Historic Car Brands
Today, Jeep is one of the world’s best-known brand names, but back in 1940 the only ‘Jeep’ anyone had heard of was ‘Eugene the Jeep’, a 1930s comic-strip character in E C Segar’s ‘Popeye’ series.
The Jeep character was a puppy-like creature; able to travel anywhere rapidly and to solve myriad problems, and is therefore the most likely source for the brand name.
Another possibility is a contraction of Ford’s GP nomenclature for this vehicle type (G for Government use and P for 80-inch wheelbase).
The first Jeep was the famous World War II light truck that began entering service with the US Army in 1941. However, the Jeep-type concept had been developing in some US military and auto makers’ minds since the carnage of World War I battlefields.
There was a clear need for a capable, low-profile vehicle that could carry rations and ammunition to cut-off troops, rescue the injured and even mount an anti-tank gun.
As the war clouds began to gather to the east and west of the USA in the late 1930s, through Japanese militaristic expansionism in Asia and the rise of Fascism in Europe, the need for a small, mobile 4WD vehicle became pressing.
The US Army had already investigated several different offerings in the lead-up to WW II, with the most promising being a modified Ford T-model, cobbled up by Colonel Carl Terry and Major L H Campbell in 1923.
This vehicle pioneered the idea of ‘balloon’ tyres – aircraft tyres on cut-down wheels – that provided the flotation necessary to handle the soft surfaces that bogged vehicles running on the narrow, high-pressure or solid-rubber tyres of the day.
In 1937, Major Robert G Howie and Master Sergeant Melvin C Wiley demonstrated their ‘Belly Flopper’, a manoeuvrable, lightweight vehicle which they’d built in their own time. With a low profile shape, rear-mounted engine and machine gun mounted in front, it required the driver to lie flat on his stomach, steering with a lever.
By 1938 the Marmon-Harrington Company of Indianapolis had modified Ford half-ton and 1.5-ton trucks to 4WD operation and the US Army was in earnest discussions with American Bantam Car Manufacturing Company, of Butler, Pennsylvania, to produce a lightweight vehicle with similar capabilities. This company was originally tied to British Austin and specialised in lightweight cars.
In March, 1940, Delmar ‘Barney’ Roos, the chief engineer of the Willys Overland Motor Company of Toledo, Ohio – another light-car producer – was asked to attend a demonstration of the Belly Flopper and this led to his intense interest in the Army’s light vehicle project.
On June 27, 1940 the final specifications for the US Army’s lightweight vehicle were delivered to a staggering 135 car makers. However, only two – American Bantam and Willys Overland Motors – submitted proposals.
The specifications were very demanding: 1300 pounds (590kg) maximum weight; 600 pounds (270kg) payload; wheelbase less than 80 inches (2032mm); track less than 47 inches (1194mm); height less than 36 inches (914mm), with windscreen folded; three-seat capacity; engine with minimum of 85 pounds-feet (115Nm) of torque and a speed range from 3mph (5km/h) up to 50mph (80km/h); and four wheel drive with a two-speed transfer case.
The contract required 70 evaluation vehicles to be delivered within 75 days, or a penalty of $5 per vehicle per day would be payable!
American Bantam took a punt on meeting the deadline, but Willys Overland new it could not meet that schedule and opted for a higher bid that included the penalty for 120-day delivery.
American Bantam won the contract for the first 70 vehicles, but Barney Roos knew there were problems with the Bantam vehicle and quietly went about producing his own design. The Willys Overland vehicle was to be powered by a new 90hp petrol four cylinder engine.
The US Army was convinced of the need for a lightweight 4WD vehicle, but had obvious concerns about the long-term viability of post-depression niche auto makers, such as American Bantam and Willys Overland, so Ford Motor Company was persuaded to enter the picture.
In November 1940, at Camp Holabird, Maryland, the US Army took delivery of evaluation Willys Quads and Ford Pygmys, to pit against the Bantams. All three evaluation marques exceeded the 1300-pound weight limit, but the Army raised that figure to 2175 pounds (988kg) when it wrote the final production specifications.
The Army issued the next round of contracts in March 1941, for a total of 4500 test vehicles: Bantam produced 1500 Model 40 BRCs; Ford built 1500 modified and improved GP Pygmys and Willys delivered 1500 Quads.
Interestingly, ease of transportation was an important part of the vehicle’s design. They were designed to be stacked two-high without damage and this was done by ensuring the heavier-laden front wheels rested on the cargo-carrying inner rear mudguards of the vehicle below, while the lighter rear wheels sat on the front mudguards of the vehicle below. Clever.
Also, disassembled vehicles could be stowed in compact shipping crates and quickly assembled at their destination. Such crated, new Jeeps were available after the end of World War II, for US$50!
It didn’t take long for the test results to start coming in from test tracks all over the USA and the Willys unit was clearly ahead of the other two.
The Ford vehicle’s Ferguson tractor engine was criticised for its lack of power – 25 percent less than the Willys – its erratic behaviour over rough ground; its transmission problems; its fragile generator and the location of the tie rod in front of the axle, where it was at risk of damage in off-road conditions.
