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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.