Hundreds of war movies must have featured the Willys Jeep. Forget the Sherman tank – if one vehicle symbolizes American participation in World War II it’s that iconic Jeep, which usually comes bouncing along at a critical moment containing the hero, or the one person the hero doesn’t want to see.
It began when the US War Department invited tenders for ‘a general purpose personnel or cargo carrier especially adaptable for reconnaissance or command’. Willy-Overland was a car manufacturer whose heyday had been before World War I, though by the mid-1930s the company was on its knees. But new chief executive Joseph W Frazer had arrived from Chrysler with brilliant engineer Delmar ‘Barney’ Rood from Studebaker and they were up for the challenge.
The Army ran exhaustive tests on prototypes from three manufacturers (Willys-Overland, American Bantam and Ford) and Willys eventually emerged victorious, largely on the strength of a fine engine that acquired the nickname ‘Go Devil’. Production of the four-wheel drive Willys MB began in 1941 and before the war ended around 650,000 had been built. Willys-Overland couldn’t cope with demand alone and the design was licensed to Ford whose GPW was effectively a Willys. The functional Jeep certainly looked the part with its angled mudguards, fold-down windscreen and lack of doors – repeatedly proving its rugged military capabilities on battlefields all over the globe.
There’s no definitive explanation for the ‘Jeep’ name (unofficial until trademarked by Willys after the war) . The best explanation is that it’s a corruption of the GP (General Purpose) designation, though others claim the word was used by soldiers to describe unproven equipment and appeared in a press feature on the new machine, or even that it was limited after the happy Eugene the Jeep character in popular Pot eye cartoons. Whatever, the name stuck!
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
2.2 l (134 cid) Straight Four
Top road speed of 55 mph (89 km/h)
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
The original prototype that evolved into the Jeep was created by American Bantam, the reorganized outfit that emerged after the bankruptcy of the American Austin Car Company, the US manufacturing arm of Britain’s Austin Motor Company.