From WWII Hero to Civilian Off-Roading Icon: The Story of the Original Jeep

The result of a collective effort to build the ultimate light reconnaissance vehicle, the Jeep became the G.I.’s best friend during the Second World War and subsequent conflicts. It then morphed into an all-terrain conquering civilian vehicle, giving birth to an entirely new segment of 4WD machines.
Willys MB 22 photos
Photo: Jeep
Willys MBWillys MBWillys MBWillys MAWillys MBFranklin D. Roosevelt in a Willys MBWillys-Overland CJ-2AWillys MBWillys-Overland CJ-2AWillys-Overland CJ-3AWillys M38A1Willys CJ-5Willys CJ-5Willys CJ-5Willys CJ-5Jeep CJ-7Jeep CJ-7Jeep CJ-7Jeep CJ-7Jeep Wrangler YJCurrent Jeep Wrangler (JL)
Although the U.S. military had been experimenting with light-wheeled transport vehicles ever since the 1920s, the origins of the Jeep can be traced back to the summer of 1940 when the Department of War submitted specifications for a quarter-ton four-wheel-drive vehicle to 135 manufacturers. They were given only nine days to submit their prototype and 75 days to build 70 test vehicles.

Initially, only American Bantam and Willys-Overland managed to deliver but the latter requested more time, so the contract was handed out to Bantam. The small company on the brink of bankruptcy committed to the urgent demands and with the help of freelance Detroit designer Karl Probst, who ended up working for free, they drew up a prototype in just two days. Using as many off-the-shelf automotive parts as possible, the first fully functioning Bantam Reconnaissance Car (BRC) was completed and delivered to the Army’s vehicle test center at Camp Holabird, Maryland in September.

Unfortunately, Bantam did not have the production capability or financial resources to meet demands which led the War Department to encourage Willys and Ford to complete their own prototypes. To accelerate the process, the two companies were given Bantam’s blueprints, a move that enabled them to deliver the required test vehicles in November. Thus, the Willys Quad and the Ford Pygmy pilot models joined the updated BRC 60 at the Army’s test center. In the year that followed, further improvements were made, and they were all ready for pre-production runs. Bantam’s model became the BRC40 and 2,605 of them were built, Ford renamed its version GP and rolled about 4,458 units off the assembly line, while the 1,555 Willys copies were given the MA moniker.

Willys MA
Photo: Jeep
The vast majority of these vehicles were delivered to allied troops and by the summer of 1941, and the War Department decided that a single manufacturer should build the first full production run of 16,000 units. Surprisingly, Willys won the contract mostly because the MA’s powerful 60 hp L124 Go Devil engine was superior to the Blue Oval’s tractor-derived powerplant.

The final design of the enhanced model was given the MB designation and incorporated many features from both the BR60 and the GP. The most recognizable was the front end borrowed from the Ford. It had a wide, flat hood, and the headlights were moved from the fenders inside the front grille.

The MB quickly became an integral part of the Allied war effort, with Dwight D. Eisenhower calling it “one of the five pieces of equipment most vital to success in Africa and Europe”. More than 600,000 units were produced during the Second World War and interestingly, almost half of them were built by Ford under the GPW designation because Willys was unable to cope with the demand.

Willys MB
Photo: Jeep
During those dreadful years, it was nicknamed Jeep but to this day, the term’s origins are unclear. Many theories have emerged, yet the only undisputed fact is that it was part of the U.S. Army slang as early as the First World War.

Willys management was smart enough to trademark the name in 1943 and after the war ended two years later the company converted the MB into the Civilian Jeep (CJ) and made it available to the general public.

The world’s first mass-produced 4WD vehicle was called Willys-Overland CJ-2A, or Universal Jeep. It looked much like the MB, with only minor design modifications such as the front grille.

