Jeep Willys – The car that made military history

For a successful product, perhaps there can be no greater honour than when its name generalizes and becomes a label for an entire product category. Among everyday objects, this is the lux or the razor, among cars it is undoubtedly the jeep. Today, the word refers to a four-wheel-drive off-road vehicle and is also the brand name of a major manufacturer. Originally, however, it was the unofficial name of a car that has gone down in military history like perhaps no other. The American army jeep also became a part of Czechoslovak military history, because in 1945 both American and Soviet soldiers arrived on our territory with these cars.

The complicated road to the jeep

Since the end of the First World War, the US Army has used light off-road vehicles primarily for reconnaissance and communications purposes, but also for transporting weapons to support infantry. None of these caught on, but in 1940 the Army was intrigued by the American Bantam Car Company’s light off-road vehicles, which were subsequently put to the test. These formed the basis of the requirements for the future Army light off-road vehicle, which included four-wheel drive or the ability to carry a machine gun.

The centre of development was the Holabird Army Depot, which was under the US Army QMC (Quartermaster Corps). In June 1940, a tender was issued and many companies applied, but only Bantam and Willys-Overland delivered prototypes. The former was the winner, and the tests were so successful that the Army was about to award a contract for mass production. 

The giant Ford Motor Company, in addition to the above-mentioned companies, was bidding for the job, and the military seemed to favour it. It was becoming clear that the limited capacities of the two remaining companies would not be sufficient for the expected mass production. The disputes dragged on, and in the meantime Willys and Ford delivered further prototypes, which, although based on the Bantam type, were heavily modified. They judged the Willys MA car to be superior in handling in June 1941. The Army considered all three types acceptable, but for practical reasons had to choose one. 

In the end, they preferred the Willys MA, which was rebuilt into the final form of the Willys MB. However, the automaker itself knew full well that its capacity was insufficient for the expected numbers of vehicles, and so it granted the entire design to the government as a non-exclusive license. Willys was to mass-produce to the best of its ability, and the rest was handled by Ford, which then supplied the vehicle under the name Ford GPW. Bantam, on the other hand, which was at the beginning of the project, was completely shut out of the project.

Technical description of the vehicle

At the time of the start of series production, the name Jeep was increasingly used for the vehicle, although its origins are still not entirely clear. In any case, the designers kept the car exceptionally simple in view of mass production. The basic structure consisted of a steel ladder frame to which the suspension axles, engine, gearbox and open steel body were attached. Power was provided by a Willys Go-Devil four-cylinder engine mounted under the front bonnet, with power transmitted to the wheels via a three-speed gearbox for forward and reverse.

The wheels with drum brakes were suspended on simple leaf springs with liquid shock absorbers. The simplicity of the car was emphasized by the dashboard, which contained only a speedometer with distance counter, fuel gauge, ammeter, coolant temperature gauge and oil pressure gauge. The one-piece welded body was designed by the designers to seat the driver and passenger in front and four other men in the rear. In practice, however, it was not uncommon for up to eight armed soldiers to ride in the jeeps.

Parameters of the basic version of the Jeep
Overall length: 3.36 m
Overall width: 1.57 m
Height without canvas: 1.32 m (1.77 m with canvas)
Empty weight: 1,040 kg
Payload: 364 kg
Engine type: four-cylinder Go-Devil 441
Engine power: 45 kW (60 hp)
Max. speed: 105 km/h

The car had a folding windscreen and could easily be fitted with a retractable canvas canvas sheet that formed the roof and rear. A variety of accessories were attached to the bodywork, such as a shovel, an axe, a repair tool case, a hoist, spare parts boxes, camouflage netting, a tow rope, snow chains and fuel or water cans.

A cutter (a vertical steel profile) was sometimes attached to the front bumper, which had a cut-out in case a telephone line or tripwire was stretched across the road, which otherwise had fatal consequences in the form of injury or death to soldiers. A machine gun, usually a 12.7 mm Browning M2 or a 7.62 mm Browning M1919, was often carried on a tray in the rear of the vehicle. The jeep could also commonly pull a small cargo trailer, called a Jeep Trailer.

Jeeps in production and in war

The transition of the vast industrial potential of the United States to wartime mode was also reflected in the production of Jeeps. The exact number of vehicles produced will probably never be known with complete certainty, as both Army and automaker sources differ here. The most commonly cited figure is around 640,000 units produced by the end of the war, of which some 361,000 were built as Willys MBs and just under 278,000 as Ford GPWs. At the peak of production, a Jeep was rolling off the production lines every 100 seconds!

However, these figures are not final, as large numbers of jeeps were also assembled by unit mechanics from spare parts, which were also supplied in gigantic volumes. Therefore, many experts today believe that the total number of jeeps built during the war exceeds one million. Deliveries were primarily directed to the US Army, whose one infantry division was tabulated to have 612 jeeps, while the armoured division was allocated 449 units.