The Bantam had only half the horsepower of the Willys and its transmission gears wore quickly, as did its shock absorbers.
It came as no surprise when the Army chose the Willys Overland Quad as its new quarter-ton 4WD light truck, but there was Catch 22: in the interests of national security the US Army wanted a second manufacturing facility to be capable of producing the winning design and asked Willys Overland to hand over its design rights to allow Ford to produce replica vehicles.
With WW II already in full swing in Europe and the Japanese threat growing day by day, Willys Overland agreed to do so, without any request for financial compensation.
Willys-Overland built 368,000 vehicles and Ford, under license, 277,000 for the US Army. The rugged, reliable, olive-drab vehicle would forever be known for helping win World War II.
Although commercially-available Jeeps preserved traditional ‘live’ front and rear axles until the 1990s (and the Wrangler still does to this day) the US Military’s front-line 4WDs have had all-independent suspension since the early 1960s.
The M151 ‘Mutt’ (Military Unit Tactical Truck) was developed by Ford in the 1950s and was subsequently manufactured by Willys, Kaiser Jeep, AM General, General Motors and Ford.
A few M151A2s came to Australia in the 1980s and Allan Whiting spent a few weeks playing around with one of the prototypes that had a White petrol four-cylinder engine, a single transmission with stump-pulling first cog and wishbone front and three—quarter—trailing arm rear suspension. It was very capable off-road.
The Highly Mobile Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV), nicknamed Humvee, is the USA’s current-generation multi-purpose utility vehicle that’s manufactured by AM General. It has an aluminium body, four-wheel independent suspension, portal, drop-box hubs and full-time 4WD. It’s extremely capable, but crude by commercial vehicle standards.
Jeep Down Under
Willys trademarked the ‘Jeep’ brand after the War and exploited the little vehicle’s considerable reputation in marketing post-War variants as farm machines. Land Rover took a leaf from Willys’ book and did exactly the same with an acknowledged Jeep copy, the Land Rover.
Willys’ first post-War Jeep model was the CJ-2A that was basically a WW II Jeep with civilian modifications: a tailgate, side-mounted spare, real headlights instead of convoy-light slits and an external fuel filler.
CJ variants were produced with ever increasing levels of modernity, including a succession of six-cylinder and V8 petrol engines until the advent of the Wrangler in 1987.
Very few CJ-2As made it Down Under and all were LHD. The most common early CJs to come to Australia were CJ-3B models from 1954 onwards, following the sale of Willys Overland to Henry J. Kaiser for US$60 million. The Kaiser Company began an extensive research and development program to broaden the Jeep product range.
The CJ-3B had a higher grille and bonnet than its military predecessor in order to accommodate the Hurricane F-head (overhead inlet valves and side exhaust) four-cylinder engine. Several Australian companies imported Jeeps, but the best known were Dominion Motors in Brisbane, an Austin CKD assembler and Stokoe Motors in Melbourne. Most were given RHD conversions, but some that were never registered, retained LHD.
Jeep CJ6 – Renmaeher
In 1958 Willys Motors Australia Pty Ltd was established in Brisbane and imports of the long wheelbase (110-inch) CJ-6 and short wheelbase CJ-5 began. The CJ-6 was modified to become a tray-back light truck and marketed as the Overlander. Around 600 CJ-5 and CJ-6 vehicles were powered by locally sourced Ford Falcon six-cylinder engines.
The impact of Land Rover and Japanese 4WDs made life hard for Jeep in the Australian market of the 1960s and, by the time Kaiser sold out to American Motors Corporation on February 5, 1970, Jeep imports had slowed to a trickle. The 1970s in Australia was the era of the Japanese and there were only private imports of Jeeps until an AMC subsidiary, Jeep Australia, kicked off in 1980, following a joint venture deal with Renault.
The Overlander nameplate was revived and attached to the CJ-8, which Allan Whiting can remember road testing. At the time he was contributing stories and pics to Overlander Magazine and kidded Jeep executives that the company had named its new release after the mag!
Jeep Australia also brought in the SJ Cherokee, which was a derivative of the ground-breaking Wagoneer that was launched in 1963 and the J-20 Gladiator light truck. There was also a military variant of the J-20 that the company hoped would interest the Australian Army.
The Jeep Australia revival was short-lived, for several reasons: quality wasn’t anything like the Japanese; Australian dollar movements made US-sourced vehicle pricing uncompetitive; and Renault/AMC was in deep financial trouble in the USA.
The local company’s lifeline should have been the all-new, down-sized, 1984 XJ Cherokee. This model was a huge success in the USA and that was part of the problem: the parent company virtually ignored requests for a RHD version, because AMC couldn’t build more XJs.
A plan to do RHD conversions locally was thwarted by a quirk in Australia’s import regulations that defined the monocoque-construction Cherokee as a passenger-car derivative and therefore subject to more than double the import duty of body-on-frame 4WD vehicles.
