The Original Jeep
©Wm Spear 2014
Among people interested in automobiles perhaps none creates so much fascination as the American jeep, as well it might, for, with the possible exception of the Ford Model T, it is the most important vehicle in American automotive history. Certainly it is the best all around vehicle ever designed right up to this day, and its influence on today's passenger cars can hardly be over-stated. The original jeep (pictured alongside) rolled out of the American Bantam Car company factory in Butler PA, USA on September 21, 1940 and was delivered to the U.S. Army at Camp Holabird, MD two days later on the 23rd. We are organized then to celebrate its 75th birthday in 2015. Given the interest, and particularly reviewing the huge amount of literature on the subject it is simply amazing how much misinformation circulates about the conception, design and development of the original jeep.
I confess to both being confused by what had been written in the past, and in my early years of looking at it no doubt added to this confusion myself, not having realized how hidden the real story was. Some of the misinformation is deliberate, beginning with the massive (and brilliant) advertising campaign by the Willys-Overland Company (and the many, many successors to the capital J "Jeep" ® franchise) to create the impression in the public mind that the Willys WWII version of the jeep, the MB (a fine version of the jeep let it be said) had something to do with the original jeep, which it did not. It had nothing at all to do with it, and neither did the Ford Motor company which ultimately produced nearly as as many WWII jeeps as Willys. Willys filed for trademarks on the name "Jeep" but was not granted it for a number of years after the war and after a long drawn out Federal Trade Commission hearing where they were issued a cease and desist order from advertising the suggestion that they, with the Quartermaster Corps had originated the jeep.
I come to the Austin and Bantam marque, including the BRC, not as an automotive "brand" enthusiast but as an admirer of design. For me it is the creativity and expertise of the designers and the elegance of the design that are fascinating, not a football team sort of Ford or Chevy enthusiasm. The Austin 7, and in this country, the American Austin and the successor the American Bantam were the original economy cars offered for to the public and as such are themselves extremely interesting and important designs. De Sakhnoffsky's Bantam Roadster for instance is a masterpiece: a pocket "boulevardier" in which full sized human beings do not look like fools. That sort of thing does not happen by happy accident, and neither as some argue, did the jeep just arise by some evolutionary inevitability. Bantam became involved in the jeep project specifically because it WAS a micro car manufacturer, and it is reference to the small size which is cited repeatedly from the very beginning that makes the jeep the jeep. Few realize that at 79 to 80 inches the jeep has a wheelbase just a little bit longer than a Smart car!
Everyone loves a success, and when the Bantam pilot car was unveiled at Camp Holabird, it was immediately recognized as a tactics changing weapon of enormous significance. Within a day it had started a virtual food fury in a number of quarters. Car companies competing with Bantam wanted a contract to build the new cars and many of the long un-promoted Army officers, hungry for any sort of recognition argued for years about who should get what credit, despite the fact that not a single one of them ever laid a wrench on the act itself or assisted translating the general specifications into plans from which an actual car cold be built. Certain officers in the infantry claimed credit for simply desiring some kind of unspecified small car, but the Quartermasters Corps (QMC) was no less quick to jump on the bandwagon claiming fatherhood of the jeep. Politicians wrangled to oust one constituent company in favor of another.
It is hard to find any real interest in the project among the QMC brass prior to its delivery. However, among the junior officers and technicians at Camp Holabird, the Army's transportation depot, a civilian engineer Robert F. Brown and his crew deserves to share substantial credit with Bantam's engineer Harold Crist and its President Frank Fenn for developing the original rough specifications and outline drawing. The specifications and an outline drawing are hardly a car however, and even at that, specifying an impossible weight of 1275 pounds, they did not really describe what was delivered, or what we now recognize as a jeep. The two thousand pound car was a Bantam decision, not an Army decision. Bantam determined to deliver the performance the Infantry desired, not the physical description in the specs which would have been a total failure if possible at all. The specs were simply the basic negotiation between the customer and the producer to try and balance what was desired in the ideal by the customer with what was possible for the contractor to deliver within the laws of physics and available technology.
