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Austin, Bantam, and Willys: Birth of the Jeep

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Austin, Bantam, and Willys: Birth of the Jeep

by Curtis Redgap

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The story really starts in 1905, when self-made engineer Herbert Austin left his job as manager of Wolseley Tool and Motor to found the Austin Motor Company.

17 years later, Sir Austin launched a new car, the Austin 7, for the mass market. Named after the horsepower rating, the new car was just 40 inches wide.

The Austin 7 proved to be very popular, and was made in France, Japan, and Germany. The BMW version was the "Dixi;" the unlicensed Japanese version, made by DAT, was called Datson ("son of DAT"), until Nissan bought DAT in 1933. It was also made in Butler, Pennsylvania, until the Depression forced American Austin into bankruptcy.

Car salesman Roy Evans bought American Austin, renamed it American Bantam, changed the engine to avoid having to pay royalties, and made the Bantam look larger. In its first year, he made 1,200 cars, and each year he improved it.

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Meanwhile, the Army Quartermaster Corps (QMC) was considering a light reconnaissance vehicle, despite resistance by some officers (including Major George S. Patton) and staff. The German blitzkrieg of 1939 changed minds quickly.

American Bantam Motors hired a lobbyist known for his integrity, retired Navy aviator Commander Harry Payne, to work with the Quartermaster Corps. Payne knew that the British Army had (in 1932) used two Austins as scouts; they were tough and well liked, but needed four wheel drive. An Austin modified with four wheel drive, made by a British infantry captain, with machine gun and small artillery mountings, was given rave reviews from the British infantry.

In 1938, Harry Payne gave two small Bantam trucks to the QMC for evaluation, but with small tires and no 4x4, they tended to get stuck, and the Army made four wheel drive a requirement for future cars.

Harry Payne brought the matter to Senator Harry Truman's attention early in 1940. Truman, known as "FDR's bulldog," had been castigating military officers for cost overruns, outrageous specifications, prices that shot up for commonplace items, and not buying on-the-shelf items. Spurred by a possible appearance before the much-feared Truman Committee, QMC officers quickly arranged a trip to the Bantam plant, to see a small, light vehicle being assembled.

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Roy Evans arranged to "loan" out two more Roadsters (the first had never been returned), which were driven to the local Army National Guard unit for field maneuvers; they performed flawlessly. Impressed, the Army contingent extended its stay at Butler.

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. 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.

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The drawings rendered by the Army were about 20% Army and 80% Bantam, and allowed an extra four and a half inches of the wheelbase for four wheel drive. The engine had to deliver 85 foot pounds of torque and carry 660 pounds, while still weighing just 1,300 pounds.

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Then the troubles began. The Army began saying that Bantam could not fill the contract, because it was too small, even though an independent audit showed that Bantam Detroit and Butler plants could have produced over 200,000 of the little cars each year. Then they complained about Bantam not making its own transfer cases and axles, buying them from Ford instead. Bantam could not afford the tooling unless they got the contract; but without the tooling, they seemingly could not get the contract.

As for internal expertise, Bantam's vice president was racer Harry Miller, who had won Indianapolis with front wheel drive cars and had already built and raced twin cams, hemispherical heads, tuned exhaust engines, and high lift camshafts. His engineers included Harold Christ, who had worked on the first Duesenberg and 18 years of Stutz race cars before becoming the general factory manager of Bantam. They could have figured out any engineering problems.

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Henry Ford was using every bit of influence he could muster to try to rig the bid, once he discovered its size, and the Army seemed to be playing along.

On July 11, 1940, the QMC request for bids was released to 135 companies; they 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.

Only three companies returned bids: American Bantam, Ford, and Willys-Overland. Only Bantam committed to making a pilot car within the 49 days, and to providing 70 vehicles in 75 days; but Willys came in with the lowest bid, by far (Ford, with the highest).

Willys-Overland was a major automaker at that point, but in 1935, it had run into trouble, nearly going bankrupt (and not for the first time). Roy Evans, president of Bantam, rescued the company, and even as he ran Bantam, Evans was one of the largest Willys dealers. (Starting in 1938, Willys' president was former Chrysler executive Joseph Frazer).

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Bantam hand-built the first pilot car with 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), but no one had thought about how it was to get there. Two volunteer technicians put together a picnic basket full of food and drinks, then set out. 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, the Army claimed that they belonged to the Army. Bantam should have initiated lawsuits 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 and photograph 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.

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The Willys Quad (named after the Jeffery 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, and the Ford was badly underpowered with its 20 horsepower engine.