Under the Lend-Lease Act, batches of thousands also went to Allied countries. Great Britain received by far the most, with nearly 105,000 jeeps, and the USSR came in second with about 49,250 examples. With Soviet industry concentrating almost exclusively on armoured vehicles during the war and relying on American production for cars, the jeep was then the most widely used and popular command vehicle for Soviet officers.

The Jeep was driven by, among others, the commander of the 1st Czechoslovak Army Corps in the USSR, General Ludvík Svoboda. Significant numbers of jeeps also went to Canada, France and China. Everywhere this car served as a passenger or cargo vehicle, for reconnaissance, patrol, liaison or command tasks. It also became a weapons carrier, carrying the wounded, laying cables and extricating other vehicles.

Versatile design

The flexibility of the jeep was reflected not only in the range of tasks of the basic version, but also in a number of special-purpose variants. Probably no vehicle in history has seen as many modifications as the jeep, so we will briefly mention only the most important and interesting ones. Jeeps proved very useful as assault vehicles for special forces in the African desert, for example; in this role they had more powerful armament in the form of several machine guns. 

However, the jeep could also act as a platform for heavier weapons; for example, several modifications with a 37mm anti-tank gun were tried, but these did not enter service. On the other hand, jeeps carrying light artillery rocket launchers became widespread and were used mainly in the Pacific theatre of war. After the war, the jeep often became a carrier for the anti-tank recoilless gun. 

Of note are the armoured modifications, which were also often experimented with. None were eventually produced in series, but a number of field modifications of the jeep with additional armour were successful. Extended field modifications included extended Jeeps, which were then followed by the official factory Super Jeep program, which was to result in a six-wheeled vehicle. Such a car was intended to serve as an ambulance or an airport tractor, among other things, but even this did not make it into series production.

At the other end of the spectrum were smaller and lighter vehicles, built primarily for paratroopers. Jeeps with tracked or semi-tracks were also tried, and the car could also receive wheel extensions for driving in deep mud or steel railway wheels that turned it into a small rail car.

But the jeep didn’t just stay on the ground, as it could also swim and fly! The „floating jeep“ was the Ford GPA, nicknamed „Seep“ (Sea Jeep); however, this little amphibian was not very hilarious or popular. The flying form of the jeep was the British Hafner Rotabuggy, a rotor glider that was to be towed by a transport aircraft. However, it was not enough to intervene in the war.

The perfect war machine

Of course, the history of the Jeep brand didn’t end with the end of World War II; production continued after it ended. In addition, production also started at the French company Hotchkiss, which sold a slightly modified copy under the name Hotchkiss M201. The jeeps remained in the arsenal of many armies (including the Czechoslovak army) for many years after the end of the war, and thousands of units were bought at sales by private buyers. 

The Willys-Overland car company logically took advantage of the huge popularity of the car for advertising purposes and built its entire market presence on the wartime success of the jeep. However, the concept of the car was already widely copied at the time and Willys was no longer thriving. After a series of complications, it became part of the AMC corporation, which was then taken over by Renault and eventually Chrysler. The latter took advantage of the enduring popularity of the Jeep name and created a new and highly successful Jeep brand from the remnants of the former Willys, producing primarily civilian vehicles. 

The original wartime Jeep has also seen many civilian modifications, and many modified examples still run around the world. Perhaps the most famous conversion are the „Jeepneys“, the brightly coloured taxis that attract tourists in the Philippines.

But the Jeep remains a legend, primarily for its deployment in World War II. Its performance was rather mediocre by the scoreboard, but its strength lay in its simplicity, durability and reliability. Automakers were able to churn out production runs in the thousands, the Jeeps were easy to operate, and they endured the worst environments, withstanding tropical heat and arctic cold, desert dust and jungle mud. They could be repaired in the most primitive conditions and fulfilled an incredibly wide range of missions. The jeep thus became a symbol of the performance of the US arms industry, which contributed significantly to the Allied victory and thus to the liberation of Czechoslovakia.

Where did the name „Jeep“ come from?

Where did the word come from, which then became the name of an off-road vehicle manufacturer? For a long time the prevailing opinion was that the term „Jeep“ originated from the pronunciation of the abbreviation GP, General Purpose, multi-purpose, or Government Purpose, for government use. However, there is no evidence for this claim, as the car was never called that in the US military and the name GPW was just an internal designation at Ford. On the other hand, the term „jeep“ has been proven to have appeared as early as World War I. 

Apparently, mechanics in the US Army called every car taken for military testing a „jeep“, and it is confirmed that in 1941, when presenting a prototype, a Willys-Overland test driver stated that the car was called a „Jeep“. In the army, the car was first called „peep“ (meaning a peep or a brief glance) because of its reconnaissance purpose, but from about 1942 the word „jeep“ became widespread. However, the Army formally listed it as „1/4 ton truck 4×4 G-503“.

After the war, Willys-Overland benefited from the success of the car in advertisements, which the Bantam brand tried to defend in court, claiming that it had originally created the car. The court, however, found in favour of the defendant and awarded the word „Jeep“ as a trademark.


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