Hail to the jeep
For a small band of devotees (my wife not included), today is a very special day
The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 23, 1990
By Art Carey
“Are you kissing it? Are you making love to it?”
The speaker is my wife, Tanya, who, in the guise of seeking attention, has come to harass me.
It is about 10 o’clock on a weekday night, and as usual, I am flat on my back. Once again, Tanya has caught me in the act, rudely invading what she affectionately calls “the tabernacle of junk.” Tabernacle refers to the garage. Junk refers to the two 1948 Willys jeeps, and assorted parts, that occupy nearly every square foot of it.
For the last hour or so, I have been lying on the cold concrete floor, underneath a jeep. I am not repairing anything. I am just studying the drivetrain, how it works and fits together. It is a religious moment for me. Confronted by such ingenuity, I am transfixed and in awe. I wonder about the minds of the men who figured it all out, forgotten industrial heroes like Karl Probst and Delmar “Barney” Roos.
Tanya doesn't know from Karl Probst and Barney Roos. Truth to tell, she doesn’t care to. This whole jeep thing bewilders her. She is worried and resentful. She sees me, smeared with grease, torque wrench in hand, and she shudders. She says, and I quote: “I can’t believe this is happening to me, that I married a man brought up on the Main Line with a wonderful education and credentials, who wants to become a jeep mechanic. It’s my worst nightmare!” To her, jeep has become the ultimate four-letter word, and the vehicles themselves are rusty, foul-smelling interlopers, steel symbols of her husband’s middlescent lunacy.
Frankly, Tanya has her problems, too. She likes books, the orchestra, plays, and other culture-schmulture stuff. She thinks a piston is a Detroit basketball player, that a universal joint is a cosmic reefer, that a distributor is someone who works for Amway. What can you do with a person like that? A person who despairs just because I’d rather read Hemmings Motor News than the New Yorker, or the jeep service manual instead of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind?
Some of it she understands. She understands, for instance, about the summer of 1959, when I spent a month alone with my grandfather at his cottage on the coast of Maine and drove his 1946 Willys jeep, at the wide-eyed age of 9, up and down his long driveway and across the blueberry fields and through the woods, with this stylish, broad-shouldered patriarch sitting next to me, wearing a battered leather bomber jacket and white silk aviator’s scarf.
But she shuts her ears and walks away in disgust when I tell her the jeep is a cultural artifact, an icon of American greatness, a relic of a time when the United States made things the rest of the world admired and wanted, a rugged, Spartan macho vehicle that brims with the spirit that pushed this nation through the Cumberland Gap and that stands for freedom, independence and a can-do, take-no-prisoners, four-wheel-drive approach to life.
Of course, there are jeeps, and there are Jeeps. The jeeps I love are not the Jeeps most commonly seen today. The contemporary Wrangler, which most resembles a vintage jeep, is too luxurious and effete. The Jeep Cherokee -- now hugely popular among drug lords, yuppies and outdoorsy bluebloods -- is nothing more than a Volvo with testicles and, as such, shamefully epicene by
comparison to its muscular forebears.
No, the jeep I wish to honor is the jeep that helped win the war, the last glorious war, World War II -- that flat-fendered, flat-hooded classic that served valiantly in the deserts of North Africa, in the jungles of the South Pacific and on the beaches of Normandy, earning the love of GIs and the respect of Patton, Marshall and Eisenhower; that monument to American inventiveness that the famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle once called “a divine instrument of military locomotion”; that model of simplicity and functional beauty that Enzo Ferrari praised as “the only true American sports car”; that four-wheel sculpture in steel and sheet metal that the Museum of Modern Art, in 1951, pronounced a masterpiece of automotive design (along with a 1931 Mercedes-Benz SS, 1937 Cord, 1937 Bugatti and 1938 Bentley) and hailed as “the perfect gadget.”