Colonel Patton was bringing pressure to bear, and most of the unqualified officers were reassigned, but the pace was still slow, especially in the Congress.

Despite its low bid, Willys Quad was to be written off. The weight ceiling had been increased at least twice (from 1,275 to over 2,000 lb); Henry Ford had powerful connections, even though his company was building trucks for the German Nazis and was personally sympathetic to 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.

Ford remained the unknown. Willys expended a great effort, and rebuilt its Quad into the MA model, 240 pounds lighter than the Quad. Willys' Toledo plant was huge and there could be no doubt about their ability to fill the contract.

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In March 1941, all three competitors were awarded contracts to build 1,500 vehicles each - about three weeks after Willys had held a press conference on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building. After riding some Senators, Congressmen, and reporters up and down the capitol steps, the conference ended. Supposedly, 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.

Jim Allen, in Four Wheeler, wrote about pre-Jeep jeeps. He quoted Major E.P. Hogan: "Jeep is an old Army greasemonkey term that dates back to the last war [WWI] and was used by shop mechanics in referring to any new motor vehicle received for a test" [as the Willys was]. See more on how the Jeep got its name.

In July, the Army issued an RFP for 16,000 vehicles, using the same design and parts. Willys won the bid, coming in at $739 per unit - nearly $12 million in new assembly alone, not including maintenance or replacement parts.

Bantam's hopes were raised when the Army said it needed a second source of assembly, but it gave that bid to Ford. 15,000 more Jeeps were to be built strictly to Willys factory specifications, with Willys engines. Adding some insult to injury, Ford got $890 for their unit, far more than Willys.

Ford created the seven-slot stamped steel grill, which cost less, and solved the headlight mounting design; Willys adopted it shortly afterwards.

Bantam production of the BRC60 (MA) Jeep wound slowly down. Over $30 million had been given since the first BRC had been submitted for bid, and Bantam had only gotten a very small part. Harry Payne eventually got enough contracts for Bantam to stay alive; they had built their last Jeep at the end of December 1941, after making 2,675, and, ironically, would never build another. Bantam made a profit from the Detroit facility when it was acquired by the War Requisitions Board in February 1942.

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Bantam was told to create a trailer suitable for their BRC60; it was to handle 500 pounds, and be as rugged and reliable as the Jeep. Bantam built 73,689 of them. Bantam continued to build trailers for the military and civilian markets after the war, and after being acquired by Armco Steel Company in 1956, disappeared from history, the name "Bantam" 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; the company applied for the trademark in 1943, and won it in 1950, after it was contested by Bantam. Jeep was a worldwide phenomenon, including even the Soviet Union.

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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 developed for the Willys-Overland Whippet in 1926. The engine used full pressure lubrication, and a pump based cooling system. Through its single barrel carb it developed 60 horsepower at 4,000 rpm, and 105 ft-lb of torque at 2,000 rpm. The engine was finally replaced by the Hurricane Four in 1950; the Hurricane only added ten horsepower and nine pound-feet of torque.

Willys was now stuck in the Jeep business; they were purchased in 1953 by Kaiser Motors for $63.5 million, thanks mostly to their lack of competition (which had driven Kaiser out of car production) and worldwide scope. Kaiser closed its assembly line, sent the tooling to South America, and moved to Toledo. In 1963, the company, profitable despite tiny sales numbers, changed its name to the Kaiser-Jeep Corporation, consigning Willys to history. (Details: 1959-61 | 1965)

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Jeep history at allpar)
The first Army Jeeps: MA and MB
Jeeps at War (children's book)

From there, Kaiser sold its auto business to American Motors Corporation in 1970; eventually, in 1987, Chrysler Corporation bought AMC for $1.1 billion. The 1987 Jeep line was, coincidentally, the first ever to not have a CJ: having been completely redesigned, partly to increase its stability, it was now called the Wrangler.

Its creators, Bantam and Willys, are long gone, along with most of the original design; but the basic concept, aside from light weight, and basic look remain.

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Just a couple things I'd like to contest. One being the breakdown of the name DATSUN, It's JAPANESE not "SON" does not mean son of "DAT". The name JEEP,was derived from the military term "GENERAL PURPOSE" or GP. gee pee, jeep.
Great article. Interesting to note that Bantam did eventually sign a deal with Checker Cab Manufacturing of Kalamazoo to subcontact Bantam Jeep assembly should Bantam close a long term deal with the government. Checker Cab Manufacturing, like Bantam did secure a contract to build Jeep trailers. Checker president Morris Markin behing a the wheel of a Checker assembled Bantam,
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