Austin, Bantam, and Willys: Birth of the Jeep
Austin yields American Bantam
The story of Jeep begins in Great Britain with Herbert Austin, a self-made engineer and tool maker who became the manager of the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company. He founded the Austin Motor Company in 1905, using his own money.
In 1922, now-Sir-Herbert Austin launched a new car, aimed at the mass market. The Austin 7 was named after the engine’s horsepower rating, which avoided a tax; the car was just 40 inches wide, with a 75 inch wheelbase. Four wheel brakes were operated by cables on a hand lever, and the rear brakes were cable operated from a foot pedal (in 1930 they were finally operated together).
Sir Herbert’s design took off, made under license in Germany as the “Dixi” (by BMW) and in France as the “Rosengart;” finally, it arrived in the United States in 1929 as the “American Austin.” William Lyons used the Austin 7 chassis to build his own car, the Swallow, which gave him the knowledge and profits to form Jaguar.
DAT Motor Cars made a version of the Austin 7 in Japan, without any license; the car was called DATSON (“son of DAT”). In 1933, DAT was bought out by Nissan, the car having been a miserable failure.
The Americanized Austin 7, made in Butler, Pennsylvania, sold well for a brief time, but the continued Depression and resistance to tiny cars brought the American Austin into bankruptcy in 1934.
An American Austin salesman, Roy Evans, bought the company, renaming it to American Bantam, and changing the engine to avoid having to pay royalties to Austin. The Austin 46 cubic inch four cylinder had around 15 horsepower and 40 ft lbs of torque; Evans changed the main bearings to a babbitt type, increased the compression to 7.0 to 1, used a different carburetor, and added full pressure lubrication and a pump-based cooling system, boosting horsepower to 19, raising torque, and increasing reliability.
Roy Evans made the Bantam look larger than it was. First year production was 1,200 units; 30% of production was for export to countries where it competed against the Austin itself. By 1938, the Bantam was on par with Chrysler, Buick, and Mercury with regard to quality, reliability, and appointments, but could not get into the mass market.
The Army starts looking for a recon vehicle
Meanwhile, the Army Quartermaster Corps (QMC) was ready to consider a light reconnaissance vehicle, despite resistance from some headquarters staff and some officers; Major George S. Patton, for one, was making passionate noises not to adopt motorized equipment. The German “Blitzkrieg” against Poland in 1939 quickly changed a lot of American military minds, including Patton’s, and loosened Congress’ hold on the purse strings.
American Bantam Motors hired a lobbyist known for his integrity, retired Navy aviator Commander Harry Payne. Payne worked tirelessly to get specifications from the QMC, knowing that the British Army had (in 1932) purchased two Austins as scouts.
The Austin cars were tough and well liked, but needed four wheel drive to be fully effective. After five years of resistance, a British infantry captain used the Austin chassis and parts to build a small, light vehicle with four wheel drive; it weighed around 1,000 pounds, with machine gun and small artillery mountings, and was given rave reviews from the British infantry.
In 1938, Harry Payne loaned two small Bantam trucks to the QMC for evaluation. The QMC expressed solid interest in the design, but the lack of four wheel drive and the small tires led to the cars to getting stuck; from that point, the Army insisted that any light recon vehicle must have four wheel drive.
Thus, in mid-1940, the QMC settled upon a 75 inch wheelbase vehicle that weighed 1,200 pounds, close to the size and weight of the Bantam Truck and Roadster models.
Harry Payne brought the 20-year long dithering about a light recon vehicle to Senator Harry Truman’s attention early in 1940. Senator Truman had been lighting fires under the military for their “sweetheart” deals, castigating the offers responsible for cost overruns, outrageous specifications, prices that shot up for commonplace items, and lack of buying on-the-shelf items, as well as a deplorable lack of contractual oversight.
Payne also mentioned the “loan” (they never got the vehicles back) of the trucks and roadsters to the QMC, and Truman’s committee started to investigate. Spurred by a possible appearance before the Truman Committee, QMC officers quickly arranged a trip to the Bantam plant, to see a small, light vehicle being assembled.