Because Tanya will hear none of this, I come to you, sympathetic reader, to share my enthusiasm and invite you to join me in celebrating a birthday. On this very day, 50 years ago, the jeep --probably the most famous and popular automobile since the Model T -- was born. It happened at Camp Holabird in Baltimore, Md., at 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 23, 1940, when the first jeep prototype was delivered to the U.S. Army. Amazingly, that historic vehicle was built, from scratch, in only 49 days. Who accomplished this miracle? Not Chrysler or Ford or General Motors, but a struggling car company with only a handful of employees -- right here in Pennsylvania.
In Toledo, Ohio, along the aptly named Jeep Parkway, Chrysler operates a Jeep assembly plant in the sprawling collection of brick buildings that were once the home of Willys-Overland, the now-defunct company that built most of the jeeps during World War II.
Today, in front of the plant’s executive offices is a historical marker that proclaims the site “the birthplace of the Jeep.”
Nice try, Lee.
To find the true birthplace of the jeep, you must go east, back to Pennsylvania, to the hilly, gritty, steel-mill town of Butler, about 35 miles north of Pittsburgh. In Diamond Park, a modest town square opposite the florid clock tower of the Butler County Courthouse, alongside the town’s memorial to its sons killed in Vietnam, is a stone slab about eight feet tall. It bears the engraved likeness of a jeep and declares: “Butler, Pennsylvania: Home of the Jeep.”
It is a tribute to the citizens of Butler that they have suitably memorialized this claim to fame, but the real monument is down in the valley, near the demolished ruins of the old Pullman Standard freight car factory. On the other side of a steel-mill access road grandly named Bantam Avenue is a neglected and abandoned four-story brick building.
Only an old-time Butlerite would recognize its significance, and only the most fanatical Jeep Creep would realize that this boarded-up, forlorn structure, now condemned to an appointment with the wrecking ball, is the most hallowed shrine in all of Jeepdom. For in this building, a half century ago, a band of determined men, under the banner of the American Bantam Car Co., designed and constructed the first jeep.
The Army had been casting about for such a vehicle since World War I made horses obsolete. What the Army wanted, simply, was something that could do everything, a to-hell-and-back blitz buggy with the maneuverability and speed of a motorcycle and the stamina of a truck, a four-wheel-drive mechanical mule powerful and surefooted enough to climb mountains and plow through swamps, large enough to carry three soldiers and a machine gun, small enough to elude enemy fire, and light enough to be lifted by a couple of GIs or floated across a stream.
By mid-1940, the Army still hadn’t found what it was looking for, and thunderclouds were gathering. France had just succumbed to Hitler’s relentless onslaught, England was digging in for the Battle of Britain, sabers were rattling in the Pacific, and FDR was about to ask Congress for an unprecedented $32.8 billion to bolster our national defense. At any moment, it seemed, the globe would explode in war.
Back in Butler, times weren’t so rosy for the American Bantam Car Co., either. For the last few years, the firm had skimmed by, manufacturing swank Lilliputian cars that were the Honda Civics of their day. Many Americans marveled at these cute little putt-putts that got 40 miles to the gallon, but when it came time to buy, they preferred automobiles with the heft and size of a locomotive. Consequently, by mid-1940, Bantam was broke, its plant was shut down, and it had a grand total of 15 people on its payroll.
In an attempt to stay afloat, Bantam pitched an idea to the Army: Why not use one of our ultralight vehicles as a midget command car? The Army was intrigued, but not enough to fork over any seed money. Nevertheless, the Army did send a technical committee to Butler to see what Bantam had to offer, and a short time later, in June 1940, the Army, apparently inspired, drew up a set of specs for a light command and reconnaissance car and sent out invitations for bids to 135 manufacturers.
With little to lose, Bantam jumped at the chance -- an act of vertiginous daring since, at the time, Bantam had no engineering department and hence no one to mastermind the project. Given what the Army wanted, and when, only a genius would do.