In late March 1985, Jeep Australia informed its dealers that all importing and local assembly of Jeep vehicles would cease.
The Jeep brand went into limbo once more in Australia, while in the USA, in August 1987, about a year after the introduction of the Wrangler, American Motors Corporation was sold to the Chrysler Corporation and the Jeep brand became a part of Chrysler’s Jeep /Eagle Division.
In April 1994 Chrysler Australia reintroduced the Jeep brand, with the now 10-year-old Cherokee wagon. This compact wagon was released in Sport and Limited versions and was a runaway success.
It came with a Command-Trac, part-time four-wheel-drive system and Quadra-Link coil front suspension, with leaf rear springs. The Australian versions benefitted from a four-litre in-line, six-cylinder petrol engine that had been introduced in 1989; not the most advanced engine in the market, but reliable.
The up-market Grand Cherokee was released in April 1996, sharing its engine with the Cherokee and in Laredo and Limited equipment levels. The Grand Cherokee featured an on-demand Quadra-Trac 4WD system with viscous-coupled centre differential and all-coil suspension.
In October 1996 Chrysler launched the Australian Wrangler model that carried on the WW II heritage of the CJ series, but with mechanicals that had more in common with the successful Cherokee.
A year later came the turbo-diesel Cherokee, powered by an Italian-made VM 2.5-litre engine, coupled to a five-speed manual box. This vehicle was extremely capable off road and had frugal fuel consumption.
Mid-1998 saw the introduction of the 1999 Grand Cherokee, with all-new bodywork and powertrains. A 4.7-litre V8 topped the range, with a revised four-litre petrol six also available, along with a 3.1-litre turbo-diesel. The Quadra-Trac system was refined, with a torque-sensing centre diff replacing the viscous unit.
In November 1998, Chrysler and Daimler-Benz merged (although industry observers considered it was more of a ‘Benz takeover of the then-ailing corporation) to form DaimlerChrysler.
On February 19, 2001 DaimlerChrysler Corporation confirmed that it had filed suit against General Motors Corporation for appropriating one of the world’s most recognisable automobile features in order to enhance the appeal of GM’s new Hummer sport utility vehicle. The lawsuit was brought to protect DaimlerChrysler’s trademarked, seven-slot Jeep grille design, which was protected by three federal trademark registrations.
An all-new Cherokee KJ was launched in September 2001, with independent front suspension replacing the traditional live front end and a choice of 2.5-litre common rail diesel or 2.4-litre petrol four or 3.7-litre V6 power. A year later, a more powerful 2.8-litre diesel was added to the lineup.
The Grand Cherokee was given a facelift in late 2003.
For 2005 the Wrangler scored a new six-speed manual box and the Renegade model came with cruise control. An all-new Grand Cherokee was released mid-2005, featuring new independent front suspension and revised drivelines, plus a Mercedes-Benz, three-litre, aluminium block and head V6 turbo-diesel engine option. Petrol engines were 4.7-litre and 5.7-litre V8s.
Jeep kicked off 2006 with the introduction of the Grand Cherokee SRT-8, with 6.1-litre, 330kW power. The Commander, a new wagon with seven-seat body on the Grand Cherokee platform, was also released.
First quarter 2007 saw the first four-door Wrangler, the Unlimited, launched with 3.8-litre, 153kW V6 petrol power and electronic stability control. The new Wrangler lineup included a turbo-diesel engine for the first time, in the shape of a 2.8-litre four.
In a move that surprised few industry observers DaimlerChrysler ceased to exist in mid-2007, when DaimlerChrysler AG sold a majority interest in the Chrysler Group to an affiliate of Cerberus Capital Management. Chrysler LLC, headquartered in Auburn Hills, Michigan, was on its own as the GFC storm clouds gathered in the background.
A squared-off Cherokee was released in early 2008 and featured an optional full-length, sliding canvas roof. Power choices were 3.7-litre petrol V6 with a four-speed auto and 2.8-litre diesel with a five-speed auto box and both powertrains had full-time 4WD, stability control, hill descent control and hill-start assist.
The Wrangler received mid-2008 upgrades, including a tyre pressure warning system, 17-inch aluminium wheels and more torque – 460Nm – in the diesel-auto transmission models. An off-road option pack included a rear axle diff lock.
April 2009 saw the release of specifications for the 2011 Grand Cherokee, some two years before its availability Down Under.
The early ‘reveal’ was part of necessary conditions under which Chrysler received GFC bail-out loans from the US Treasury. The 2011 Grand Cherokee turned out to be Jeep’s version of the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, featuring all-independent air suspension
Two months later Chrysler LLC announced that the US Bankruptcy Court had approved its request to sell substantially all of its operations to Chrysler Group LLC, a new company formed in alliance with Fiat SpA.
That corporation has since merged with the French PSA group, to form Stellantis.
It’s testimony to the durability and desirability of the Jeep brand that it has passed through so many permutations and owners since WW II.
Barney Roos and Eugene the Jeep would surely be pleased.