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Willys-Overland Jeep

Willys-Overland Jeep

By Jack Nerad

Willys-Overland Jeep Perhaps no vehicle in the world has been as sworn at and sworn by as the Jeep. It's a vehicle that has transported American soldiers into battle, taken nurses on humanitarian missions into the deepest jungle and transported families to picnics in the park. It's a vehicle that has out-lived four of the companies with which it has been associated. And it's a vehicle that continues to survive, nearly sixty years after it was originated.

In 1939 with war clouds gathering ominously over Europe, the U.S. Army sent out the call for a new military vehicle to replace the mish-mash of motorcycles, motorcycles with sidecars and modified passenger cars that it was then using. To get the vehicle it wanted, the Army brass sent out a list of specifications for the new vehicle that included: dual range four-wheel drive, load capacity of 600 pounds, minimum of three-passenger seating and a gross vehicle weight of less than 1,200 pounds.

With the specifications published, the Army expected a sizable number of auto manufacturers to compete for the contract to build the new vehicles, but only three - American Bantam, Ford and Willys-Overland seriously participated. American Bantam, the remnants of Sir Herbert Austin's failed attempt to duplicate the success of his Austin 7 in the United States, went after the business aggressively. It submitted blueprints to the Army in less than a week after the call went out, aided by the fact that their American Bantam civilian models were nearly the same diminutive size as the vehicle the Army specified.

With Willys-Overland and Ford somewhat slow in responding, the first contract for the as-yet-unnamed vehicle went to American Bantam. Unfortunately for the fortunes of that star-crossed company, however, the vehicles that it produced came up woefully short when tested by the Quartermaster Corps.

Not willing to trust American Bantam to fix the problems, the Army issued a new call for prototypes, and Willys-Overland and Ford both responded with vehicles to compete with the modified American Bantam. The Quartermaster Corps conducted another series of tests, and this time the Willys model was deemed best; Ford's prototype finished second; and American Bantam's pulled up the rear.

The only problem was that, while the Willys-Overland machine had been ruled best, it did not meet the specifications the Army had issued. It was more than 250 pounds heavier than it should have been.

This faux pas might have cost Willys-Overland the business but for a last ditch effort by Delmar B. "Barney" Roos, Willys' engineer on the project. He ordered the prototype completely disassembled, and then he had his crew hand-inspect every last piece looking for every possible way of lightening the vehicle with sacrificing strength, power or utility.

Before the task was over screws, studs, bolts and even cotter pins were shortened. The sizes of nuts, bolts and washers was reduced; brackets were made smaller; and body and fenders were reconstructed out of lighter gauge steel. The original frame, made of relatively heavy carbon steel, was replaced with a lighter, alloy version.

Still, Roos was fearful that the prototype would be overweight, so he pulled out his last hole card. He calculated the weight of the vehicle's paint and determined that two coats might send the vehicle over the limit. So the prototype received just one thin coat of paint.

When Roos' work was over he and his team had trimmed 263 pounds, more than ten percent of the vehicle's weight. On the Army scales it passed muster by just seven ounces.

By July 1941, with the war in Europe nearing the two-year mark, but with the United States still at peace, the Army let out an order for several thousand of what it called "Truck, quarter ton, four by four, command reconnaissance." That, of course, was much too long and too clumsy for the G.I's to say, so soon they were calling it the Jeep. Why, it is difficult to say, because there are several plausible theories. The first suggests that the vehicle got the moniker Jeep as a slurring of the letters GP, Ford's shorthand for its "General Purpose" vehicle. Another theory is that the vehicle was named for Eugene the Jeep, a character in the then-very-popular Popeye cartoons. The final theory, however, is both the least flattering and most likely true. In the military of the day, the term "jeep" was used to describe just about anything that was lazy, worthless or good-for-nothing. Though those terms don't really describe the eventual vehicle, which was rugged, reliable and good-for-darn-near-anything, one can easily imagine a disgruntled soldier eyeballing the boxy little vehicle and immediately referring to it in a derogatory way as a "Jeep." No matter how it got its name, the handle stuck, and it has been with us to this day.

The Willys-Overland Military Model MB was a relatively simple machine, which meant it was perfect for the stresses of combat, where more sophisticated, high-strung machinery almost certainly would have failed. With a 80-inch wheelbase and front and rear tracks only 48 inches wide, the first Jeep was very maneuverable, though cursed with a choppy ride on pavement. Just 134-inches long, it was nearly 20 inches shorter than today's Jeep Wrangler, its civilian descendant.

Under its short, flat hood was a 2.2-liter four cylinder engine about as sophisticated as a boat anchor. Derived from the none-too-popular Willys and Overland passenger car engines, the Jeep's F-head four churned out 60 peak horsepower at 3,600 rpm. The three-speed gearbox was activated by a floor-mounted stick nearly as long as a fishing rod, and a two-speed transfer case delivered high- and low-range four-wheel drive. The part-time system was intended to be operated in four-wheel-drive mode only on low-traction surfaces.

The suspension was about as sophisticated as the engine, which means not sophisticated at all. Both front and rear axles were simple if very hardy beams suspended by equally hardy leaf springs. Drum brakes at all four corners supplied reasonable stopping power.

Jeeps were beloved for what they could do, but also for how they looked. The angled fenders, stamped steel grille, fold-down windshield and lack of doors lent a refreshing, utilitarian air to the vehicle. No pretension in a Jeep, just raw functionality.

Even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Army realized it had a great vehicle on its hands and contracted with Ford Motor Company to supply additional vehicles using the Willy-Overland design. Virtually all parts were interchangeable between the Willys- and Ford-built Jeeps, though the Ford used a u-shaped front cross member while the Willys used a tubular brace.

In combat in World War II, the Jeep proved tough as nails, a true hero of the war effort. Willys-Overland took out a trademark on the term "Jeep," much to the consternation of American Bantam, which figured it deserved some of the gravy after getting the concept off the ground. As it turned out, the Jeep became a well-accepted non-military vehicle, purchased by hundreds of thousands of ranchers, farmers, utility companies and just plain civilians. It also spurred the "off-road" driving craze that remains with us to this day.

What do not remain with us to this day are American Bantam, Willys-Overland, Kaiser and American Motors, the companies most involved with the Jeep concept over the years. Chrysler's purchase of American Motors in 1987 netted it the Jeep brand, and that brand has been one of the most successful in the automotive world over the last ten years - a tribute to the original vehicle, the go-anywhere, do-anything Jeep. Hardly go for nothing, as it turns out.
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