As one war correspondent said, “It’s as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and as agile as a mountain goat.” The flat-fendered Willys Jeep is one of the most instantly recognizable vehicles ever made. Any American TV or movie action hero who wasn’t on a horse was in a Jeep. Even General Eisenhower was impressed, saying “the three tools that won us the war in Europe were the Dakota, the landing craft, and the Jeep.”
In 1940, the Defense Department sent out a tough spec for a military workhorse. Many companies took one look at the seemingly impossible specification and 49-day deadline and turned it down flat. The design that won the bid and made it into production and the history books was a mixture of the ideas and abilities of Ford, Bantam, and Willys-Overland. A stunning triumph of function over form, the Jeep not only won the war, but went on to become a cult off-roader that’s still with us now. The Willys Jeep is surely the most original 4×4 by far.
Jeeps were first called General Purpose cars, then MA, and finally MB, but nobody’s sure of the origins of the Jeep name. Some say it is a corruption of GP, or General Purpose, others that it was named after Eugene the Jeep, a character in a 1936 Popeye cartoon.
The Jeep was a brilliantly simple solution to the problem of mobility at war, but the life expectancy of an average vehicle was expected to be less than a week!
Leaf springs and hydraulic shocks gave a surprisingly good ride.
High clutch, narrow footwell, and unmovable seat forced a knees-splayed driving position.
Doors would have added weight, so side straps were a token gesture toward driver safety.
The hardy L-head motor developed 60 bhp.
Box-section chassis was tough, yet flexible enough to allow the frame to twist for maximum wheel articulation.
Driver safety wasn’t a Jeep strong point. Many GIs ended up impaled on the steering column even after low-speed impacts.
The Jeep may have had competence, but it also had a prodigious thirst for fuel.
Power was from a Ford straight-four, which took the Jeep to around 65 mph (105 km/h), actually exceeding US Army driving regulations.
The Jeep’s hood was secured using quick-release sprung latches. The upper latch held the fold-down windshield. Those stark fenders and large all-terrain tires may look humble and functional, but the Jeep’s claim to fame is that it spawned utility vehicles from Nissans and Isuzus to Discoverys and Range Rovers.
Earlier Jeeps had a slatted radiator grille instead of the later pressed-steel bars, as here. The silhouette was low, but ground clearance high to allow driving in streams as deep as 21 in (53 cm). Weather protection was vestigial.
Quick-release clutch disengaged engine fan for fording streams and rivers.
The Warner three-speed manual box was supplemented by controls allowing the driver to select two-or four-wheel drive in high or low ratios.
The dual-purpose headlight could be rotated back to illuminate the engine bay, which was very useful during night-time maneuvers.
Willys and Ford Jeeps saw service in every theater of war, and the two versions were almost identical. By August 1945, when wartime production of the Jeep ended, the two companies together had manufactured over 600,000 Jeeps. The US Army continued using Jeeps well into the Sixties.
Jeeps came with gas can, shovel, and long-handled ax.
Only the generals fought the war in comfort, and Jeep accommodation was strictly no frills. Very early Jeeps have no glove compartment.
First production Jeep model, the MA, had a column change.
Hand-operated windshield wipers.
S P E C I F I C A T I O N S
MODEL Willys Jeep MB (1943)
PRODUCTION 586,000 (during World War II)
BODY STYLE Open utility vehicle.
CONSTRUCTION Steel body and chassis.
ENGINE 134cid straight-four.
POWER OUTPUT 60 bhp.
TRANSMISSION Three-speed manual, four-wheel drive.
SUSPENSION Leaf springs front and rear.
BRAKES Front and rear drums.
MAXIMUM SPEED 65 mph (105 km/h)
0–60 MPH (0–96 KM/H) 22 sec
A.F.C. 16 mpg (5.7 km/l)