How the Army Jeep was Born

As the German Wehrmacht blitzed across Europe and the Japanese expanded their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere conquests in the late 1930s and 1940, the U.S. Army was beginning a rapid buildup and modernization. It was clear that unprecedented mechanization and mobility would be characteristic of the looming World War II.

Bantam BRC-40 built by Checker Cab, photographed at Camp Holabird, June 1941. The Checker built units had four wheel steering.
Bantam BRC-40 built by Checker Cab, photographed at Camp Holabird, June 1941. The Checker built units had four wheel steering.

Today in WW II: 11 Aug 1944 Guam secured in the Marianas.   

Origin of the Military Jeep: Summer 1940

In addition to new tanks and cargo trucks the Army identified a requirement for a light reconnaissance vehicle, small weapons carrier, and personnel transport that would replace automobiles and motorcycles with sidecars. On 22 June 1940 an Army sub-committee of the Ordnance Department's Technical Committee, composed of Infantry, Cavalry, and Quartermaster officers, issued proposed specifications for a vehicle to fill the role. Among the characteristics the new vehicle should have:

  • Weight not to exceed 1200 pounds (increased to 1275 lbs 1 July and then to 1308 lbs)
  • Carry six hundred pounds of payload in cross country operations
  • Wheelbase not to exceed 75 inches (increased to 80 inches 1 July)
  • Height not to exceed 36 inches (increased to 40 inches 1 July)
  • Ground clearance of 6.25 inches at minimum
  • 4x4 drive with two speed transfer case, geared for up to 50 mph on-road and down to 3 mph off-road
  • Mount for a .30 cal. machine gun
  • Approach angle 45 and departure angle 40
  • Rectangular body and folding windshield
  • Seating for three soldiers
  • Blackout lights

At the same time, during June 1940, committee members visited the American Bantam Motor Car Company in Butler, PA. Bantam had teamed with Spicer of Toledo, OH (maker of 4wd and axle components) to adapt a small civilian Bantam roadster to meet Army requirements, work in progress long before the 1940 Army specifications. Bantam had loaned test vehicles to the Army and had proved many of the basic design concepts that eventually were incorporated in the jeep. The Army recommendations of June 1940 were greatly influenced by Bantam's work.

Based on the committee specifications and drawings, largely originated by Bantam, on 11 July 1940 the Quartermaster Corps asked 135 companies to bid on seventy "light reconnaissance and command cars".

Origin of the Military Jeep: Fall 1940

Only two companies submitted bids by the target date of 23 July 1940, American Bantam and Willys-Overland. The award of a seventy vehicle order was made to American Bantam priced at $171,185.75 (less than $2500 each), within the amount budgeted by the War Department. Although the Willys bid was actually lower, Bantam was sure they could deliver on time while Willys hedged. The Bantam team, headed by engineer Karl Probst, worked around the clock to deliver the first prototype vehicle on or before the contract deadline of 23 September 1940. On 21 September engineer Harold Crist made the first test drive. On the 23rd, Crist and Probst drove the vehicle (called Number One, the Model Mk I or GPV) from Butler, PA to Camp Holabird, MD (approx 270 miles) for delivery to the Army, arriving with only a half-hour to spare.

The pilot Bantam had its headlights on top of rounded fenders and a curved grill in front. Only one was made and it did not survive. The Bantam pilot was immediately put into testing and was enthusiastically received. Although problems did develop, they were minor compared to the outstanding overall performance and clear usefulness of the new-concept small military truck. Willys and Ford attended the tests and took careful notes of the Bantam pilot. The Army approved sixty nine additional vehicles from Bantam, including agreed upon changes. Eight were to have four-wheel steering, a project subcontracted to Checker. These sixty nine vehicles were the Bantam Reconnaissance Car Model 60 or BRC-60, also known as the Mk II.

Meanwhile, relentless sales efforts and political maneuvering by Ford and Willys coupled with the desire of the Army to have more than one supplier (and doubts about the production capacity of the tiny Bantam company), encouraged both Ford and Willys to produce pilot vehicles based on the specifications of the July procurement. Willys delivered their Quad pilot model jeep on 13 November 1940 and Ford followed on 23 November with their Ford Pygmy, the first vehicle with the flat front radiator. Both looked like close relatives of the Bantam design since the Bantam plans had been used as the basis of both competitive efforts. The Army took the position that the U.S. Government owned the plans and could share them for Army purposes. Although Bantam's designs were being copied, Bantam did not object.

In the period July to November 1940, the QMC made another very important decision: the unrealistic 1,308 pound weight limit was raised to 2,160 pounds based on assertions from all bidders that the lower limit was completely impossible in light of other requirements for power and performance. The number 2,160 lbs was set for Ford's convenience; the Bantam weighed less than that but the Willy's Quad was still overweight.

Continued on Page 2 of the Origin of the Military Jeep.

Find additional photos and hi-res versions of the early jeep prototype vehicles at the Olive-Drab Military Mashup.

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