What is Jeep doing on a site about makes that didn’t make it? It is one of the most successful and valuable brands in the world. At its core, the Jeep is a bit like the soldiers it transported. It did the grunt work and served its commanders. Willys, Kaiser, AMC, Renault in America, and Chrysler, one by one over the years those commanders would retire or be deposed, while the Jeep soldiered on. It is Willys that usually gets the credit for fathering Jeep. Indeed, Willys built more than a third of a million of them over the course of WWII. It was Willys that thought to secure a patent in 1943 on that not yet storied name. But it was a small firm in Butler PA who was first to produce the nimble light reconnaissance truck that would soon be called a Jeep.
In the spring of 1940, war was raging across Europe. In one of a multitude of preparations for a response, the U.S. Army studied the effectiveness of the German light reconnaissance car called the Volkswagen Type 82 Kubelwagen, and its role in the wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg across France. Within weeks of Paris’ fall, the Army knew what it wanted.
Requirements for an American light reconnaissance vehicle were formalized and put out for bid on July 11, 1940. Even though this would be a lucrative contract, the Army’s crushing 7-week timetable for a delivered prototype meant that of the 135 companies contacted, only two bid on the job. Willys Overland was one of these, but they could not get a finished demonstrator to the Army before the deadline. The other firm, American Bantam, did deliver on time what would in a few years become the world’s most recognizable vehicle.
But as any experienced soldier knows, winning the battle doesn’t always win you the war.
A decade earlier, The American Austin Company began building a licensed version of Britain’s immensely popular Austin Seven. The company’s Butler, PA plant turned out 20,000 of the tiny cars over five years before they ran into difficulties and went bankrupt. A local entrepreneur named Roy Evans bought the firm out of receivership in 1936 and renamed it American Bantam. Evans immediately had the little Austin extensively redesigned in the hopes of making it more appealing to American tastes. The results were a lovely roadster, along with a woody wagon and a delivery van. These little cars were indeed appealing, but they were just too small. Only 7,500 more Bantams were sold through 1940. The company was again teetering on the edge when the Army’s call for bids went out.
To win the bid that could save his company, Evans approached the talented freelance engineer, Karl Probst, to build Bantam’s prototype. Probst initially refused the offer from the cash strapped company, which was in the form of a consignment fee in place of salary. Some accounts say Probst’s old friend William Knudsen, former president of General Motors and recently appointed head of the government’s new War Production Authority, persuaded Probst to accept the offer. Others report that he was moved to patriotism by Winston Churchill’s, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the streets” speech during the Battle of Britain. Whatever the reason, Probst took the job. He was able to deliver blueprints to Bantam in just 5 days.
It took another 44 days of round-the-clock work to build the vehicle. Using off-the-shelf parts from a variety of suppliers, Bantam was able to finish a prototype literally hours before it was due at the Army proving grounds in Camp Holabird, Maryland. There was no time for a proper break in on the machine, which they nicknamed the Blitz Buggy. Bantam’s engineers used the 170-mile drive from Butler to the to do the job. The vehicle was called the 40BRC (Bantam Reconnaissance Car) and it was the only prototype delivered within the army’s timeframe. Bantam won a contract to supply 70 more BRCs for further evaluation.
Three months later, Japanese navy bombers attacked at Pearl Harbor. Soon after that, American Bantam would become an early casualty of the war.
As mentioned earlier, the other company to bid on the contract was Willys-Overland, but they did not get a vehicle to Camp Holabird in time for initial consideration. Willys did however manage to get a couple of their engineers there in order to “help” evaluate the BRC. The Army soon recognized that the production facilities of the struggling American Bantam would be nowhere near adequate to meet their demands. They re-opened bidding.
Willys-Overland was asked to produce additional prototypes. The 40BRC blueprints, now government property, were handed over to Willys. Joseph Frazer put Barney Roos, on the project, who again worked his magic. Even though his vehicle was a bit heavier than the army’s specifications, the punch of the 60hp Go-Devil engine won them over.
But even Willys-Overland could not fully supply the Army’s needs. The contract was further extended to the Ford Motor Company. Each company was encouraged to make improvements on the original design. The result was the Model MA Army reconnaissance car, later to be known as the Jeep.
By the cessation of hostilities in 1945, nearly 650,000 Jeeps were built. Willys-Overland built 362,000 of them, while Ford made another 281,000. American Bantam produced only 2675 40BRCs. Because of modifications made early on to the design, the Bantam version was deemed by the army to be non-standard and therefore unusable. All remaining 40BRCs were shipped to Russia as part of the Lend-Lease program.
Of all the makers who take credit for Jeep’s lineage, the tenure with American Bantam was the briefest by far. Bantam created the first of what would become one of the most iconic vehicles of all time, and it barely receives a footnote for its efforts. Even if they could have imagined the ultimate demand, the little company from Butler never could have met it. Truth is, like a wayward father who meant well, American Bantam was unfit to raise the Jeep. War is hell.
Copyright@2017 by Mal Pearson
This is the second of a series on Willys-Overland