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The Mighty Jeep: Instructions Not Included

Jeffrey Syken

The Second World War left many technological legacies to humanity, i.e. RADAR, jet engines, guided missiles, atomic energy etc. However, one of the most enduring has been a relatively simple four-wheel-drive utility vehicle, the Jeep. Developed in the run-up to WWII, during the war it was considered to be: “a G.I.’s best friend.” Not only did the common soldier praise the Jeep for its rugged dependability, so too did the high and mighty including; General George C. Marshall (who called it “The Greatest Discovery of WWII), Winston Churchill and even Joseph Stalin (who was so impressed that the Soviets made the false claim that their Lend-Lease Jeeps were actually made in a secret factory beyond the Ural Mountains). Perhaps the beloved war correspondent Ernie Pyle summed it up best when he referred to the Jeep as: “A divine instrument of locomotion.”

“Uncle Joe” Stalin may have gotten his manufacturing facts wrong, but he was right about one thing when he said WWII would be: “A War of Motors.” The previous World War had demonstrated the limitations of the motorcycle as a motorized means of reconnaissance and/or getting messages where they need to get in a hurry. One thing that did prove its effectiveness during WWI, however, was four-wheel-drive. The FWD Company - an early 4WD innovator, provided America and Britain with thousands of 4WD trucks during the war, proving their worth in the mud and shell holes of the Western Front. By the 1930s, the idea of applying that same ideal to a light utility vehicle (to replace the inadequate motorcycle with sidecar) was gaining traction, literally. In particular, the American Bantam Company, whose specialty was small, light vehicles, envisioned the possibilities.

Though the basic idea dated back to 1905, it was not until the late 1930s when two soldiers stationed at Fort Benning, GA., came up with the idea that would eventually give birth to the Jeep. Their “Belly Flopper” design may not have been practical, but the automobile industry took note of the Quartermaster Corps’ interest in it, particularly with war clouds gathering. For American Bantam, a lucrative contract to build a light utility vehicle would be the salvation of their company, but it was not to be. Ultimately, the WWII-era Jeep was a hybrid of the best of three designs with Willys-Overland winning the production contract while the Ford Motor Company would build Jeeps under license in order to meet wartime demand (Bantam built the towed trailers used with Jeeps). Born of war, the Jeep met mixed success as a farm utility vehicle in the immediate postwar years. The “Civilian Jeep” (CJ) would take many forms over the years and the military version would serve well into the 1980s. Today, the Wrangler carries on the “Blitz Buggy’s” proud tradition.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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