His name was Karl K. Probst. Born in 1883 in Point Pleasant, W.Va., he studied mechanical engineering at Ohio State University, eventually becoming a wizard at small-car design. By 1940, he had amassed an impressive list of credentials, including serving as chief engineer at the Milburn and Reo car companies. When Bantam contacted him, he was operating an independent engineering firm with an office in Detroit. He had no reason in the world to go to Butler to design a cockamamie military vehicle for a shaky car company in only a few weeks’ time. No reason in the world except that he was a patriot and a man who relished a challenge.
By the time Probst arrived in Butler, the challenge was even steeper. Initially, Bantam had thought it could adapt one of its existing vehicles. But when the Army specs arrived, calling for a four-wheel-drive quarter-ton truck with at least 40 horsepower and an unloaded weight of no more than 1,300 pounds, Probst realized he would have to start from scratch.
He did it all, basically, in a single weekend! In order to meet the Army’s deadline for bid submission, he spent 18 hours at his drafting table producing the necessary engineering layouts. The Army’s 1,300-pound weight requirement was patently impossible, Probst decided, so he ignored it. But Bantam's military sales rep, fearing the Army’s displeasure, retyped the bid forms at the last minute. The finished vehicle’s weight, the forms now stated, would be 1,273 pounds.
On July 22, 1940, the Army opened the bids at the Holabird quartermaster depot. Amazingly, of the 135 manufacturers contacted, only two submitted bids: Willys-Overland and Bantam. As it turned out, Willys came in with the lower number . . . but Bantam promised to build the test model by the prescribed deadline. Bantam got the contract.
What a mad rush then engulfed the Bantam factory in Butler. Probst and a hastily recruited team of engineers worked late into the night, seven days a week. As with any completely new prototype, everything had to be made by hand. Even stock items, such as brakes and steering gear, required alterations. Sheet metal was shaped and fitted by trial and error. Hundreds of parts, including jigs and fixtures, were fabricated from rough sketches. The odds in Detroit were 5-to-1 that Bantam would blow the deadline -- and face a $100-a-day penalty. “And frankly,” said factory manager Harold Crist, “I don’t think we could have raised the money at that point.”
Early on the morning of Sept. 23, 1940, Probst and Crist climbed into their creation, a chunky, box-like vehicle with a rounded grill and curved front fenders. Its only stock part was its steering wheel. Ahead of the pair was a 230-mile drive to Camp Holabird. At a break-in speed of 25 m.p.h., it would be a long journey. They reached the post at 4:30 p.m., just 30 minutes before the deadline. Immediately, they were thronged by curious soldiers, who gaped and scratched their heads at the sight of this ungainly contraption. Maj. Herbert J. Lawes, of the purchasing and contracting office, asked Crist to drive the Bantam up a 60-percent slope in second gear. The car crawled up the incline effortlessly. Lawes, who had tested every type of Army conveyance, from mules to heavy tanks, then slid behind the wheel and gave the Bantam a wild 15-minute workout. Pleased by the vehicle’s pep and pugnacity, he declared that it would make military history.
Over the next several weeks, the Army tried its best to defeat and destroy the Bantam. The car was driven full tilt over log roads and plowed fields, through sapling forests and across sand traps, into a 300-foot mud pit called “the hell hole,” and off a four-foot loading platform, time and time again, at 10, then 20, then 30 miles per hour. The Bantam was tested so mercilessly that it wore out its first set of tires in less than 3,000 miles. Finally, the punishment took its toll, and the Bantam’s frame cracked. The Army had found the vehicle’s limits, and the Army was impressed -- so much so that they told Bantam to make a batch of 70 and later ordered an additional 1,500.
But first there was the question of weight. At 2,030 pounds, the Bantam was 730 pounds over the Army’s specs. Probst had held the weight to an absolute minimum and knew he couldn’t trim off a single ounce. The matter came to a head during a field conference. After some discussion, a senior cavalry officer made a suggestion: If a couple of soldiers could manhandle the machine out of a ditch, the Army wanted it. He was a big man, about 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds. Walking around to the rear of the car, he took a firm grip on the bumper and hefted the back end off the ground. Probst was relieved; the weight issue had been settled.
