Jeep's 70th Anniversary: Brand That Started In War Now A Household Name

Owned by U.S., German and now an Italian company, Jeep remains very much an American icon

As the Jeep brand celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, it's worth noting the irony and stories surrounding the brand's heritage and its present day operations. Though it started as a vehicle critical to the American war effort in 1941, for instance, two of its last three owners--German automaker Daimler and Italian automaker Fiat-made most of the military vehicles for America's enemy at that time, the German and Italian military forces.

The Willys Jeep MB has become such an iconic image in World War Two and Vietnam war movies, and in TV series like M*A*S*H and Combat, that it's almost hard to believe that a year before the attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor the vehicle that helped win the war was only an idea.

With war clearly approaching and the U.S. involvement all but assured in 1940, and already raging in Europe, War Department planners scrambling to prepare for the build-up identified a gaping hole in the American arsenal. There was no utility vehicle for the armed forces. Army bases had gotten along with trucks and cars to move soldiers around. But the battlefield theaters the Generals were looking at ranged from the deserts of North Africa to the fields and forests of Western Europe, and the sandy beaches of the Pacific.

How big a problem was it? If a platoon wanted to move a gun placement from one place to another on a battle field, or a beach, the options were to have men pull it, or hook it up to a mule and wagon. Heard of the phrase "army mule?"

The Army was very specific in the criteria for the vehicle it needed. It had to be pretty light-weight, less than 1,300 pounds, and equipped with four-wheel-drive. It was actually described as a "light reconnaissance" vehicle in the request-for-proposal (RFP). The government solicited bids from more than 100 companies, but only two returned it--The Bantam Motor Co. and the Willys-Overland Co.

The Bantam design won the day. But the little Pennsylvania company was not exactly on sound financial footing. In fact, it was broke. So, Bantam's design was handed over to Willys and Ford Motor Co. to modify, improve and ultimately build. Bantam, for its trouble, got paid a fee and was also awarded a contract to build trailers for the military.

The original design and prototype for the Willys Jeep was put together in an amazing 49 days . Willys installed its durable, reliable 2.4 liter "Go-Devil" engine. And in July, 1941, the Jeep MB was born.

Jeep: An accident of naming

More than 640,000 Jeeps would come to be built during World War Two. The name 'Jeep," while sounding perfect to the ear now, was an accident, stemming from the code-name, "GPW" it was given. It wasn't until the war ended that Willys-Overland trademarked the "Jeep" brand name for a broader lineup of vehicles.

When Willys set out to build the MB for the U.S. military, it chucked out the original weight requirement. The final weight was set at over 1,800 pounds. Why so light in the first place? Two men were supposed to be able to pull one out of a ditch if necessary.

General George C. Marshall called Jeep "America's greatest contribution to modern warfare."

{C} World War Jeep Campaign in Stockton, California{C}

By the end of the war, The Jeep brand was established not only in the U.S. but in the places it had fought: Germany, Italy, North Africa. Many were left behind. War refugees and veterans of enemy armies claimed them off battlefields, scrounged or fabricated spare parts. Eventually, they could buy proper parts to keep them going. They were rugged and reliable, and almost anyone who was handy with a blow-torch and a wrench could fix, modify or accessorize a Jeep to suit any situation or use. Today, one of the biggest and most active worldwide Jeep enthusiast clubs is, ironically, in Germany where many Jeeps were sent and left after the war.

The birth of the sport utility vehicle (SUV)

Willys-Overland wisely saw the future of the brand in vehicles for consumers, especially families of returning vets. The CJ (Civilian-Jeep) came first, a somewhat refined version of the MB that was scooped up by farmers, ranchers and the like. Then came the Willys-Overland Jeep "Station Wagon," a forerunner of the iconic wood-sided Grand Wagoneer of the 1970s and 80s. The Willys Station Wagon is widely viewed as the first real suburban sport-utility vehicle. Following the station-wagon was the Jeepster, a drop-top convertible built on the same engineering platform as the wagon, sporting a design that has made it "one of the most beloved of all Jeeps," according to Patrick R. Foster, author of The Story of Jeep, Krause Pubications 2004.