Roy Evans arranged to “loan” out two more Roadsters, which were driven to the local Army National Guard unit, engaged in field maneuvers that week. The two Roadsters performed flawlessly. Evans had made it clear that no factory oversight or restrictions on any use of the vehicles would be imposed. Impressed, the Army contingent, not connected to the Headquarters group of naysayers, extended its stay at Butler.
Somewhere along the line, a pencil drawing was found on the desk of the Bantam President; it is clearly the BRC vehicle outline. Enough preponderance of evidence exists to attribute that drawing to Harry Payne, a field man who knew what would work for troops in the field. He was aware of what Bantam production facilities were capable of making, given the chance. Certainly, the drawing did not come from the Army.
The specifications for the light recon vehicle were finally released by the QMC on July 11, 1940, three weeks after the visit to the Bantam plant. They fell right in line with what Bantam had been touting all along, making the crude pencil drawing a portent of the future.
The drawings rendered by the Army were about 20% Army and 80% Bantam. There was an allowance for an additional 4.5 inches in the wheelbase because the Army wanted four wheel drive (which required a transfer case). The engine had to deliver 85 foot pounds of torque and carry a 660 pound payload, with total vehicle weight targeted to be 1,300 pounds.
Then the troubles for Bantam began. The Headquarters contingent that rejected everything began circulating disinformation about the ability of Bantam to engineer and produce the recon vehicle, saying that Bantam was too small. In reality, though, Bantam had two production facilities; the first was in Detroit, and it built bodies that were shipped to Butler for attachment to a chassis. Combined, the two factories could have produced over 200,000 complete vehicles per year. This was backed up by an independent auditing contract that analyzed the two plants. Bantam just never had the sales to use the full capability of their facilities.
The issue then became the price that Bantam was paying to Ford to acquire the transfer cases and the axles for the four wheel drive system. Bantam was just about out of money, putting the tooling to build its own transfer cases and axles out of reach. They could get the tooling if they were awarded the contract. Yet, without the tooling, they stood not to get the contract, if their financial situation were to become public.
The Vice President of Bantam was Harry Miller, of Indianapolis racing fame; he won Indianapolis with front wheel drive and four wheel drive racing machines, largely with four cylinder engines of 122 cubic inches. By 1937, Miller had already built, raced, and perfected things like twin cams, hemispherical heads, tuned exhaust engines, and high lift camshafts.
The people around Harry Miller were the cream of the engineering profession. One of them was Harold Christ, who had worked on the first Duesenberg, spent 18 years working on Stutz race cars, then moved to Bantam as the General Factory Manager. No doubt those two men, by themselves, could have figured out any potential engineering problems that might have arisen in manufacture of the light recon vehicle.
It did appear, however, that someone in the hierarchy of the QMC wanted Ford to get the bid; Ford was larger than Bantam, but was not prepared to build a small wheelbase vehicle. Once Ford became aware of the potential size of the contract, Henry Ford used every bit of influence he could muster to try to rig the bid.
On July 11, 1940, Army QMC specification for bid was released to 135 manufacturers. Bids had to be returned in 22 days. A pilot vehicle had to be available in 49 days —with 70 prototype vehicles be available for evaluation in 75 days.
The first BRC - Bantam Reconnaissance Vehicle
Only three companies submitted bids: American Bantam, Ford, and Willys-Overland. Only Bantam had made a commitment to provide a pilot car within the 49 day time frame, along with providing 70 vehicles in 75 days. Willys was the low bidder (at $739 per unit), but could not provide a pilot; Bantam bid $1166, aand Ford bid over $1200. Neither Ford or Willys had any idea of how to make the cars, though. Thanks to some questionable moves from the QMC, that would change.
The next moves make more sense if one knows that, in 1935, Evans had organized a syndicate to save Willys-Overland by purchasing 12,000 vehicles from Willys, saving the company but giving controlling interest to Evans. Evans was one of the largest Willys dealers, even as he ran Bantam. In 1938, former Chrysler salesman and executive (credited with naming Plymouth in 1928) Joseph Frazer became president of Willys, and ordered improvements to the twelve-year-old 4 cylinder Whippet engine.
