History of JEEP
Jeep is an extremely rare thing – a military vehicle that has achieved success as a non-military vehicle. However, most of what makes Jeeps exceptional is their lack of exceptional features. Even the name suggests a certain level of anonymity – derived from the initials GP or General Purpose.
Jeeps were commissioned during World War II as a rapid and robust personnel carrier. In effect, they were designed to move quickly across disparate terrain. The task couldn’t have been less glamorous in a war defined by monstrous battleships, daredevil pilots, and huge amphibious landings.
Soon enough, Jeep vehicles began to not just stand out but to excel. General MacArthur and General Eisenhower both described Jeeps as being the most important vehicle of the war, and Nazi and Soviet generals concurred.
Postwar, many returning soldiers felt affection to the vehicle that won the war, and Jeeps made the transition to a popular civilian vehicle. Jeeps today experience high levels of customer satisfaction (as demonstrated by the chart below), as befits their origin as solid, reliable vehicles.
Customer satisfaction with Jeep in the United States from 2006 to 2018 (index score)
Interestingly, Jeeps have also maintained an attraction amongst younger drivers, and, in recent years, the most common owners have been drivers aged between 30-49 (see chart below). This shows that Jeep is no longer linked with an older generation of baby boomers and continues to reinvent itself. It has become a true American institution.
Share of people primarily using a Jeep in the United States in 2018 (by age)
The United States had fought in World War I, a war defined by stasis. In World War I, there was little movement of troops, armaments, and battlefields, as the superior defensive capabilities of both sides prevented anything other than a four-year siege on the Western front.
When it became clear that a second global conflict was inevitable, all sides sought to avoid the stalemate of the Great War by developing vehicles capable of quick, nimble movement.
Certainly, technological developments in the interim had helped. The emergence of long-range aircraft and tanks both meant that battles could be fought more rapidly, with the best example being the German blitzkrieg or ‘lightning war.’
With all parties looking to develop a competitive advantage when it came to speed on the battlefield, the U.S. Army sought to commission a small reconnaissance vehicle capable of acting across multiple different terrain types.
Although the United States wasn’t in the war at this point, it was clear that, if war eventually came, the U.S. would need to be as technologically advanced as the Axis powers. Accordingly, they put out a request to U.S. automakers for a small vehicle.
Initially, only two U.S. car companies responded. The American Bantam Company and Willys-Overland were both small car companies, but they both submitted proposals.
- The initial design came from Bantam, which exceeded the U.S. military’s expectations and passed testing in September 1940. Despite this, the War Department didn’t believe Bantam was large enough to meet the demand for the numbers that they wanted to order.
- They asked Willys-Overland and Ford to both submit designs based on the Bantam prototype. Both Willys-Overland and Ford submitted designs, and features from both were added to the final design.
All three companies, therefore, played a major role in the design of the Jeep, although Willys-Overland won the initial contract. Later in the war, Ford also won a contract as the War Department demand began to exceed Willys-Overland’s capacity.
Throughout the war, 637,000 Jeeps were built by Willys-Overland and Ford.
During World War II
During the war, the Jeep became folkloric throughout the European theater. General Eisenhower said that ‘the Jeep, the Dakota, and the Landing Craft were the three tools that won the war.’
The ubiquity of Jeeps was such that, by the end of the war, German soldiers believed that each U.S. soldier was issued a Jeep. Enzo Ferrari claimed that the Jeep was ‘America’s only true sports car.’
In reality, the Jeep was simply excellent at the task for which it was designed. Uniquely for a car designed by a committee, each of the innovations made by the various parties improved the vehicle.
Because of lend-lease, and the broad anti-Nazi alliance, 200,000 Jeeps were sent to either the British or the Soviet armies.
The real success of the Jeep was its ruggedness. Jeeps were capable of twenty miles to the gallon in their four-cylinder engine and held five soldiers or 800 lbs of cargo. They were perfectly designed for use in the rough terrain of wartime Europe, with a four-wheel drive allowing them to maneuver when other vehicles couldn’t.
Increasingly, throughout the war, Jeeps were partnered with airborne regiments. Jeeps fulfilled their original intention of reconnaissance vehicles and proved to be both adept and rugged enough to spot enemy troops, calling in airborne regiments to the correct location.
Each infantry glider regiment was issued 24 Jeeps, and all parachute regiments had 17. After the war, General George C. Marshall described the Jeep as America’s greatest contribution to modern warfare.
Post-War Military Use
Jeeps remain in use today by militaries around the world, a testament to the success of its design. Post-World War II, Willys-Overland kept up its production, as well as constantly innovating.
For example, during the Korean War, the M-38 military model contained a waterproof ignition system, which was the primary vehicle of choice during the Korean War. As well as the ignition, Willys-Overland also improved the wheelbase, introduced a more powerful engine and softened the edges of the Jeep with a more rounded body style.
As evidence of its reliability and durability, by the 1960s Willys-Overland started to produce the M-170 model, which was designed to be fitted with a variety of different body packages that could be attached, from a troop carrier to a field ambulance.
