The world’s oldest off road and sport utility brand, the origins of Jeep are thought to go back to the run up to the Second World War. Actually though, they go back farther than that. In 1929, the American Austin Company was founded in Butler, Pennsylvania to build a version of the Austin Seven, an English car that has been referred to as the British Ford Model T.
At $445, the Austin was priced slightly less than its contemporary Ford V8, and was much smaller than anything else on the market at the time. That first year, 8,000 copies sold. But students of history will recall 1929 was also the year the Great Depression started. Sales nosedived and the car went out of production between 1932 and 1934.
By 1935 the company was bankrupt.
Roy Evans, who had been an Austin Salesman bought the company that year and renamed it American Bantam. The American Austin was reworked with a new body and engine modifications. The new design was sleeker and more racy looking. Sales resumed in 1937 and ran through 1941. A number of different vehicles were produced off of the platform including station wagons and light trucks. A total of 6,000 were produced altogether.
With World War II looming, the War Department was looking for a company to build a new lightweight truck. Only two companies responded to its request for proposals, The American Bantam Car Company (ABC) and Willys-Overland. A 49-day deadline had been established to deliver a prototype, but Willys couldn’t meet it. ABC consulted freelance engineer Karl Probst, who came up with a design in two days. Called the Bantam Reconnaissance Car, ABC had a hand-built prototype up, running and delivered to the Army Quartermaster Corps within the 49 day time period.
However, given ABC was in bankruptcy at the time, the Army felt production of the vehicle should be divided between three companies because ABC was also considered too small too meet the full order. Thus, Willys-Overland, along with Ford and American Bantam won contracts to produce prototypes of the automobiles. Ford and Willys were also encouraged to modify the ABC design to see if it could be improved upon.
Willys specified a more powerful engine—Ford came up with the now familiar nine-slotted pressed metal grille (later reduced to seven slots). Each company built 500 prototypes to their own specification for testing by the Army. When all was said and done, the Willys design won out. Ford and Willys were awarded the contracts to build the full run—based on the Willys design. ABC was relegated to building trailers.
The true origin of the “Jeep” name is murky. However, most people assume it was derived from the fact the military called it a General Purpose vehicle. This was shortened to “GP” vehicle, which, when pronounced phonetically came out to be “Jeep”. Wherever the name came from, some 640,000 of them were built for use by every branch of the military during the war. They were used for transportation and fighting, cable laying, saw milling, firefighting pumpers, field ambulances, tractors and, some were even modified to run on railway tracks.
At the end of the war, Willys-Overland successfully trademarked the Jeep name and the American icon was reborn for civilian service. The company abandoned all of its other products and focused on Jeep vehicles. Thanks to their four-wheel drive, robust character and reliability, farmers, ranchers, hunters, and outdoors-people of every stripe found value in Jeep automobiles.
Meanwhile, another entrepreneur was eyeing the popularity of the Jeep autos. Henry J. Kaiser, who’d made his considerable fortune even more considerable building Liberty ships during the war (he was also one of the contractors who built Hoover Dam) bought Willys-Overland Motors in 1953—renaming the company Willys Motors. In 1963, he changed the name again to Kaiser Jeep.
Under Kaiser, the Jeep product line was expanded to include a model known as the Wagoneer. Combining the best elements of a station wagon with the go-anywhere capability of the traditional Jeep, the Wagoneer ultimately evolved into today’s luxurious Jeep Grand Cherokee and is often erroneously credited with igniting the SUV boom of the late 20th century. That honor actually goes back to Willys-Overland’s Willys Jeep Station Wagon, introduced in 1946. The model remained in production until 1965.
Kaiser also formed a special division of the Kaiser Jeep devoted specifically to developing vehicles for the U.S. Government. The division’s first real success was a contract to build mail trucks. Called the DJ-5 Dispatcher, the vehicle was soon embraced by police departments, utility companies, and small package delivery firms. More than 150,000 of them were built. The success of the vehicle got American Motors interested.
That company bought Kaiser Jeep from Kaiser Industries in 1970.
American Motors Corporation (AMC) had been formed in 1954, in what at the time had been the largest corporate merger in American history. The assets of the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and Hudson Motor Car Company were combined to form AMC. The company’s first successful brand was Rambler. Later, during the American horsepower wars of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s AMC vehicles also became known for the Gremlin and Pacer small cars, as well as the Javelin and AMX high performance cars.
In 1980, AMC sold itself to Renault to secure some badly needed capital. By 1987, AMC cars still weren’t selling very well and Renault was having money problems of its own. The French company sold AMC to Chrysler, which killed the AMC brand. Chrysler did the deal largely to get control of Jeep, which it maintains as of this writing (June 2013).
At one point in Jeep’s history it was proclaimed that every Jeep model should be capable of traversing any terrain thrown at it. With contemporary consumer tastes trending more toward a quiet and comfortable ride from SUVs, that position has softened somewhat. Jeep’s Wrangler, which is the direct descendant of that first Bantam Reconnaissance Car, the aforementioned Grand Cherokee, and the Liberty models are designed with rugged offroading in mind. Meanwhile, the Jeep Compass and Patriot are off-road capable—but better suited to soft road and on-pavement activities.