The most iconic of all American vehicles is the Jeep. Stop arguing, you're wrong. In its military guise, Jeep was serving soldiers around the world for decades, proving itself to be more than capable than its designers could have ever imagined. It filled every role it was ever tasked with. The Jeep excelled at its original purpose of being a go anywhere do anything workhorse. In one fell swoop, it single-handedly made military horses, motorcycles and lite trucks obsolete. The Jeep served so well that Army General and future Secretary of State George Marshall declared it the United States greatest single contribution to the Allied war effort in Europe. Not surprisingly, the same qualities also created a demand for them on the civilian market. After 80 years, Jeeps still live up to their ancestor’s proud name. Here is how the legend was born.
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Some people will tell you that the jeep is just a bastardized version the acronym GP for General Purpose (car) which was the vehicles official designation, but it actually predated the vehicle by about four years. Eugene the Jeep was a popular character in the Popeye comic strips from 1936 on. Like the car, it was small but possessed some amazing powers so hanging the moniker on the Army’s new toy was kind of a natural for U.S. soldiers.
In June 1940 the U.S. Army contacted 135 companies asking for a design for a new light reconnaissance vehicle. Only three automakers Ford, Bantam and an upstart company named Willys decided to enter the race for the contract. In just 75 days Willys not only provided a new design but delivered two prototype Willys Quads, named for its four-wheel-drive system, to the Army for testing on Armistice Day 1940.
The Willys Jeep entered World War II almost a full year before the American Armed Services did. The first production models, the MA series, featured a gear shift on the steering column, left-handed emergency brake, two circular instrument clusters and were built with lightened side panels and shortened nuts and bolts to save weight. These were mainly shipped to England and Russia as part of the lend-lease program, and as a result of their extended time in service, fewer than thirty of these early models survived the war.
WWII Reporter Ernie Pyle said it best, "It (the Jeep) did everything. It went everywhere. Was a faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It constantly carried twice what it was designed for and still kept going." Throughout WWII, Korea and way beyond it is the iconic MB model that built the Willys name and established the reputation that all Jeeps since have had to live up to.
Marketed as "The All-Around Farm Work-Horse" and "A Powerhouse on Wheels" the Civilian Jeep (CJ) became a top seller despite the glut of war surplus MBs on the market. They came with a belt-driven power takeoff feature that could be controlled from the dashboard, and a wide array of farm and industrial implements were available to increase its utility. Thankfully, it also came with an improved suspension and more comfortable seats than its military counterpart.
In production, for almost 20 years, the Willys Wagon was one of the company’s biggest success due to the many innovations that it brought to market. Among its most popular features was the fact that it had all-metal construction as opposed to the wooden side panels that other companies were using at the time. It was also taller and roomier than its competitors being able to carry full sheets of plywood in a vertical position and had the first fold-down tailgate on a van type vehicle.
Considering the company’s history, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise that when Jeep decided to introduce a pickup that it was the first four-wheel-drive in the country beating out its competition by more than ten years. These tough little trucks, like most of Jeeps early models, were primarily marketed towards farmers and were available with a pickup or stake bed, chassis or cab, or as a bare chassis. Other than minor cosmetic changes the design was produced unaltered until the Gladiator series emerged in the late 60s.
Having no side windows and using curtains to keep out the weather the Jeepster was the last phaeton-style open-bodied vehicle made by an American automaker. Originally conceived as a low budget sports car for homemakers and college students, its price tag eventually climbed beyond most peoples reach, and its lack of performance doomed it on the sports market. Jeepsters are now considered highly collectible simply because so few were ever sold despite their cute as a button looks.
If the CJ -2A was the ancestor of the modern offroad vehicles, then the CJ-3A would be and is considered the father of all the recreational vehicles on the road today. It featured such refinements as a one-piece windshield with bottom vents, a heavier transfer case, a 44-2 rear axle to give a little more ass going down the road and wonder of all wonders bottom mounted windshield wipers on both sides of the windscreen. These may seem like small details, but in the late 40s being able to see all of the road at one time was considered a luxury.
By the 1950s Jeep had established itself as both a badge that wasn’t afraid to be innovative but still held onto the traditional values of strength and durability that made it famous. While its mainlines, such as the CJ-Series, were continually being refined and upgraded to meet market demand, it broke new ground and took the American public further and with greater utility than ever before. That isn’t to say the company didn’t make a few trips to wonderland though like a Harley powered model and one designed to launch nuclear missiles.
Produced from 1955 to 1983 The Dispatcher Jeep (DJ) was a two-wheel drive version of the CJ line. Though most people just called them Mail Jeeps, there were actually several variants produced that were intended to be everything from fuel-efficient economy cars to gala inspired resort carts for those who needed more oomph than a golf cart could provide. Though the DJ had a very long production run it was never a very big seller outside of the Postal Service contracts.
If you want to know why the Wagoneer was considered an instant classic just check out this list of first. It was the first luxury SUV, the first four-wheeled drive with an automatic transmission, the first 4x4 with an independent front suspension, the first full-time all-wheel drive, and had the first overhead cam 6-cylinder engine. It was so far ahead of its time that itis easy to see why the Wagoneer was the longest continuous automotive production run (28 years), on the same platform, in U.S. automotive history.
Though the Wagoneer was still going strong by the mid-80s AMC saw the demand growing for smaller, more economical to drive SUVs. They spent over $250 million to come up with another instant classic the Grand Cherokee. As seemed to be the company’s habit the new line was chucked full of innovations like being available not only in two and four-wheeled drive versions but with two 4x4 systems available: Command-Trac Part-Time and Selec-Trac Full-Time 4x4.
As if only to prove that all good things must come to an end the CJ-Series that had been with Jeep from its inception was retired and replaced with the more civilized Jeep Wrangler in 1987. Thou it retained much of the body styling that people loved to hate, the new offroad king had more in common with Grand Cherokee than with the vehicle it replaced. It came in a total of seven trim packages which all were much fancier than the CJ ever had, but despite its polished appearance, it was still all Jeep garnering awards from three top offroad magazines the year it was introduced.
If you want to know what happens to a rough and tumble, kick ass and take names badge born in battle and destined to conquer the world when it gets taken over by a family car company look no further than Jeeps latest offering; the Compass. Produced in four plants located across Brazil, China, India, and Mexico, this Crossover is best described as pedestrian. The company still claims it is as rugged as its heritage demands, but with plastic grillwork and a system that takes four-wheeling away from the driver, one has to wonder.