Jeep Enthusiasts Celebrate Vehicle's Surprising Origins
By Bill Spear
If a small but zealous group of Bantam Reconnaissance Car owners get their way, more people than ever before will know the true origins of the military innovation that changed ground warfare forever. The group is celebrating the birth of Bantam Reconnaissance Car, the world's first jeep, built in August-September, 1940 by the American Bantam Car Company, a small auto manufacturer in Butler, Pennsylvania.
It is not well known that the Army's 4x4, quarter-ton truck, subsequently and more commonly known as the jeep, was originally promoted, largely designed, and built from scratch in an unbelievable 49 days by a handful of the American Bantam Car Company of Butler, Pennsylvania. The whole project was promoted and shepherded through and incredible snarl of pre-war Army red tape, including a very reluctant Quartermasters Corps and an Infantry with unrealistic expectations about what was possible by Bantam's remarkable Harry Payne. A super salesman who would not take 'no' for an answer, Payne managed to cover almost the entire chain of command From two Secretaries of War (Woodring and Stimson) and the Chief of Staff and aide (Gen. George Marshall and ADC Beddell Smith) down through the middle ranks of the Army bureaucracy to get the unlikely and nearly moribund Bantam a shot at creating the small battle car the Infantry had long desired but never visualized. Along with Bantam President Frank Fenn, specifications for the car were jointly drawn by Harold Crist, a Bantam engineer and factory manager and Robert F. Brown, a civilian engineer assigned to the QMC at Camp Holabird, MD. Together as contractor and customer, they negotiated specifications for a vehicle which attempted to marry the hopes of the customer with the realities of then current technology and largely became the basic conception of the jeep. This was all in response to a nearly impossible, decades-long and never-answered request to QMC from the Infantry for a battlefield reconnaissance car that could do virtually everything, but weigh next to nothing. They had asked for the impossible, and Bantam promised to deliver it.
And deliver it they did. Surprised by the imposition of a competitive bid procedure instead of the negotiated contract under which they thought they were operating, and stunned by the imposition of an impossible weight limit Crist had argued against, Bantam hired Karl Probst to create bid drawings and parts identifications in an incredible three days of what Crist had layed out. Crist and his crew of Ralph Turner and Chester Hemfling worked through the night actually building the car, while Probst put together a crew to draw up what they had built the night before. It would be one of the last weapons designed the old fashioned way, with the engineering following the build.
The Bantam pilot car rolled out of the Butler, Pennsylvania factory under its own power on September 21, 1940. The untested car, which had not even been broken in, made the 250-mile trip from Butler to its tests at Holabird with only minutes to spare on Bantams' contractual deadline. The Bantam Reconnaissance Car (BRC) was delivered to the Army on September 23rd, 1940. See a Life Magazine gallery of photos of the first BRC being tested at Camp Holabird. The vehicle was instantly recognized as a tactics changing weapon of enormous significance. Indeed General George Marshall later called the jeep the greatest weapons contribution to the allied cause in WWII. It was clearly the answer to the Army's prayers. Before it was even tested the car was driven to Ft. Myer in Washington to show "the brass". All of a sudden, QMC who had been skeptical of the project at best was taking credit for it. The success of the Bantam tests set off a feeding frenzy among individuals, government organizations and competing car companies eager to capitalize one way or another on the Bantam design and take credit for its existence. Sadly, Bantam, a small and somewhat naive Company, remote from the machinations of Washington and Detroit, was not prepared for this political onslaught that its creation caused.
As an engineering accomplishment, the design was a tour de force and is still recognized today as one of the world's most inspired and aesthetic industrial designs. Built to be extremely light, but having the strength to withstand the rigors of the battlefield and perform almost any task, the Bantam was the classic manifestation of elegance: not too much, just enough. The form, modified in incalculable variations since its introduction is still with us today, not just in its obvious Sport Utility Vehicle descendants, but also as a very small, basic car. Used to seeing 4x4 SUVs, many are surprised to learn that the BRC had a wheelbase only a few inches longer than the Smart Car and weighed less than 2000 pounds.
Unfortunately for Bantam, its engineering acumen and entrepreneurial grit was not matched by the political skills in Washington or in the car industry to compete for a major, multi-million dollar contract. QMC determined to spread the limited number of units it was willing and able to order among two other car companies, thus depriving Bantam of the ability to secure the kind of financing needed to built up its plant, equipment and manpower for full production. With such financing and orders it seems clear that Bantam could have produced all the cars the Army ordered initially, and a good percentage of all jeeps throughout the war with another larger company such as Ford. The company however did produce all the cars that were ordered, which amounted to about 2600 cars, including not only the first jeep, but the first car to be called a jeep, the first jeep ever to be commissioned into military service, and the first jeep to see actual combat (with the British in North Africa).
BRC1940, short for the Bantam Reconnaissance Car Celebration Group, has been drawing attention to the birth of the original jeep and illuminating the role played by a handful of mechanics, engineers and executives at Bantam who promoted, designed and built the car, but whose names have been obscured by the stampede of people and organizations taking credit for the accomplishment.
The BRC celebration continues following a very busy 2015, when various events and activities tracking the historic dates, climaxed in League City, Texas on October 22-24, with a gathering of 23 of the remaining BRC's. Worldwide, there may be 60 running examples. The gathering, sponsored by the Austin Bantam Society, also inaugurated the establishment of the BRC Museum in League City, Texas.
Watch a short video of the League City, TX gathering here.
It is hoped that through the efforts of BRC1940, the public will be made aware of this remarkable but still little-understood and developing history of a car which may be second only to the Model T Ford in its significance to automotive design, its social impact, and its overall historic, world-wide importance. Enzo Ferrari is reported to have said that the jeep was America's only sports car. General Eisenhower named it with the C-47 and the Higgins landing craft as the most important keys to allied victory. Hundreds of books and articles have been written over the past 70 years about the jeep, but perhaps the words of Bantam employee Ralph Turner, a key man in building the cars, is most accurate. He called it, "the best all-around car ever made."
BRC1940 is making a call for anyone who may have information, anecdotes, notes or letters, photographs, film, BRCs or parts of them, or personal experience with any of the participants (or was one). Indeed, anyone having just a general interest or curiosity about these events is invited to make contact and lend a hand.