Long before the Easter Jeep Safari and subsequent backcountry excursions in places like Moab, Tahoe, Joshua Tree or even the bayous of Louisiana. Before the accredited devotion by those who swear by the Jeep lifestyle – touring across treacherous landscapes and hitting off-road courses with assertion. Before the Cherokee, Wrangler, and Wagoneer, there was the Jeep Willys – built for battle. And don’t worry, that’s not hyperbolic. We mean that Willys-Overland quite literally manufactured the first Jeeps for World War II.
And while some, if not many of us, might already be aware of this, odds are the precise history and story of how a rugged wartime machine made its way into the hearts and highways of America isn’t. That’s where we come in – offering some detail and timelines for your enjoyment. Because few legacy automotive brands boast such a past, and because even after all these years, Jeep continues to please drivers who prefer dust and dirt over pavement; ready to tackle any obstacles that might stand in their way.
Built for Utility
Just two years ago in 2016 Jeep celebrated their 75th anniversary – which is saying a lot. Forged for war, Jeep is one of the few automotive brands that stuck around after the war. Let alone becoming the household name it is today. It all started back in July 1941 when Toledo, OH-based Willys-Overland Motor Co received that prized contract to produce what was to be the first Jeep – the Willys MB – for the American military.
What many don’t recall is the bidding war that occurred between Willys, Ford and Bantam Car Co. for that exact contract. Naturally, all three automakers built a prototype for the military but after rigorous testing, it was the Willys model – the most rugged and capable of the three – that took home the prize. From here, Willys, and eventually Ford, built more than 637,000 Jeeps during the Second World War.
“What many don’t recall is the bidding war that occurred between Willys, Ford and Bantam Car Co. for the contract to build this vehicle for the American military.
These were also nimble yet highly capable vehicles on the battlefield – handling nearly any terrain throughout Axis territory which, mind you, extended at the time from Europe through North Africa and into Southeast Asia. Needless to say, the Willys MB – a precursor to the Jeep Wrangler – could handle it all. They could be seen on the beaches of Normandy, France, carrying allied forces onto Guadalcanal, and to the mainland shores of Japan. It’s difficult, then, to not grasp the allure these vehicles carried with them in the post-war years.
Taking to the Civilian Market
As the Second World War came to a close, Willys-Overland realized they could leverage both their accrued wartime fame and acquired practice in producing these highly capable vehicles to help them enter the consumer vehicle market. It was a test without a doubt but, as we all know now, it worked. So, placing their bets in favor of consumer interest, they released the first civilian Jeep – The CJ-2A – back in 1945. Also, known as the “Universal,” it boasted some extra features that weren’t previously included on the militarized MB model. These included a tailgate, mounted spare tire on the vehicle’s side, a higher windshield, and larger headlights. Basically, this was Willys-Overland building a more civilian-friendly and road-ready version of the original.
As the years wore on, the CJ series evolved at a steady pace as more and more attention was drawn to the brand. The first iteration – the CJ-3A (produced between 1948-1953) – offered improved ventilation and now a one-piece windshield with wipers at the bottom rather than sweeping down from the top. Later, the CJ-3B (produced between 1953-1965) featured a higher hood that worked to house the now larger overhead-valve four-cylinder engine – aptly dubbed the “Hurricane.” Also during this production series, Willys offered a more road-friendly version for growing suburbia: The DJ-3A, which was a two-wheel-drive version of the 3A made available as a hardtop or convertible. Think tropical beach vacation circa mid-century and you’ll get the idea.
Production of the CJ Series and Beyond
Beneath all this adaptation for the civilian market and innovation lied some instability at the corporate level. Meaning, while quality consumer Jeeps kept rolling off the dealer lots, Kaiser Manufacturing was making a move to purchase Willys-Overland in 1953. Which, as we all know now, was a successful play. Later, in 1963, the company dropped the Willys name altogether, rebranding itself as the Kaiser-Jeep Corp. During these years, however, we saw some classic automobiles make their way off the lot. For instance, the Willys Wagon – built up through 1965 – was America’s first all-steel station wagon that adopted a classic “woody wagon” appeal through the years and became known for its tailgate party aesthetic.
Witness Jeep’s full transformation from Willys to Wrangler compliments of this short clip from Donut Media.
On the more rustic side of things, Willys also worked to develop a truck built for farmers at the time. It boasted a 118-inch wheelbase and was available as both two-wheel and four-wheel options and led the way for Jeep trucks up until the Gladiator pickups replaced them in the late ‘60s. Moving forward, additional CJ production versions began to take on appearances of the more modern Jeeps we all know and love today. Specifically, we’re referencing the CJ-7 (introduced in 1976) with a shorter wheelbase than previous iterations, and an open-cab pickup dubbed the CJ-8 – otherwise known as the “Scrambler” – with the same wheelbase as the CJ-6 making it a highly utilitarian and capable pickup for both work and play.“It’s nevertheless notable to remember where it all started: with a small car manufacturer vying for the opportunity to build reliable and capable overland vehicles for our armed forces.
Back to the corporate level, in 1969, Jeep saw another shift in power. This time, Kaiser-Jeep Corp was acquired by American Motors. Under this ownership, we saw some more innovative Jeep designs – including the XJ Cherokee which paved the way for the more modern Jeep lineup. The next power shift wouldn’t again take place until 1987 when Chrysler Corp would acquire American Motors and then in 1998 when Daimler AG would absorb Chrysler and the rest, as they say, is history.
Despite all the power shifts and removal of Willy’s from the Jeep name, it’s nevertheless notable to remember where it all started: with a small car manufacturer vying for the opportunity to build reliable and capable overland vehicles for our armed forces during one of the greatest global conflicts of their time. Such diligence and dedication to quality could very well be the reason why even after all these years of subsequent turmoil, bankruptcy and bailouts, that Jeep still resonates with American consumers at such a high level.