By the end of World War II, Jeep was an internationally recognized brand and Willys-Overland realized that this held huge market potential.
With the growing demand for vehicles, coupled with many of the purchasers having been soldiers (and therefore knowing the Jeep from their time at war) Jeep was in a good position to make a breakthrough into the civilian market.
Jeep was well-placed for the boom in car production post-World War II. They had two advantages.
The first is that Willys-Overland always earmarked 15% of vehicles for sales overseas, meaning that they were able to capture a lucrative (if still recovering) market.
Secondly, the Jeeps that had been left throughout Europe, or were in the UK or the USSR effectively served as free advertising for the company. This placed them well in their desired move to civilian vehicles.
In effect, the first civilian Jeep, the CJ-2A was a modified version of the vehicle that had served in the European Theater.
Also known as the ‘Universal’ the CJ-2A had a tailgate, side-mounted spare tire, a higher windshield, and had larger headlights. The Universal retailed at $1,090 and was built in the period 1945-1949.
Jeep began diversifying away from military-inspired vehicles, making a station wagon in 1946 and a pickup in 1947. The Jeep station wagon was the first station wagon in the United States to be built entirely from steel – showing that Jeep (and Willys-Overland) was still a brand name associated with robust design.
In 1957 Jeep produced the FC-170 (showing a tradition of military-sounding names that they eventually left behind). In 1963 Jeep launched the Wagoneer SUV and Gladiator pickup. Jeep’s reputation for strong, well-designed vehicles persisted after the war, and both the Wagoneer and the Gladiator were designed to build on that reputation.
Arguably the most famous vehicle in Jeep’s postwar history, the Cherokee, was unveiled in 1984. It was the first unibody SUV, and its design was inspired by the straight lines of the WWII Jeep. Furthermore, its off-road capabilities were best in class. The Cherokee soon became Jeep’s flagship, running until 2001 and selling 2.7 million vehicles.
The rise of SUVs in the 1980s and 1990s meant that demand for Cherokees remained high. Through iterations like the Grand Cherokee, Jeep continues to be a major player in the market when it comes to powerful SUVs.
In the 1990s, Jeep introduced the Wrangler and the Wrangler unlimited, again building on their reputation for power and strength.
Despite relative duds like the Compass and Patriot, Jeep has consistently demonstrated that they can produce very high-quality SUVs. In many respects, this is a natural extension of their military origins, transferred to a civilian function. Jeep has therefore never quite escaped its past and nor has it sought to.
Despite Jeep’s foray into civilian vehicles, for the immediate post-war period Jeep was financially reliant on its military contracts, selling civilian vehicles to only a small group of loyal followers.
Willys-Overland never grew beyond Jeep and was purchased by Kaiser Manufacturing Company.
As a testament to the success of the flagship product, the company became Kaiser Jeep Co.
The company was bought out by the American Motors Company.
Renault, the French carmaker purchased a 25% stake in American Motors, who were financially struggling in the face of growing international competition.
AMC was bought by Chrysler in a desire to complement their growing range of SUVs. Chrysler was relatively unfazed by the fact that ownership of the Jeep brand tended to correlate with financial difficulties for a car company – with Willys-Overland, Kaiser, and eventually, AMC all succumbing to the ‘curse of Jeep.’
Chrysler merged with Daimler in a $38 billion deal. However, this did not end the curse.
After just nine years of ownership, Daimler paid a Capital Management firm nearly $700 million to take ownership of Chrysler (and therefore Jeep).
Within two years, a stripped-down Chrysler sought bankruptcy protection from the U.S. government.
Chrysler was bought by Fiat primarily because of the international value of the Jeep brand.
After a restructuring of Jeep’s offerings, the period 2012-2018 saw a continuous improvement in Jeep sales, meaning that, for the first time since the 1990s, the brand has begun to show a recovery.
Throughout the period of changed ownership, Jeeps have consistently performed strongly within the marketplace, and have retained a relatively consistent position within the SUV field. That is, Jeep itself is not to blame for its corporate woes.
In fact, in a couple of key occasions, the Jeep brand is what has kept the wider companies running. With some stability in ownership, Jeep is set to continue in the foreseeable future.
Like its original military version, Jeep has been pulled in a lot of directions, but its inherent strength lies in its durability and its flexibility. This is what has earned it respect (and even love) from those who use it.
Ultimately, despite Jeep’s success at transitioning into a civilian environment, its most enduring success was during World War II. What was remarkable was less its performance on the battlefield, but more the speed and atypicality of its genesis.
No vehicle designed by committee has ever been more successful. Furthermore, for a relatively unknown company such as Willys-Overland (or even Bantam) to come to the fore with a vehicle that ended up playing a decisive role in the war is notable.
While this, in itself, marks the Jeep as unique in the annals of automotive history, the fact that they were able to leverage their military success to a post-war world only compounds this story.
The fact that the Jeep brand is globally known and carries positive connotations throughout the United States nearly eighty years after the end of World War II is something that very few people would have predicted when the War Department put out a request for a small reconnaissance vehicle at a time when the U.S. wasn’t even at war.
Sources and Further Reading