Willys\-Overland CJ\-2A
Photo: Jeep
Primarily intended for farming, ranching, and industrial applications, the stock model came with only a driver seat and driver-side mirror. However, the company provided a wide range of optional extras like additional seats, a canvas top, a central rearview mirror, a heater, or dual vacuum windshield wipers. Power came from the same 2.2-liter Go-Devil engine that was used in the military version, but it was linked to an enhanced 3-speed Borg-Warner T-90 manual.

Production ended in 1949 when it was replaced by the CJ-3A, a slightly revised version that featured a beefed-up suspension system as well as Dana axles and transfer case. It was built until 1953 when Willys-Overland merged with Kaiser Motors. Now called Willys CJ-3B, the vehicle gained a higher grille and hood to accommodate the new Hurricane engine. Furthermore, a four-speed manual was added to the list of options.

By the mid-1950s, many manufacturers around the world were producing civilian off-roaders heavily inspired by the Jeep. The list includes Toyota’s Landcruiser, Nissan’s Patrol, and even the British Land Rover Series I. The CJ-3B design was also officially licensed by Kaiser Motors to several companies like Mitsubishi of Japan or Mahindra of India.

Willys CJ\-5
Photo: Jeep
A significantly restyled military version named M38A1 or Willys MD was sent to aid troops in the Korean War. This model influenced the next civilian iterations called CJ-5 (normal wheelbase), CJ-6 (long wheelbase), and their derivates. The CJ-5 was introduced in 1955 as a successor for the CJ-3B but the latter model continued to be produced alongside its newer sibling until 1968.

This generation became even more capable and popular. It used the same 75-hp Hurricane engine in the 1950s but from 1961 a British-made Perkins diesel inline-four became available. In 1965, Kaiser acquired the license for the Buick 225 ci (3.7-liter) V6 Dauntless which gave the Jeep 155 ponies. Power steering was also added to the list of options and by 1968, the V6 variant accounted for about 75% of total sales.

Two years later, the company was purchased by American Motors Corporation (AMC), a move that would transform the Jeep from a utility vehicle to a sportier off-roader. Starting with 1972, it was thoroughly upgraded, gaining numerous chassis and bodywork improvements. The engine lineup was also revamped with a powerful 232 ci (3.8-liter) AMC straight-six replacing the old Hurricane as the standard engine option. A larger 258 ci (4.2-liter) version was optional, while the most capable powerplant became a 304 ci (5.0-liter) V8 that gave the vehicle muscle car performance. In the following decade, many modifications followed, and the CJ-5 continued to be produced until 1983.

Jeep CJ\-7
Photo: Jeep
The last civilian model based on the original Jeep was the CJ-7 introduced in 1976. With a new chassis, a longer wheelbase, and a curvier body, it used the same engines as the revamped 1972 CJ-5. A notable upgrade was a new, optional automatic all-wheel-drive system called Quadra-Trac, the ancestor of the systems used by all Jeeps to this day.

Production ended in 1986 when AMC introduced the first-generation Wrangler. Although it was similar in styling to the CJ-7, it was a completely new model that offered improved performance, safety, and comfort. In 1987, AMC was purchased by Chrysler and the Detroit corporation continued to develop the Wrangler even further. It’s still around today, retaining the iconic styling of its legendary predecessors.

Eighty years have passed since the Willys-Overland MB was created but its legacy lives on. The original Jeep was unquestionably one of the best products of the American automotive industry and one of the most influential vehicles ever created.

You can take a virtual tour of an awesome, fully restored 1943 Willys MB in the video below posted on YouTube by Discover RC.

If you liked the article, please follow us:  Google News icon Google News Youtube Instagram X (Twitter)
About the author: Vlad Radu
Vlad Radu profile photo

Vlad's first car was custom coach built: an exotic he made out of wood, cardboard and a borrowed steering wheel at the age of five. Combining his previous experience in writing and car dealership years, his articles focus in depth on special cars of past and present times.
Full profile


Would you like AUTOEVOLUTION to send you notifications?

You will only receive our top stories