” for “Military" model "A." Fords prototype, the Pygmy, also benefited from the release of Bantams designs. As a result, 1,500 examples of each were built for field testing purposes.
However, by this time, the threat of war was very real, and the Army still didn't have a standardized vehicle. At the time the MA was considered more attractive mostly due to its more powerful engine. And so the War Department hastily made the decision to go with the Willys bid, but wanted all the best bits of the Ford and Bantam incorporated into the MA. With the winning bid in hand, Willys complied, modified the MA with the desirable parts from Ford and Bantam and re-designated it the MB.
While the 4,500 field test prototypes where shipped to Russia and Britain as part of the lend-lease program, Willys began production of the MB late in 1941 at the companies Toledo Factory in Ohio. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, America entered the war and production of the MB was increased to the point one vehicle was leaving the factory every minute and a half. Soon the US would find itself fighting in two theaters of war, so additional MB were built by Ford, under license to meet the demand, while Bantam was relegated to building trailers for the vehicles they had a major hand in designing. By the end of the war, Willys would produce more than 368,000 vehicles, and Ford an additional 277,000, for the Allied forces.
During the war, the MB was the lifeblood of the military, and its durability and performance proved without a doubt to be one of the major factors for winning the war. It could operate without strain from three to 60 miles per hour. It could handle a forty-degree slope, turn in a thirty foot circle, and tilt on a fifty-degree angle without tipping over. One soldier commented, “It does everything. It goes everywhere. It's as faithful as a dog, strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It constantly carries twice what it was designed for, and keeps on going.”
During its service in the war, the MB picked up a nick name given to it by the soldiers that drover it. Troops began calling the MB the Jeep. There is no definitive evidence as to how the name came about, but the more popular story is that when “GP” was slurred by soldiers, it sounded like they were saying jeep. Another story, says the name came from a character in the Popeye cartoon.
Willys trademarked the “Jeep” name after the war and planned to turn the vehicle into an off-road utility vehicle for the farm. As soldiers returned home from overseas, finding customers who respected the abilities of the Jeep would not be a problem. The first civilian Jeep vehicle, the CJ-2A, was produced in 1945. Willys advertisements marketed the Jeep as a work vehicle for farmers and construction workers. It came with a tailgate, side-mounted spare tire, larger headlights, an external fuel cap and many more items that its military predecessors did not include.
The CJ would continue to evolve over the years while Willys added several other versions based on the same platform. Willys came out with a delivery panel van in 1946, a one-ton pick-up version was conceived in 1947 along with a woody wagon. In 1956, a cab-over commercial truck was designed on a CJ-5 platform. Designated the FC-170, standing for “Forward Control,” due to its seating position over the front wheels for added cargo space.
Jeeps line of 4WD vehicles would become ever more popular over the years. The original little army jeep would transform into the CJ then the Wrangler. It has survived five corporate ownership changes to become the most recognizable 4WD brand. Today, the Wrangler Rubicon represents the best out-of-the-box all-terrain vehicle available on the market in North America. In it's military life, the MB would evolve into the M-38, then in 1981, the US military decided that after serving in three major wars, the little Jeep was obsolete. AM General won the contract to replace the jeep with their High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, HMMWV for short. Ironically, like the Jeep back in the forties, HMMWV when slurred by an American soldier sounds like “Humvee,” and thus torch was passed to start a new era in all terrain mobility.