When people think of the icons of American automobiles, they often look at the muscle cars of the past such as the GTO, the sports cars of the past and present such as the Mustand and Camaro, and the trucks that have always been at the core of American automotive such as the Ram. People often forget the unsung hero of the American military, the infamous Willys Jeep that took us through World War II. Here's the story.
As it became more apparent that the United States would get involved with World War II, the US Department of War wanted a light, cross-country reconnaissance vehicle that could be easily transported and deployed and that had the ability to traverse a wide-range of terrains. The answer came in the form of the "Willys MB US Army Jeep" which was produced from 1941-1945.
There was a rush on the project as tensions escalated, so on July 11, 1940, 135 auto manufacturers were asked to submit designs that conformed with the Army's specifications for a "...general purpose, personnel, or cargo carrier especially adaptable for reconnaissance or command, and designed as a 1/4-ton 4x4 truck."
Those participating were given a very small window: 11 days. They were then to submit their first prototype in 49 days with 75 days allowed for completion of 70 test vehicles. On top of the general requirements, the Army's Ordinance Technical Committee specifications required that on top of being a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, it needed to have a crew of 3 with a wheelbase of 80 inches, tracks under 47 inches, have a fold-down windshield, carry a 660-lb payload, be powered by an engine with 85-ft-lb of torque, and weigh less than 1300 lbs.
Given the demands of the request for proposal, only two companies entered.
American Bantam Car Company beat out Willys-Overland Motors but due to a lack of fiscal stability and production capacity, the government asked Willys and Ford to build their own models with the Bantam blueprints in hand. Each company was asked to produce 1500 units for field testing. A year after the project started, the Department of War selected Willys to produce the next 16,000 vehicles due to rave reviews from the field over its more-powerful engine. Design features preferred in the Bantam and Ford models were integrated into the Willys design.
Ford was later contracted to help with production as the need grew to over a half-million. During its production run, Willys built 363,000 Jeeps and Ford built 280,000. 51,000 of them were exported to the USSR.
Civilians would later get the opportunity to own a "Civilian Jeep" better know by most as the CJ.