My conclusion, in the absence of some specific evidence you may have, or what may turn up, is that the QMC got dragged into the jeep matter as the saying goes, kicking and screaming. The Infantry, particularly by the Chief of Infantry Gen. George Lynch and his aides William Lee and Ingomar Oseth were very unhappy with the QMC's provision of half-ton truck and variations on the motorcycle when they had asked for a small battle car. However it was Bantam lobbyist Charles H. "Harry" Payne who lit the fire for the project and did the heavy lifting in promoting the idea and getting it acted upon. Nearly forgotten today, Payne, because of his early promotional efforts, was considered by insiders in Washington to be "The Father of the Jeep", and not without some cause. Breaking through the snarl of Army red tape, Payne had to appeal to the Chief of Staff George Marshall and two secretaries Secretary of War, Woodring and Stimson, to get the project off the ground. Some say he even went to the White House. It can be argued that despite his success in getting the Army to go to Butler and have a look, the ruffled feathers at QMC caused by his abrasive style and going over their heads prejudiced certain personalities against Bantam's later efforts to get orders for the car it had pioneered. However, it is recognized by all at the time that despite a lack of any real contribution to the engineering, without Payne the project may never have gotten off the ground at all.
From an engineering and design point of view, the closest we can come to "Father of the Jeep" is Harold Crist, a Bantam engineer who was instrumental in specifying the car with Bob Brown, co-designed (probably "mostly designed" is a more descriptive phrase) it and, with his assistants Turner and Hemfling, completely built the car from scratch. Crist never claimed sole credit for the achievement (perhaps the only person in the drama not to!) and always maintained that the jeep was created by several people. To assist in getting the surprise competitive contract the QMC decided upon, an engineer from Detroit named Karl Probst was hired by Fenn at Crist's insistence well after the jeep was conceived and laid out. The project had evolved to the point where Bantam needed blueprints to offer a complete bid. We can dismiss much of what we read about Probst being the "Father of the Jeep", because he wasn't. By the time he comes into the story the car is already specced and Crist is already working on a layout with the potential power plants picked. A comparison of the bid drawing complete July 1, and the car delivered which is nearly identical eliminates Probst who came to Butler on July 17th. Not to say Probst did not help a great deal because he did and he was a brilliant guy, but he did not conceive of or design the jeep in my opinion. A successful bidder would have to deliver complete, detailed build plans to the Army along with its pilot car, and that is what Karl Probst did during the build period, often having his crew formally draw up during the day what Crist and his crew had built the night before. Probst was hired first of all because he was the only one available on short notice for an iffy project and no money, and because of his reputation as a remarkably quick drawer of blueprints.
Anything you are likely to read about the jeep history typically glosses over the names of the men involved in actually designing and building the car because they generally don't know what the names are, or, where they do, it is inconvenient to mention them in their various home spun views of history. Thus you will see generalized references to "the Army" and "little Bantam", as if this little car had been built by multitudes or committees rather than by individual men doing specific things on specific days. The history is there for anyone who wants to take the trouble to read it, but, almost anything you read of the thousands of books and article and documentaries are either wrong or misleading because of their incompleteness. The Infantry did not relish the concept of facing the Wermacht on foot and had been trying to get the foot soldier on wheels for decades. Of course the Cavalry was very happy to have the Infantry on foot because, as always in the history of war, it made the horse guys so much cooler. In fact, like most customers without technical background, the people in this office had only a vague idea about the vehicle they wanted, and to the extent they did, had almost no idea of what it would look like or what the technology would be until they went to Butler Pennsylvania. That's okay, it was not their job to be engineers. Even as dispassionate an observer as Barney Roos, the brilliant Willys-Overland engineer watching the proceedings testified that the Army had little idea of what a recon car of this sort would look like. Prior to that all they knew was that whatever it was had to be small and light and carry 3 or 4 guys and go really fast, be 4wd and don't forget the heavy machine gun and plenty of ammo...and hey, could it also float?
Events following the delivery and testing of the Bantam, and its subsequent delivery of the first 70 jeeps ever in the following couple of months are too complex to go into in this brief space, and in any event mostly happened in 1941, and this is a 1940 celebration after all. Whether Bantam was "too small" to produce jeeps is a debate which will no doubt rage for as long as there are car enthusasts. It seems clear however, that if the QMC had nurtured and developed Bantam and had given them the orders they had surely earned it could have secured the tooling and financing needed to come up to speed and then expand in the same way other small companies of this pre-war era such as Higgins Boat did. They might have have grown into the job very quickly, and indeed as the factory stood was capable in theory at least of 300 cars a day at full tilt. Allowing for some warm up time to get the factory back in shape and the crews trained and organized it seems very clear that Bantam cold have produced all to the 10,000 or so jeeps the Army ordered in the year after the successful Bantam delivery. Whatever the debate there there is no question that Bantam was the first jeep, the first car to be called a jeep, the first jeep to be commissioned in the US or any other Army, and the first jeep to see combat. That seems like enough somehow.