Watching all this very closely were representatives of Willys and Ford, which were itching to muscle in. The Army, concerned about Bantam’s production capacity, wound up inviting the two major carmakers to design their own versions, at their own expense. Those models were delivered to Holabird in November, and both were remarkably similar to the Bantam. Little wonder: The Army had given Willys and Ford free access to Bantam blueprints.
To keep everybody happy and to maximize supply, the Army placed orders with all three manufacturers. In July 1941, however, the Army decided to standardize the jeep (and jeep is what everyone was now calling this beguiling GPV, or general purpose vehicle), and the winner was Willys-Overland. Thanks to the engineering brilliance of Barney Roos, the Toledo carmaker’s jeep, with its mighty “Go-Devil” engine, was clearly more brawny, agile and reliable than the jeeps fashioned by Ford or Bantam.
Altogether, about 642,000 jeeps were produced during World War II. Willys built the most -- 361,000 -- putting together, at the peak, one every 80 seconds. Ford turned out 278,000, virtual clones of the Willys jeep, as directed by the Army (much to proud Henry’s dismay). As for Bantam, the company that introduced the jeep spent the war years in obscurity, making cargo trailers, torpedo motors and airplane parts. Just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the 2,675th Bantam jeep rolled off the Butler assembly line. It was the last automobile the American Bantam Car Co. would ever build.
That’s not the end of the story, of course. The steel soldier, whether fathered by Willys, Ford or Bantam, went on to become a true American war hero. With incredible maneuverability and speed, the jeep was able to go almost anywhere at any time and do almost anything when it got there. It could scoot for cover like a jackrabbit and travel across country like a deer. The jeep laid smokescreens and furnished hot radiator water for shaving. It was a machine-gun mount and parade vehicle for Patton, MacArthur, Roosevelt and Churchill. It served as a mobile command post, front-line ambulance, field telephone station, fire engine, railroad locomotive and snowplow. It delivered fresh socks and C-rations, towed artillery and airplanes, and its broad flat hood was used as a map table, dining table and altar for religious services.
The jeep revolutionized modern warfare. No longer, as in World War I, was the rifleman forced to carry a heavy load of ammunition and supplies. Crammed with gear, the four-wheeled fighter was right next to him, permitting him to advance unfettered over ditches, through streams, and into the heart of almost impenetrable jungle. The jeep was so light and compact that it could be transported to battle by plane or glider, dropped by parachute, or wrapped in canvas and floated across a river.
Ernie Pyle, who was killed by a sniper’s bullet while using a jeep for cover in 1945, wrote: “I don't think we could continue the war without the jeep. It does everything. It goes everywhere. It’s as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule and as agile as a goat. All the time, it carries loads twice as heavy as those it was designed for, and it keeps going just the same. . . .”
When the Marines landed on Guadalcanal, jeeps hit the beach with the first assault waves. The Marines made one simple after-action comment on the jeeps’ performance: “It was a godsend.” The Italians thought so much of the jeep in the Battle of Africa that they offered as much of a bonus for capturing or destroying one as for a plane, and more than for a tank. Declared Gen. Eisenhower: “The jeep, the Dakota and the landing craft were the three tools that won the war.”
The jeep really belonged to the dogface, though. It was GI Joe’s pal, the common soldier’s trusted friend. He wrote poems to it, swore at it, pampered it, named it after his girlfriend, and, on the rare occasion when his jeep would no longer go, when it was absolutely beyond any miracles that could be wrought by ordnance, he wept over it, openly and unashamedly.
The story goes that after a brutal shelling, a corporal was found sitting in the shattered wreckage of his jeep, head buried in his hands, crying.
“Cheer up,” said a passing soldier. “There are plenty more where that came from. They’ll soon give you another jeep.”
“But you don’t understand,” the corporal sobbed. “You see, I loved this one.”
It is like that with jeeps.