The Quartermaster Corps Develops the Jeep

The jeep had its origins in a small car designed and built by the Austin Motor Car Company of Birmingham, England, to address a European market that differed from the American market. Population density in Europe was great and gasoline prices were higher, translating into demand for a smaller automobile than American automakers produced. In 1929, the company formed a subsidiary, the American Austin Car Company, which acquired the plant of the Standard Steel Car Company in Butler, Pennsylvania. Because of the timing and the American market, however, the Austin car was not very successful, and in 1936 the American Austin Car Company was acquired by the American Bantam Car Company.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army's Quartermaster Corps had begun looking for a small vehicle to replace the motorcycle equipped with a sidecar. The army purchased an experimental car from Austin in 1933 for tests at Fort Benning. The two-seat car was open but otherwise of conventional design. As the army tested that car, engineers at the Tank Section of Fort Benning's Infantry School began development of a vehicle called the Howie machine-gun carrier, intended to be capable of carrying a machine-gun tripod and two soldiers lying prone. The vehicle had a very low profile and traveled at a low speed. In 1937, engineers at the Quartermaster Corps' Holabird Depot ordered a new experimental version of a small vehicle from Bantam. The engineers had already developed a preliminary design, which included what would become the familiar body shape. They worked out final details with an engineer at Bantam. The specifications for the vehicle had changed: the soldiers were back in a seated position, and the vehicle had to be capable of traversing rough terrain. It still needed to be capable of carrying a machine gun on a tripod, plus ammunition. The U.S. Army wanted the vehicle to be built of conventional commercial parts. After some tests, the Quartermaster Corps ordered three more test models in 1938, one each for Fort Benning, Fort Riley, and the Holabird Depot. While the regular army tested those three vehicles, Bantam provided some of its cars to the Pennsylvania National Guard, in the process learning more about how its vehicles performed in military situations.

The next stage in the development of the jeep was a 1940 request for bids to supply the army with seventy experimental vehicles for further testing. This number grew out of an investigation made by a sub-committee of the Ordnance Department's Technical Committee. Because the prototype Howie machine-gun carrier was considered a combat vehicle, the U.S. Army asked the Ordnance Department to consider the 1/4-ton 4x4 experimental truck as a vehicle that could satisfy the requirements of carrying a machine gun and crew. Ordnance performed some tests on the earlier Bantam vehicles and on a Bantam chassis, agreeing that with modifications the vehicle could serve to carry a machine gun. The sub-committee. Colonel Howie, and Bantam engineers met in June 1940 to draw-up some new specifications. Ordnance then recommended that the Quartermaster Corps procure seventy experimental vehicles, forty to be tested by the infantry, twenty by the cavalry, and ten by the artillery. The infantry and cavalry wanted the new truck to be a vehicle with all four wheels steering, rather than the front two wheels only. Although the Quartermaster Corps opposed this feature because it would require four constant velocity joints instead of two, placing a further demand on one of the already recognized bottlenecks in producing the new vehicle, and because it would make the truck more difficult to maintain in the field, the Quartermaster General agreed to have eight of the experimental vehicles built as the four-wheel steering type. Meanwhile, Bantam worked closely with the Spicer Manufacturing Company of Toledo, Ohio, to develop stout four-wheel drive axles and transfer case for the light-weight truck, and Bantam opted for an engine made by Continental Motors that was larger than its own Bantam engine.

American Bantam proposed to negotiate a contract with the Quartermaster Corps to supply the seventy vehicles, but the corps decided it was time to start opening the process to other bidders. Only one other company submitted a bid. The bid of Willys-Overland, Inc., was lower than Bantam's bid, but Bantam received the contract because it was willing to meet the army's specifications and schedule. Although invited to do so, the Ford company did not submit a bid. Rigorous tests of the seventy Bantam vehicles at Holabird convinced the army to begin equipping its units with the new four-wheel drive 1/4-ton truck. In October 1940, the Quartermaster Corps invited bids and negotiated contracts with American Bantam, Willys-Overland, and Ford for 500 of the vehicles each, specifying that all 1,500 axles and transfer cases would be supplied by Spicer. The corps decided to enter three contracts, rather than one, because it wanted to develop production capabilities with several firms in case many more of the vehicles were needed. Other branches of the U.S. Army, as well as other government agencies, objected, however, to awarding contracts to Willys and Ford. After heated debate among the various parties, the Assistant Secretary of War authorized the Quartermaster Corps to negotiate three contracts of 1,500 vehicles each. Each of the three companies was supposed to build the vehicles identically so that army mechanics in the field would be maintaining completely standardized vehicles.

