The US Army bought a Jeep

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents -

WRIT LARGE on any list of mo­tor­ing mightabeens is the name of the Ban­tam BRC 40, a 1940 prod­uct of Amer­i­can Ban­tam (pre­vi­ously Amer­i­can Austin). Roughed out by the small Penn­syl­va­nia car maker’s plant man­ager Harold Crist in con­sul­ta­tion with the client, and prop­erly penned by Detroit free­lance de­signer Karl Probst, the BRC 40 was done in a hurry: the client’s com­mis­sion had al­lowed just 49 days from con­cept to pro­to­type de­liv­ery.

But un­der foster par­ents Willys-over­land and the Ford Mo­tor Com­pany, the BRC 40 would cre­ate a legend and in­deed, an­other car com­pany: Jeep.

The client was the US Army and the ur­gent mar­ket force was World War 2. In mid-1940, the US War Depart­ment is­sued a re­quire­ment for a quar­ter-ton, 4WD re­con­nais­sance ve­hi­cle and in­vited 135 US in­dus­trial man­u­fac­tur­ers to submit work­ing pro­to­types by late-septem­ber.

Of just three that re­sponded – Ban­tam, Willys-over­land and Ford – only Ban­tam de­liv­ered on dead­line. Con­cerned by the small size of the com­pany, the US govern­ment en­cour­aged Willys and Ford to press on with their pro­to­types; the Quad and the Pygmy, re­spec­tively, were de­liv­ered in Novem­ber. All were sim­i­lar in lay­out and ap­pear­ance, prompt­ing many to be­lieve that Ban­tam’s design was leaked to the ri­vals.

Each was in­vited to submit 1500 ex­am­ples for field-test­ing. Much was ad­mired about the Ban­tam, but as­pects of the oth­ers could not be over­looked, notably Willys’ more pow­er­ful four-cylin­der en­gine (the 45kw ‘Go Devil’), and Ford’s eas­ierto-pro­duce, prac­ti­cal flat bon­net and mud­guards and stamped steel grille.

In July 1941, the War Depart­ment melded them into a stan­dard­ised design. Fur­ther evo­lu­tion fo­cused on re­mov­ing weight (the Army’s ini­tial re­quire­ment had been an un­re­al­is­tic 590kg, later raised to 980kg). Willys’ en­gine de­signer and for­mer Stude­baker en­gi­neer, Bar­ney Roos, spec­i­fied shorter bolts, lighter steels and even a sin­gle coat of paint.

Hurt­fully, in Oc­to­ber 1941 the pro­duc­tion con­tract was awarded to Willys-over­land, largely on the ba­sis of its su­pe­rior en­gine. In Jan­uary 1942, a sec­ond con­tract was awarded to Ford, whose Willys-li­censed ve­hi­cle was known as the Ford GPW. Ford stamped its fly­ing F into var­i­ous bolts and small parts, but ev­ery­thing was in­ter­change­able.

Be­tween 1941 and the end of pro­duc­tion on Septem­ber 21, 1945, Willys pro­duced 362,841 of its ‘MB’ and Ford around 281,448 of its GPW. And Ban­tam? Fu­ri­ous, and having pro­duced only 2643 cars, its con­so­la­tion was a con­tract to pro­duce quar­ter-ton, am­phibi­ous trail­ers to be towed be­hind the ‘Jeep’.

Mixed grille Among the rarest of WW2 Jeeps are 1500-odd Willys ‘slat­ties’ from 1941; the welded prison-bar slat-grille was costlier than Ford’s stamp­ing.

Hy­brid the­ory Willys or Ford? The ve­hi­cles were al­most iden­ti­cal, and wartime ne­ces­si­tated in­ter­chang­ing of parts, so most today are a hy­brid of the two.

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