Curbside Classic: Five Revolutionary Vehicles – No. 5 – 1945 Willys Jeep MB
(some nice pictures at the link site)
Two key evolutionary developments define humans: a large brain and the
ability to run long distances cross-country. That explains why the Jeep
is the most iconic vehicle on the face of the planet. The fruits of our
brain activity increasingly entrapped us in urban confinement and the
constraints of pavement. The Jeep offered the way out: the freedom to
take us anywhere our legs once had, and our horses after that. It
embodied the cowboy myth, updated for the second half of the twentieth
century; the last hurrah of Americans’ conquest of its open spaces. The
Jeep became the mechanical alter-ego of man. Well, at least of one
My father being an inveterate hiker, long family walks that started at
our house in the center of Innsbruck and ended up in the Alpine slopes
were a regular affair. In the city-center areas, I was a streetcar whose
electricity came through a stick that I would brush along the walls of
the buildings. The gaps between them meant a dangerous drop of energy
(and attendant humming noise), and I would just barely be able to coast
to the next one. As we reached the less densely-built areas, I would
become a car; choice of make, model and its corresponding noises
depended on my mood.
But once we made the abrupt transition from the flat valley to the steep
road heading up the hillside, I always became a Jeep. The Go Devil
four’s blubbering exhaust kept my lips busy. My hands were occupied
finding the right combination of range and gears with that assortment of
levers on the floor in order to keep me moving over any terrain, even at
a crawl over big rocks. The only problem was that I had a small gas
tank, and the Jeep would inevitably run out of fuel and sputter to a
stop. To my father’s eternal frustration, that meant the turnaround
point in the hike, unless the Jeep conveniently happened to stop in
sight of a Gasthaus or Alm Hutte.
I can credit my early influential Jeep exposure to its original purpose:
the winning of WW II. The Allies left behind enough of them for the tiny
post-war Austrian military to adopt as their own. At least those ended
up in the hands of the former enemy legitimately. My father, who was a
medic on the Russian front with the Wehrmacht, remembers how highly
prized captured Jeeps were. The Germans were in full retreat from the
Russians in the Ukraine during the winter of ’43-’44. When a sudden thaw
turned the countryside into a morass of knee-deep mud, the German trucks
and VW Kubelwagen were at a severe disadvantage for lack of front
But the powerful 4×4 Jeeps (60 hp compared to the VW’s 25) and the
highly prized 6×6 2.5 ton GMC and Studebaker trucks that the Russians
got from the US were seemingly unstoppable in the Ukrainian mud, which
was all-too similar to that in the US Midwest. Every German unit tried
to end up with at least one Jeep and as many “Studebakers” as possible.
Western Europe was a densely built-up land of many roads, leading to
military transport solutions that either favored road-limited vehicles,
like the RWD trucks and VWs, or the more extreme but maintenance
intensive off-road solutions like the German half-tracks. The American
adoption of mass-production AWD technology equally at home in both
conditions was a revolutionary solution that helped win the war and
changed the perceptions of cars’ possibilities forever. And armies
around the world quickly copied the Jeep, legitimately or not.
Enough of the enemy’s perspective. There’s not enough time here but to
give a quick overview of the Jeep’s remarkable beginnings and war-time
accomplishments. Bantam Motors, a tiny struggling maker of teeny cars,
responded to an RFP from the military in 1940. Using Spicer axles and
transfer cases, they cobbled up the first proto-Jeep in a few weeks.
Willys and Ford also developed prototypes. The big hurdle for those two
was the military’s extremely low weight target, initially 1200 lbs.
Bantam had the tiny engine and small-car experience to do what Ford and
Willys couldn’t. Early test were promising and a modest number were
built for grueling tests.
Eventually, the weight limit was pushed up to 2160 lbs, giving the Ford
and Willys the edge in developing the definitive Jeep. The more powerful
60 hp engine ultimately gave Willys the nod, and Ford ended up building
Jeeps under license. Bantam was left out in the cold, building trailers
for the vehicle it created. Here’s a wonderful ten minute video of the
Jeep’s early days, its grueling tests and subsequent success: the
“Autobiography of the Jeep” . If you look carefully, there’s a brief
glimpse of an original curved-nose Bantam prototype on the test range at
Some 640k Jeeps were built during the war, for $648 each ($7850
adjusted). This nice example was built in 1945. The owner, a neighbor
down the street, drives it regularly, preferably with the windshield
down in the summer. It still brings up a tinge of deep seated desire and
envy every time I see him bopping down the road with the wind in his
face. Once a Jeep, always a Jeep.
I did finally buy one, an ’85 Cherokee, during the early days of the
second wave of Jeep-driven SUV mania. But the Cherokee was a long way
from the cheap surplus Jeeps that started the 4×4 boomlet after the war.
They, and the subsequent post-war CJs did for off-roading what the
Model T had done on-road.
Prior to WWII, four-wheel drive was an expensive and relatively rare
proposition. Marmon-Harrington and other companies offered 4×4
conversions, mainly to Ford passenger cars. They made great hunting rigs
for the affluent, but their high cost made them inaccessible to the
average Joe. But the mass production of four wheel drive components for
the Jeep changed the equation forever.
The Jeep’s post-war revolution’s first stage was somewhat slow in
developing. Surplus Jeeps were cheap. Willys tried to market the
civilian CJ-2 as an agricultural tractor alternative. Eventually,
off-shoots like the Willys Jeep Wagon and its successor, the Wagoneer,
began to expand and civilize the four-wheeler market. By the sixties,
the other manufacturers could smell the 4×4 future coming. The IH Scout
and Ford Bronco jumped in first. The sea change came with the K5 Blazer
in 1969 and its pick-up-based imitators. And 4×4 pickups themselves
began to morph from butt-busting hard-sprung beasts to more civilized
incarnations. By the seventies the SUV moniker was coined, and the first
SUV phase was exploding, although then it was mostly a manly affair.
The second phase is closely associated with the Cherokee and its ilk:
more reasonably sized and much more civilized. Now it was Mommy who
didn’t want to be seen in anything other than a Cherokee or Explorer at
the school parking lot. As gas prices kept dropping, Suburbans and
Expeditions took their place. And now we’re in the deep end of the third
phase: CUVs. But as they become ever more car-like, the Jeep influence
is getting mighty hard to discern. What exactly does an AWD Flex have in
common with a Jeep other than four driven wheels?
The truth is, the Jeep’s remarkably long reign as the source of
automotive dreams and trends is well over. Looking back on it, it was
one of the more ridiculous mega-automotive manias ever, once it
metastasized. Why would folks that would never contemplate dropping a
wheel off a curb punish themselves with hard-riding, ill-handling,
gas-guzzling beasts? I ask rhetorically because I already know the answer.
The freedoms to zip down the road in a Mustang with hair in the wind or
escape to a hidden mountain lake in a Jeep are both deep-seated and
cherished symbols of the exuberant post-war American experience. But
change is blowing in the wind, and the question to ponder is not why we
all drove them, but whether these icons have truly run their course,
forever? And if so, what revolutionary agent has taken their place?