The army initially referred to the small truck as a Light Command and Reconnaissance Car, intending that it compete with the standard motorized three-passenger tricycle and with the motorcycle-and-side car that accompanied the Nazi Panzer tank divisions. This intention was very obvious in the reports various units of the army sent back to the Quartermaster Corps as their soldiers worked with the jeeps in maneuvers. Among the questions the Quartermaster Corps asked unit commanders to consider in their reports was how the jeeps performed in various conditions and circumstances as compared specifically to motorcycles with sidecars and to motorized tricycles. The Quartermaster Corps received reports from infantry, calvary, armored, field artillery, reconnaissance, supply, and other units, commanders of which were overall very enthusiastic about the jeeps' performance, nearly always reporting that the jeeps were superior to the motorcycles and tricycles. The feedback the Corps received from these units also helped to develop the final production specifications that were adopted in 1942, as units offered advice on minor modifications to such items as the canvas top, the side mirrors, the collapsible seats, and windshield wipers, all intended to make the jeep a more serviceable vehicle in battlefield conditions.

The three auto companies did not interpret the U.S. Army's specifications identically. The Bantam version, for example, was under the army's weight limit, while the Willys version was over the limit because it had a bigger Willys engine. Ford delivered its jeeps with Fordson farm tractor engines, necessitating a different shape to the hood. Each of the three had different shapes to the front fenders. All three versions revealed structural weakness during the tests of 1941. The army decided that the Willys model would become the standard, mainly because, although heavier than the specifications allowed, it performed better than the other two. The army next decided to let a contract for 16,000 jeeps, but this time the entire order would go to one company. The Willys bid was slightly lower than Ford's, but the Quartermaster Corps wanted to award the contract to Ford because it possessed greater production capabilities. The Office of Production Management, however, overruled the Quartermaster Corps, so the army awarded the contract to Willys. Within a few months, though, as appropriations for ordnance procurement continued to increase, it became evident that Willys could not meet the army's needs. The Quartermaster Corps negotiated an additional contract with the Ford company, which was instructed to follow the Willys drawings and specifications. During the course of the war, Ford built more than 280,000 jeeps, and Willys built about 350,000, the parts of both companies' jeeps being completely interchangeable. Bantam, on the other hand, received no further contracts to build jeeps because the army did not think the company had sufficient production capacity. Bantam's production for the army thereafter was limited to small trailers.

The jeep became a staple of U.S. Army units in World War II, even though there had been considerable wrangling within the army and between the army and the competing auto companies concerning how the vehicle would be built and who would build it. Parties not participating in the bidding process also got involved in the controversies. Awarding of the three contracts for 1,500 vehicles each to Bantam, Ford, and Willys in 1940 generated controversy in the national press, especially because Ford, which heretofore had not been part of the process, was one of the companies receiving a contract. Then Congress investigated the Quartermaster Corps' process of contracting for jeeps in 1941. Earlier that year, the U.S. Senate had created a committee, chaired by Harry S. Truman, to investigate the national defense program and contracts the government had entered pursuant to the program. In August 1941, the Truman Committee heard testimony from the president of American Bantam and representatives of the Quartermaster Corps and the Office of Production Management concerning decisions made in awarding jeep contracts. Later that year, a sub-committee of the House Military Affairs Committee also investigated the jeep contracts. After thorough review, neither congressional committee took steps to reverse decisions made by the Quartermaster Corps.

The new vehicle quickly became very popular among soldiers and the public alike, who called it the "jeep" as a phonetic shortening of the army's classification for the vehicle, the GPW. As the war progressed, Willys began looking to the post-war potential for marketing jeeps to a civilian population. The company ran advertisements claiming that its engineers had "created and perfected the jubilant Jeep." Already resentful that it had lost the army's jeep contracts. Bantam filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that Willys' advertisements were unfair competition. The FTC investigated the history of the jeep's development, ruling in 1948 that Willys' advertisements were indeed unfair and ordering Willys to cease and desist. Within the army, on the other hand. General Campbell, Chief of Ordnance, was more gracious. Even though the Ordnance Department had contracted with Willys and Ford to manufacture hundreds of thousands of jeeps from 1942 onward, Campbell issued a statement in 1944 that the Quartermaster Corps was entitled to the credit for having developed the jeep and for having brought it into production.