The very first Jeep was the Bantam Reconnaissance Car designed by American Bantam chief engineer Harold Crist and freelance automotive designer Karl Probst in 1940. Further revisions would be made not only by American Bantam, but also by Willys-Overland Motors and the Ford Motor Company, shaping what would become the final design for the Jeep.
In the rest of the article, we are going to look at a total of ten iterations of the Jeep design from across American Bantam, Willys-Overland Motors, and the Ford Motor Company, and see if we can determine exactly who originally invented the Jeep.
The American Bantam Car Company
When trying to determine who originally invented the Jeep, the logical place to start would be the earliest point in time. In 1940, the Second World War had already begun in Europe, and although the United States of America was not yet involved in the war, the military knew it would need a vehicle for the inevitable entry.
The military put out a call for a vehicle that could meet some very specific criteria. The extremely short turnaround time that was requested meant that only two companies applied, American Bantam and Willys-Overland. Willys nonetheless requested more time, and so the military’s attention turned to American Bantam.
Bantam Reconnaissance Car
Harold Crist, who was American Bantam’s chief engineer at the time, recruited Karl Probst, an engineer and automotive designer to work on the project. The first prototype was designed, built, and delivered to the U.S. Army within the timeframe, meeting all criteria except for engine power.
Because American Bantam didn’t have the capacity to produce as high a number of vehicles as the military would have preferred, their blueprints were given to Willys-Overland and Ford, who had joined the bid after the fact, to develop their own prototypes.
‘40 BRC and ’41 BRC
American Bantam nonetheless continued to develop their Jeep, and the newly upgraded ’40 BRC was introduced as an entry. An order was placed, and in 1941, production began of the ’41 BRC. Only 2,605 of these Jeeps were built by American Bantam before they were shipped to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union as part of the Lend-Lease program.
Willys-Overland Motors were one of the two original entrants in the bid for a new light reconnaissance vehicle for the military. They did not submit an initial entry due to their request for a longer timeframe being declined but re-entered the process after American Bantam submitted their prototype.
Because the military was not confident in American Bantam’s production capacity, Willys were given the blueprints for their Bantam Reconnaissance Car to produce a model of their own.
The Quad was Willys’ prototype and their first iteration of a Jeep. The name was given to it due to its 4x4 system. The Quad was chosen as the best design by the military due to its very powerful engine, but ultimately, the production contract was given to Ford as well due to the country’s need for as many of these vehicles as possible as quickly as possible.
To make it ready for military use, Willys reduced the total weight of the Quad by 240 lbs and produced over one and a half thousand of these units to be sent to the Soviet Union as part of the Lend-Lease program.
The Willys Jeep underwent one final design change in July 1941, when the U.S. military realized that for all the Jeeps it had sent overseas as part of the Lend-Lease program, there were almost none left to be used by American soldiers.
The Willys MB was a sort of merging of all of the best features of the designs of the three companies – Willys-Overland, Ford, and American Bantam – into one standardized model. The Willys MA was used as the base model due to its powerful engine, and indeed Willys won the production contract because of this, but many tweaks were made, inspired by the other two offerings.
Throughout the course of the Second World War, Willys built a total of 363,000 Jeeps, the bulk of which were used by American servicemen, though tens of thousands continued to be sent over to friendly nations under Lend-Lease.
Ford Motor Company
The Ford Motor Company was a latecomer in the military’s bid for what would become the Jeep, having not been part of the initial bidding. Like Willys, Ford was given the blueprints of the original Bantam Reconnaissance Car in order to leverage their much greater production capabilities so that the military can have a bigger and faster rollout of new Jeeps.
The Pygmy was the Ford Motor Company’s first prototype Jeep. This model is responsible for the earliest version of the flat grill we are all used to associating with Jeeps today. An order of 1,500 of these Ford Pygmy Jeeps was placed, largely fated for use by Allied nations under the Lend-Lease program.
Ford refined their Pygmy as the Ford GP. The G stood for “government” and the P referred to the size bracket of the wheelbase. This model’s name is one theory for the source of the name “Jeep,” being a single syllable contraction of the letters as they are read out, “gee pee.” Ford built the highest number of Jeeps for the Lend-Lease program.
When the military decided to standardize and build for home use, Willys was initially granted the contract, ending Ford’s production of its GPs. This was short-lived, however, as the military needed a much higher quantity than one company could produce, so Ford was once again brought into the fray, this time to produce Willys MBs. These models were designated by Ford as the Ford GPW.
When looking at who originally invented the Jeep, it is easy to go back to the very beginning and credit Harold Crist and Karl Probst of American Bantam for the first prototype, but we have learned today that the development of the Jeep was a gradual process with lots of input from Willys-Overland Motors and the Ford Motor Company as well.