Bantam hand-built the first pilot car with a 20 horsepower engine and a three-speed synchronized manual transmission. Code named the “Blitz Buggy” and nicknamed “Old Number One,” it had to be delivered to Camp Holabird in Maryland (450 miles away) to meet the bid, but no one had thought about how it was to get there. Frantic calls to local trucking companies were not successful. Two volunteer technicians put together a picnic basket full of food and drinks, then set out for Fort Holabird. In the days before reliable roads, with stops only for gasoline, they beat the delivery time by half an hour. Along the way, the car generated an extraordinary amount of interest, since nothing like it had ever been seen before.
One of the first things that the Army did was to hand over all Bantam’s technical drawings to Willys and Ford! When questioned about giving out the vehicle plans, the Army claimed that it was theirs to do with what they wanted. Bantam should have initiated law suits in all directions, but Roy Evans felt that, if he had rocked the boat, the QMC would kill the Bantam bid completely.
As a further insult, whenever the BRC was in the garage, Ford and Willys people were allowed to examine it and take photographs of it. As a result, by the end of November 1940, both Willys (The “Quad”) and Ford (The “Pygmy”) had prototypes at Camp Holabird. The Willys-Overland Quad’s outline almost perfectly matched the Bantam pencil drawing.
Despite the rave reviews that you might hear now, the Willys Quad was literally junk, according to the evaluation sheets. The “Go-Devil” Willys engine, whose power nearly doubled the Bantam and the tractor-engined Ford, should have been strong, but the Willys went through three engines in less than 8,000 miles. Almost all the other components went out, including the transmission, the transfer case, the windshield braces, the radiator and mounts, wheel bearings, lug bolts, battery, and generator.
The Ford and the Willys were far overweight, as well.
The Army was eager to get all that they could. Colonel Patton was bringing pressure to bear, and thanks to his D. C. connections (through his society wife), most of the country club set of officers were reassigned, but the pace was still slow, with funding crawling through Congress. Congress was torpedoing President Roosevelt’s moves, following his attempt to add five more Supreme Court justices without consultations with the party leaders.
It appeared that despite its low $739 bid, Willys Quad was to be written off due to quality concerns. In the meantime, the QMC bid requirement for weight had been increased at least twice (from 1,275 to over 2,000 lb) to allow Ford to build the car. Henry Ford had powerful connections, even though his company was building trucks for the German Nazis, and despite proclaiming views which were highly sympathetic to the Nazis in the recent past. (Ford and General Motors would later, successfully, sue the United States for damage to its European factories, which, at the time, were pumping out war materials for the Nazis.)
Only Bantam, which had built another model, the BRC60, in December 1940, had stuck to the weight requirement. The BRC60 had many improvements, all which had been recommended by the Army.
Roy Evans must have felt fairly secure. He controlled two of the bidders, Bantam and Willys. Willys’ Toledo plant was huge. Ford remained the unknown. Willys expended a great effort, and rebuilt its Quad into the MA model, 240 pounds lighter than the Quad.
In March 1941, it was decided that all three competitors would be awarded contracts to build 1,500 vehicles each — about three weeks after Willys had held a press conference on the steps of the US Capital Building on February 20, 1941. One of the Willys vehicles was used to nimbly drive up the steps to the veranda in front of the building. It also drove down the steps. After riding some Senators, Congressmen, and reporters up and down, the conference ended. One of the reporters then asked the Willys representative what the vehicle was called, and he responded: “We call it a Jeep.” The story appeared the next day in the newspapers.
In July, the Army issued an RFP for 16,000 vehicles. Maintaining three different sets of parts with three assembly points was not practical. Willys won the bid, coming in at $739 per unit — nearly $12 million in new assembly alone, not including maintenance or replacement parts. Bantam ended up making vehicles for Great Britain and Russia, under the Lend-Lease Act.
Bantam hopes were raised again when the Army said it needed a second source of assembly, but Ford, having lobbied for the contract for months, won that bid for 15,000 more Jeeps. Ford agreed to build them strictly to Willys factory specifications. In a bit of one upmanship, Ford had to agree to use the Go-Devil engines that were built and supplied by Willys. Since Ford was supplying the transfer cases and axles to Bantam, it set the bid in the mind of the Army. Ford got $890 for their unit (far more than Willys), a $14 million deal.