The advertising of Willys-Overland was direct and to the point: "Makers of America's Most Useful Vehicle."

Pickup trucks were an obvious brand extension, and so were added after the war, with the four-wheel-drive versions preferred by farmers and municipalities. The last pickup Jeep sold was the Comanche in the 1990s. But Jeep owner Chrysler has said it plans to bring back a Jeep Wrangler with a flatbed soon.

Willys-Overland was sold to the Kaiser Motors Corp. in 1953, and dropped the Overland name. Passenger cars like the Jeepster were phased out, as the company concentrated on derivatives of the CJ and pickup trucks. The 1959 Willys-Jeep Maverick, though, a more refined version of the Station Wagon was launched to try and challenge the increasingly popular AMC Rambler.

The 1960s saw continued production of the CJ line, plus the Wagoneer and trucks with a variety of aggressive and snappy names-The Gladiator, Commando, and a new engine known as the 'Vigilante." The Jeepster convertible also made a comeback.

Sold to AMC and then Chrysler

Kaiser Jeep was bought by American Motors Corp. in 1970, with the idea that AMC, with a much better marketing and distribution system, could take Jeep to new heights. In 1974, the first Jeep Cherokee hit the showrooms, a refreshed and renamed version of the Kaiser Commando.

The 1980s saw Jeep become the property of a new alliance between AMC and French automaker Renault. But the recession of the early 80s took its toll and AMC was sold to Chrysler in 1987. Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca is quoted saying he only reason he bought AMC "was to get our hands on Jeep."

In 1998, Chrysler was purchased by Daimler-Benz, with Jeep becoming the possession of the company that represented the jewel in the German war machine in World War Two. The best thing to come out of the unhappy marriage between Daimler and Chrysler was the 2010 Jeep Grand Cherokee, which was developed alongside the Mercedes M Class. The refinement, fit and finish, ride and handling, reflects the benefits derived from Mercedes engineering, and made up for the comparative low-quality ride and fit/finish of the previous generation.

"Trail-rated" or just "most capable."

Perhaps the biggest controversy around Jeep mushroomed during Daimler's ownership; whether or not every Jeep should be "trail rated" to specifically traverse The Rubicon Trail. Daimler launched the Jeep Compass and Patriot, two small vehicles on car-based platforms that could not achieve extreme off-road driving. The Wrangler remains "the rock crawler" of choice for off-road drivers, while Jeep's other vehicles promise to be the most off-road capable in their segments.

In 2011, Chrysler, and thus Jeep, is under the control and ownership of Italian automaker Fiat. Fiat's strategy is to maintain the integrity of the Wrangler, keeping it the most off-road capable vehicle on the market today, and continue the Daimler strategy of making the other Jeeps the most capable in their segments. The iconic Wrangler is flanked by the Jeep Liberty, Grand Cherokee, Compass and Patriot compact 4x4s. The Compass and Patriot, though, will be replaced in late 2012 with a new compact Jeep derived from a platform based on the Fiat Giulietta that Jeep designers say will be fully off-road capable.

Clearly, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, who also serves as CEO of Fiat, has an appreciation for the pedigree and value of Jeep in the new Chrysler-Fiat company he is organizing as one global enterprise. "Of the three Chrysler brands, clearly the one with true global reach, value and potential is Jeep," says Marchionne. The company has been expanding the distribution of Jeep in Europe, and the CEO says that he is open to building any Jeep model abroad to serve a local market--except for the Wrangler. Over the years, Jeeps have been made in 23 countries. "I think Wrangler must remain an export from the U.S., as the integrity of Wrangler must be protected as the heart of the whole global brand."

Wranglers and the current Liberty have been built at Jeep's sprawling assembly plant in Toledo Ohio since the 1940s.

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