Celebrating The Jeep, The One That Started It All

I should have thought twice before entering that narrow spot. The location looked like a mini-forest; it would have been great for some pictures, as if the Jeep was making its way through the thick jungles of Indo-China. I regretted the moment I entered it – looking firm on the outside, the surface was actually complete mush. The Jeep’s tyres sank and dug themselves into the soft mud. Oh no. Sheer terror for a moment. I was in someone else’s car, that too a 75-year-old classic, that too one in which he had poured an enormous amount of time and money to restore it and here I was, wondering how to literally come unstuck out of this situation. Pushing it out was tough – the Jeep was in too deep, the rear tyres throwing up muck while digging themselves deeper, it was pretty heavy for its size and our feet would have also sunk into the soft ground.

Oh, but waitaminnit. I was in a J.E.E.P, the world’s most famous four-wheel-drive vehicle and not in a swoopy, rear-wheel driven, bewinged chromemobile. With a prayer that essentially hoped that the money spent also ensured the 4WD system was in working condition, I engaged the transfer case for the front axle drive, shifted the second lever into 4 Low, gently applied throttle, and phew, there was encouraging traction. Rocking a little back and forth and turning the steering wheel in both directions, the Jeep clambered out and tiptoed away from further trouble. If it was any other classic car, I swear this would be the last article of mine you would read. Unfortunately or fortunately for you, the Jeep had other plans. This machine, looking right out of Commando comics, is wearing all the appurtenances of war. Each little bit and bob of it has a reason to be there, which is why it is like the automotive equivalent of an American Swiss Army Knife, if there was one. Yes, it’s not only an automobile, but a well-engineered tool.

Powering the Jeep is a Willys-derived four-cylinder petrol engine, which was standardised for manufacture. Fondly called the ‘Go-Devil’ engine, this 2195cc motor develops 60bhp at 4000rpm and 143Nm at 2000rpm – which may not seem like much, but was appreciated by the armed forces for its gungho attitude and unbreakable nature. A threespeed transmission sent the power to the rear wheels when the transfer case was not engaged. Even after 75 years, the engine’s spirit is unbroken and has gusto. First gear is only for getting off standstill and the torque in second and third was good enough across all driving conditions. The spindly steering wheel is free but not vague. I did not bother fitting the canvas top, as no other vehicle can give you the sensation of being in the open. Heck, it does not even have doors, just canvas straps! It is like riding a four-wheeled horse. Suspension duties are done by leaf springs front and rear; though stiff, it’s vastly better than even the Maruti Suzuki Gypsy.

Perhaps the Jeep’s 1,040-kilo kerb weight is weighing it down nicely. The one that I am driving is a Ford GPW yes, Ford. You thought Jeep was a Fiat Chrysler brand, didn’t you? A little bit of essential history is required now. In 1940, the US Defence Department reached out to 135 manufacturers with a 49-day deadline for submitting prototypes of a light reconnaissance vehicle. It was only the Bantam Corporation that took up the challenge and presented its BRC prototype within the deadline. But the powers-that-be decided to allow Willys-Overland’s Quad and later Ford Motor Corporation’s Pygmy prototypes to also qualify. The final Jeep that turned out was a combination of all three, though it could be said that Bantam’s Karl Probst should get credit for creating the first Jeep. Because of Bantam’s precarious financial condition and lack of capacity, both Ford and Willys were allowed to pitch in with production for the war effort. The Willys Jeep was called the MB, and Ford’s, GPW.

But how did the Jeep name come about? It’s not clear. Eugene the Jeep, a character in Popeye cartoons, was the first instance of the name being used, back in 1936. He was “small, able to move between dimensions and could solve seemingly impossible problems” – a perfect description of its automotive synonym. Other equipment movers and small vehicles used by the US Army were also called Jeeps, coming from the acronym General Purpose. While this seems to be the most accepted explanation, Ford’s nomenclature of calling their Jeeps GPW is even more confusing. General Purpose Willys? Government issue Passenger Willys blueprint? All are possible, but at the end of it, it’s still a Jeep.

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