Ford gets credit for the seven-slot stamped steel grill that became the standard for the Jeep; it was more effective, far less costly, solved the headlight mounting design, and gave the front a distinctive look. Willys adopted it shortly afterwards.
Bantam production of the BRC60 (MA) Jeep wound slowly down. Roy Evans was disappointed. Over $30 million had been given since the first BRC had been submitted for bid, and Bantam had only gotten a very small part. Evans set Harry Payne on a military contract hunt.
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the Untied States in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The money for war issues began immediately to flow to various industries.
Bantam Motor Car Company got enough contracts to keep working during the duration of World War II. They had built their last Jeep at the end of December 1941, after making 2,675 of them, and, ironically, would never build another. There was no money to sustain car production. The Detroit facility was shut down; Bantam made a profit from the facility when it was acquired by the War Requisitions Board in February 1942.
Bantam was given the task of designing and building a trailer suitable for towing assignments for the Jeep. It was to be able to handle 500 pounds, and be as rugged and reliable as the Jeep. Bantam built 73,689 of them by the end of the war. They were also given contracts for carburetors for Australia, and a big engine that powered landing craft.
Roy Evans departed Bantam at the war’s end, and involved himself in Willys, including running his own dealership.
Bantam continued to build trailers for the military and civilian markets, and were acquired by Armco Steel Company in 1956; the name was dropped.
Even before the war ended, Willys started advertising by showing the accomplishments made by the Jeep, and tried to make Jeep its own trademark, though they had not invented the name (Bantam did not oppose the move, not surprising given that they shared a president). Jeep was a worldwide phenomenon, including even the Soviet Union.
Willys had built 363,480 Jeeps by war’s end; Ford had built 280,150. All were powered by the same 2.2 litre, 134 cubic inch in line 4 cylinder flat head engine that Willys-Overland had developed for the Whippet in 1926.
The engine was used full pressure lubrication, and a pump circulated cooling system. Through its single barrel carb it developed 60 horsepower at 4,000 rpm, and 105 ft. lbs. of torque at 2,000 rpm. The engine stayed in production until 1950, when it was replaced by the Hurricane Four, which could produce 70 hp and 114 lb-ft of torque.
Willys tried to get back into the car business in 1951, without much success. In 1953, Kaiser Motors bought Willys Overland for 63.5 million, renaming it Willys Motors. Kaiser then moved its car production line to the Willys Toledo Ohio facility.
By the end of 1954, it was obvious that the Willys and Kaiser automobiles were not making anywhere near the profit they needed to have, and by the end of the 1955 model year, all auto production was over. They kept the Jeeps, including trucks and vans, and creating a lucrative export business with worldwide licensing and sales. The company became profitable, despite small production numbers; in 1963, the company voted to change its name to the Kaiser-Jeep Corporation, Willys to history. (Details: 1959-61 | 1965)
Kaiser sold its auto business to American Motors Corporation in 1970, but the costs associated with compliance with the exhaust emissions regulations, bumper regulations, and other mandated design interventions sent AMC profits spiraling downwards (the company, like Kaiser and Willys, had largely depended on being able to sell the same car year after year after year, to get full use from its tooling). Like Chrysler, AMC had little money to develop new models, or refresh the older ones.
In 1979, Renault bought a chunk of AMC for $135 million, with more purchased in 1983; but by 1985, Renault had issues of its own. The United States government did not appreciate their decision to open a full Jeep factory in Russia and to extend into China; the AM General Division of AMC, which was building military vehicles, started getting resistance from the military, and profits nosedived.
Finally, in 1987, Chrysler Corporation bought AMC for $1.1 billion. Coincidentally, the 1987 Jeep line was the first ever to not have a CJ: having been completely redesigned, partly to increase its stability, the centerpiece of the Jeep line was now called the Wrangler, and would remain so. The suspension was redesigned in 1996, and from there, the next major page in the story (save for three corporate acquisitions of Chrysler — by Daimler, then by Cerberus Capital Management, then by Fiat Automobile) — would be with the redesigned 2017-or-so Jeep Wranglers. That page has not yet been written...