If you have ever lived on a military post, chances are you’ve seen that big, bright, shiny Jeep Wrangler. You were either envious and headed to the nearest dealership right away, or you muttered that oh-so loved contemptuous phrase, “Privates.”
While these ego-boosting beasts are nice, the Jeep is so much more than a prize to parade on post. Its history is both heroic and intriguing.
When World War II began, the U.S. Army realized it needed a vehicle that could carry soldiers and weapons into battle, something that was light and four-wheel drive. They reached out to 135 different manufacturers to build this quarter-ton 4×4 vehicle, but only two responded with their bids: Bantam and Willys-Overland Motor Company.
Bantam was the first to respond before the deadline and release their prototype, the Bantam Blitz Buggy. However, they were not able to mass-produce the Blitz Buggy, and the Army turned to Ford and Willys-Overland to create their prototypes based on the Blitz Buggy design. Ford introduced the Ford Pygmy, and Willys came out with the Willys Quad. Meanwhile, Bantam worked to enhance the Blitz Buggy, thus creating the BRC-40.
Bantam again had the superior vehicle but still could not produce them in the numbers the Army needed. Ford and Willys were both given the go-ahead to send their 4×4’s into production. They were renamed the Ford GP and Willys MA. The Jeeps were then sent to war, but after a decision to bring the Jeep into a standard model, Willys MA was chosen over the Ford due to its superior “Go Devil” engine. The Willys MA evolved into the Willys MB, fusing together the engine from the MB and the exterior design of the Ford.
During World War II, 363,000 of the Willys MB were created, and they served several purposes. Some were strapped with .30- or .50-cals and sent into combat. Others were used as ambulances, tractors, and firefighting vehicles on patrols. General Dwight D. Eisenhower went so far as to claim that they were one of the six most important vehicles of the war.
“It did everything. It went everywhere,” said World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle. “Was as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule and as agile as a goat. It constantly carried twice what it was designed for and still kept going.”
These vehicles also became popular with the soldiers they carried, many of them forming bonds with their 4×4 companions. One 4×4, “Old Faithful,” even earned the Purple Heart. “Old Faithful” served four U.S. Marines in Guadalcanal and Bougainville and received two shrapnel wounds. After receiving its Purple Heart, it was sent home to retire.
After the war, Willys attempted to trademark the Jeep, but the rights were given to Bantam because they were the original brains behind the design. However, Bantam went bankrupt a few years later and the name was handed over to Willys.
Prior to earning the rights to the Jeep, Willys had already released the very first civilian Jeep, the CJ. The Willys MB had also inspired other manufacturers to make the Toyota Land Jeep in Japan and the Land Rover in Britain.
Today, there are six different Jeep models actively being made, with various older models still tackling the paved — and unpaved — roads. With modern vehicles such as the Grand Cherokee and Gladiator, Jeeps have evolved since the days of the Willys MB, but they still retain their go-anywhere, do-anything sensibility.