Where jeep got its orders
Butler, Pa., which produced the prototype, gives the trailblazing vehicle a salute
The Philadelphia Inquirer
August 28, 2011
By Art Carey
The jeep -- that sculpture in steel and sheet metal that the Museum of Modern Art once hailed as “the perfect gadget” -- is still drawing raves in the town where its legend began, and the good citizens of Butler, Pa., about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, are aglow from this month’s inaugural Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival.
“It was amazing,” said Jack Cohen, executive director of the Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau, organizer of the three-day bash, which attracted jeeps from 28 states and four foreign countries. “We were overwhelmed by the response. More people came than we ever imagined, and everybody had a wonderful time.”
Thousands thronged downtown Butler for a parade of jeeps that lasted four hours. More than 1,100 vehicles with a claim to a jeep pedigree -- from primitive “Blitz Buggys” to luxurious SUVs -- rolled down Main Street, and jeep owners could test their vehicle’s capabilities over obstacles and rough terrain in a “jeep playground” at the county fairgrounds. Festival proceeds will help fund a campaign to save the original jeep factory building, a dilapidated shrine.
“We’re making history again in Butler, Pa.,” Cohen said. “We’re very proud of this rich history, and we want to share it.”
That history centers on a little-known but indisputable fact: Butler is the birthplace of the jeep -- the four-wheel-drive mechanical mule that revolutionized military transportation and helped win World War II; that flat-fender 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 Gens. Patton, Marshall, and Eisenhower; that symbol of American ingenuity that the famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle called “a divine instrument of wartime locomotion”; that model of functional beauty that Enzo Ferrari praised as the only true American sports car.
As wondrous as the vehicle itself is the story of its creation, a heroic chapter in industrial history and a reminder of what this nation could accomplish before we outsourced manufacturing to China, back when our best and brightest were engaged in making things instead of deals, transforming raw materials into useful products instead of skimming margins in zero-sum games on Wall Street.
“Very few people know about this, especially this generation,” said Lee Bortmas, 84, a Butler resident and authority on jeep history. “Here you have this bankrupt company and little factory in a rather obscure town where the people all came forth at a crucial moment and did the job.”
As the storm clouds of war were gathering in 1940, the Army was searching for a light command and reconnaissance vehicle. Bids were solicited from 135 companies. Only two stepped forward, Willys-Overland Motors of Toledo, Ohio, and the American Bantam Car Co. of Butler.
Bantam was on the ropes, operating with a skeleton staff. It needed the contract desperately and prevailed on Karl Probst, an automotive genius from Detroit, to design the car. The challenge was steep: The Army wanted a four-wheel-drive quarter-ton truck with at least 40 horsepower and an unloaded weight of no more than 1,300 pounds -- a requirement that ultimately proved impossible.
To meet the Army’s deadline for bid submission, Probst spent 18 hours at his drafting table producing the necessary engineering layouts.
Willys’ bid was lower, but Bantam promised to meet the Army’s deadline. That meant producing a prototype of an entirely new vehicle in a mere 49 days.
What a mad rush then engulfed the Bantam factory in Butler! Probst and a hastily recruited team of engineers and fabricators worked late into the night, seven days a week. Parts were made by hand, shaped, and fitted by trial and error.
On Sept. 23, 1940, the Bantam Reconnaissance Car was presented to the Army at Camp Holabird, Md. Concerned about Bantam’s production capacity, however, the Army invited Willys and Ford to devise their own versions based on the Bantam prototype. In the end, Willys and Ford built most of the war’s jeeps, about 640,000. Bantam contributed 2,600.
Butler intends to keep celebrating its progeny, at least until the jeep’s 75th birthday in 2015.
“It’s the little car that could,” Bortmas said. “It could haul food and ammo in and haul the wounded out. It could go anywhere and do anything.
“They still do, all over the world. That’s why they say the sun never sets on the mighty jeep.”