Prior to mass civilian production, the jeep was a military vehicle. It was used most extensively during WW II by the U.S. and its allies for the ability to move quickly over rough terrain. The very first version introduced as a military vehicle was the Bantam Reconnaissance Car (BRC). Variants on the original Jeep models are still used by most militaries. After WW II, Jeep refocused on the consumer market, creating lighter-duty offroad vehicles, which proved just as comfortable on paved roads.
The origin of the name "jeep" has been disputed. Some say the word began as a shortened version of "Government Purposes" or "General Purposes." GP sounded like "jeep," and would be referred to as such by military personnel. Another story cites Eugene the Jeep from the popular Popeye cartoons. The character was similar to the jeep: small, fast, and could solve problems. Regardless of the true origin, the term "jeep" became synonymous with all similar offroad vehicles whether it was actually made by Jeep or another industry.
Jeep in World War II
Once it became clear the U.S. was going to enter World War II, the company sent out a request for prototypes for four-wheel drive reconnaissance vehicles to 135 companies with a deadline of 49 days. Only American Bantam and Willys-Overland answered the call, but Willys refused due to time concerns. At the time, American Bantam was bankrupt but with the Army's help, it hired Probst, a Detroit freelance designer. The first version was completed by Sept. 21, 1940, but it didn't have enough torque.
It was decided the Bantam company would not be able to supply the number of vehicles needed, so the designs were supplied to Ford and the Willys company. It made modifications to the original design and came up with the Ford Pygmy and Willys MB, both very similar to the original Bantam. There were 1,500 jeeps originally, but by the war's end, there were over 640,000 jeeps used by the U.S. military. Used by every division of the military with an average of 145 for every infantry unit, jeeps were called to action to lay down cable, transport, and saw mill. The vehicle was often seen as a field ambulance and tractor.
In addition to the traditional Jeep models, Ford also produced an amphibious model called "Seep" or Sea Jeep. This model was not successful, making a poor offroad vehicle and an even poorer boat. Regardless, it was still used in specific circumstances.
The U.S. was not the only military taking advantage of this vehicle. More than 30 percent of all Jeeps produced by the two companies went to the Allies. It was subsequently used in the Korean war as well, referred to as “just enough essential parts,” due to the bare-bones design.
Jeep After World War II
Jeep was universally imitated by nearly every vehicle maker in just about every country around the world; however, the Jeep name remained a standard. The company began experimenting with a range of different designs including the CJ-V35/U that could drive underwater for a short time because the engine incorporated a snorkel. The M715 more closely resembled a modern truck with a flatbed in the back. Jeep may have been the precursor to a number of more modern military vehicles, but none was extensively used as the original.
Jeep Brand Ownership
Jeep, like most vehicle brands, saw a tumultuous change of hands throughout the years. After the Bantam original prototype, the designs were handed to Willys, which produced the first civilian model. A trademark was first granted in 1950. Willys sold the brand to Kaiser Motors in 1953. The company began losing money, and in 1970, was purchased by American Motors Corporation (AMC). In 1979, the French Renault automaker started investing in AMC, but by 1987, Renault was experiencing financial difficulties and discontinued investment. At this time, Chrysler purchased Jeep. Meanwhile, Chrysler merged with Daimler-Benz creating DaimlerChrysler, which sold most of its interest to a private equity firm in 2007, and today, Jeep operates under Chrysler Group LLC.
Despite changing hands, brief investments from automakers based outside of the U.S. and a number of similar vehicles sold as Jeeps manufactured by other car makers, Jeep itself is uniquely American. Primary design, development, and even distribution have been U.S. based more or less since the very first prototype.
Jeep vehicles range from offroad models similar to the military jeeps first conceived, to SUV models and crossovers made for suburbia. The most popular line is the Jeep Wrangler, a combination of offroad ability with smart consumer-based design. Historically, Jeep has offered vehicles more closely resembling trucks than the classic Jeep but never produced sedans.
The Jeep Compass, Grand Cherokee, Liberty, and Patriot are SUVs priced $19,000 to $25,000. The Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited are the classic Jeep designs both available for under $30,000. All have four-wheel drive and offer some offroad capability, varying by model.