Willys Jeep (1941-1945)
As war in Europe escalated, the United States saw their odds of being pulled into a second World War increasing. Starting in 1939, the U.S. government began allocating money to build up all phases of their military. Reconnaissance vehicles, which were previously motorcycles and sidecars, were to be updated to light-duty trucks.
Requirements for the new vehicle, formalized in July of 1940, included a payload capacity of 600 pounds, wheelbase under 75 inches (later lengthened to 80 inches), a maximum 47 inches of tread, and four-wheel drive. The original gross vehicle weight of 1,300 pounds proved unrealistic and was raised to 2,160 pounds. A minimum of 85 lb-ft of torque, and cooling system that would allow sustained low speeds without overheating, were the two main engine requirements.
135 automobile manufacturers were contacted by the U.S. Army and asked to submit working prototypes within 49 days. Three companies responded by the target date: American Bantam Car Company, Willys-Overland, and Ford Motor Company. Bantam, a small company based in Butler, Pennsylvania, was first to complete a running prototype. Testing began in September of 1940.
Seeing as their production cars were based on the British Austin Seven, Bantam's BRC (Bantam Reconnaissance Car) also used chassis components imported from the United Kingdom, along with other off-the-shelf parts. Four-wheel drivetrain components were made by the Spicer Company, who were also supplying the Ford and Willys Jeep prototypes.
Although the BRC tested well, the U.S. Army doubted the small company could produce the amount of units required. Bantam's design was presented to both Willys and Ford, who at the army's request, were encouraged to make their own changes and modifications. In light of their poor financial condition, Bantam could not protest this move. All three companies continued building prototype models.
Perched on solid front and rear axles and riding on an 80-inch-wheelbase, the Ford Pygmy was completed in November of 1940. The slotted steel grille incorporating the headlights was an original design and would be adopted by Willys in the final design stages. Power came from a 120-cid tractor engine mated to a three-speed Model-A gearbox. The Pygmy name would later be changed to GP (General Passenger).
Also ready for testing in November was the Willys Quad, whose designation soon changed to MA, for Military "A" model. Under the hood was Willy's four-cylinder flathead engine heavily re-worked by ex-Studebaker engineer Barney Roos. Engine modifications included closer tolerances, tougher alloys, aluminum pistons, and a lighter flywheel. Using a bore and stroke ratio of 3.125" x 4.375", the L-Head engine produced 60-horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque, exceeding the Army's specifications.
As ongoing disputes and internal Army politics delayed the decision of who would be awarded the Jeep contract, Bantam, Willys, and Ford were each asked to make 1,500 vehicles for further testing. Many of these early Jeeps would end up being shipped to England, Russia, and other Allied Countries under the Lend Lease bill.
The combination of strongest motor and lowest bid helped Willys win the first production contract of 16,000 units. Now called the MB (Military "B" model), Willys Jeeps began rolling off the Toledo, Ohio assembly plant in mid 1941. Engines were carefully tested to ensure they would run a minimum of 150 hours without failure. The Army Jeep was capable of speeds up to 60-mph, and as could run as slowly as 3-mph. Turning could be done in short radiuses, and steep slopes climbed without tipping.
Ford GPW Jeep
Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 brought the United States into the War. All U.S. military phases were quickly stepped up, and the Army now needed more Jeeps than Willys could produce. Because of their huge production capacity, Ford was granted a non-exclusive license to manufacture Jeeps to Willys' specifications. Ford's GP, now called GPW (General Passenger Willys), quickly went into production. The two companies together would produce more than 600,000 Jeeps during the next four years.
Standardized features for the Army Jeep now included a three-speed floor gearshift (first-gear unsynchronized), a center hand-brake, and a 15-gallon gas tank located under the driver's seat. The six-volt electrical system included a 2-H battery and 40-amp generator. Wipers were operated manually. At each corner of the truck, and the center of either side, were handles for lifting the truck up and out of tough spots. Every Army Jeep was fitted with a pintle tow-hook.
During World-War Two, Jeeps worked in every theater of operation with every Allied army, with endless versatility. Some plowed snow off roads, others became tractors, still others were fitted with fire-fighting pumpers. There were Jeeps fitted with special wheels to run on railway tracks, while others used as field ambulances.
With the Allies' victory in the summer of 1945, World-War Two came to an end. The last Ford GPW was built in July; the last Willys MB in August. Ford unsuccessfully sued Willys for the rights to the term "Jeep", leaving Willys full rights to the name. Although the company neither coined the term nor designed the original vehicle, their name became synonymous with Jeep. Willys continued to manufacture Military Jeeps, and would soon start producing the Willys Civilian Jeep as well.