Jeep Willys

“The Jeep, the Dakota, and the Landing Craft were the three tools that won the war.”  Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

The nearly identical Willys MB and Ford GPW reconnaissance cars were manufactured from 1941 to 1945. They made up 98% of all models built in WWII and they are the iconic World War II Jeep.

Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley share a laugh as they leave Gen Ira Wyche’s 79th Division headquarters in Huanville, Normandy, France, July 4, 1944.


On July 11, 1940, with World War II dawning near, the US Army approached 135 U.S. automotive manufacturers to submit designs to replace its existing, aging light motor vehicles; mostly motorcycles, sidecars, and some Ford Model T’s. Companies’ bids were to be received by just eleven days later, then they had 49 days to submit their first prototype and 75 days for completion of 70 required test vehicles; 130 days in all to design and deliver the vehicles.

The Army’s specifications were equally demanding: a general purpose personnel or cargo carrier especially adaptable for reconnaissance or command; designated as 1/4-ton four-wheel drive Truck, crew of three, wheelbase of no more than 75 (later 80) inches, tracks no more than 47 inches, fold?down windshield, 660 lb payload, and be powered by an engine capable of 85 ft-lb (115 Nm) of torque. The most daunting demand, however, was that it have an empty weight of no more than 1300 lbs (590 kg).

Only three companies entered: American Bantam Car Company, Willys-Overland Motors, and the Ford Motor Company. Though Willys-Overland was the low bidder, Bantam received the bid, being the only company committing to deliver a pilot model in 49 days and production examples in 75 days. Bantam built their first prototype, officially named the “Pilot” but nicknamed the “Blitz Buggy” and later “Old Number One.” It was delivered to the Army vehicle test center at Camp Holabird, Maryland on September 23, 1940.

Since Bantam did not have the production capacity to deliver on the scale needed by the War Department, the two losing bidders, Ford and Willys, were encouraged to complete their own pilot models for testing. As testing of the Bantam prototype took place, Ford and Willys technical representatives were given ample opportunity to study the vehicle’s performance. Moreover, the War Department forwarded the Bantam blueprints to Ford and Willys, claiming the government owned the design.

By November 1940 Ford and Willys each submitted prototypes to compete with Bantam. The two pilot models, the Willys Quad and the Ford Pygmy, turned out to be very similar to each other and were joined in testing by Bantam’s entry, now called the Bantam Reconnaissance Car 60 (BRC 60). US armed forces were already under such pressure that all three cars were declared acceptable and orders for 1500 units per company were given. It was also acknowledged at this time the original weight limit (which Bantam had ignored) was unrealistic, and it was raised to 2160 lbs (980 kg).

For these respective initial production runs, each vehicle received revisions and a new name. Bantam’s became the BRC 40 (and the company ceased motor vehicle production after the last one was built in December 1941).

Bantam BRC-40

After losing 240 lbs, Willys’ changed the designation to “MA”: “Military” model “A”.

Willys MA

The Fords were designated “GP”: “G” for “Government” and “P” was Ford’s code for passenger cars with 80-inch wheelbases.

Ford GP

By July 1941, the War Department desired to standardize and selected a single manufacturer to supply them with the next order for another 16,000 vehicles. Willys won the contract, mostly due to its more powerful engine and lower cost. Whatever better design features the Bantam and Ford entries had were incorporated into the Willys car at this time, causing the Willys “A” designation to become “B” and thus the vehicles were tagged “MB.” One example of this design consolidation was the positioning of the gasoline tank; in placing it directly beneath the driver’s seat, combining the two main target areas into one, it would lessen the chance of a single catastrophic hit. [This was seen as a design improvement! This was 1941 and the priority was combat survivability, not highway safety.]

By October 1941, it became apparent Willys-Overland could not keep up with the production demand and Ford was contracted to produce them as well; but the Army required both to produce vehicles with interchangeable parts. Not wanting to have Ford parts end up on Willys vehicles without getting the credit, Ford stamped every one of their parts – right down to individual nuts and bolts – with a script ‘F’. The Ford car resulting from this union was designated GPW, with the “W” referring to the “Willys” licensed design. During World War II, Willys produced 363,000 Jeeps and Ford some 280,000. Approximately 51,000 were exported to Russia under the Lend-Lease program.

Why “Jeep”?

It has become part of the Jeep lore to endlessly debate the origins of the name and many versions proclaim themselves to be the “true” story. Most sources agree, however, that “jeep” was a term known in some circles well before the introduction of these vehicles – but with disputed meanings.

Some authorities point to a cartoon character of the day called Eugene the Jeep. Because Eugene could go anywhere, “jeep” was a natural name for these sturdy scout cars; but this link is uncertain.

Other accounts assert “jeep” contracted the letters “GP”. GP for “General Purpose” was used widely throughout the US military, from tents to bombs, but never with respect to these vehicles. If anything, GP would have come from Ford’s designation for their early production vehicles. However, the 4,456 Ford GP’s are less than 1% of all WWII Jeeps made, and lend-lease meant most of these went to the far-flung corners of the globe.

The most probable account – although controversial – is based on “jeep” as a slang term used by World War I soldiers for new recruits and for new unproven equipment (there are examples of inter-war contraptions entirely dissimilar from these scout cars being called jeeps). A Willys test driver, Red Hausmann, accompanied the car for its testing at Camp Holabird in 1940. He heard soldiers calling it a “jeep” and liked the way it sounded. In early 1941, Willys staged a press event in Washington, D.C. where their Quad prototype showed itself off by driving up the Capitol steps. Hausmann also gave a demonstration ride to a group of dignitaries, including Katherine Hillyer, a reporter from the Washington Daily News. When asked, Hausmann said, “It’s a jeep.” Hillyer’s newspaper article on February 20, 1941 included a photo showing the Quad going up the Capitol steps and a caption calling the new scout cars “jeeps.” This is the most likely source of the term being fixed into the public awareness.

Those who favor Eugene the Jeep or contracting “GP” are required to believe the Jeep was named from the GI’s experiences after the vehicles entered service. Having the same name spring up from end-users world wide would not be expected; a variety of regional names is far more likely. Since jeeps were jeeps the day they arrived in-theater, some common starting point for the name has the greatest likelihood (like the well-documented Feb 1941 newspaper photo caption); but the debate will never be settled.


Jeeps, from whatever manufacturer, served with distinction in every combat zone and every “rear area” of the war. Field modifications were endless; from VIP limousines to garbage trucks, from litter carriers to artillery platforms, from the messenger service to heavily armed rapid strike assault vehicles. They drove over good roads, through deep mud, forded streams, sped over sand, and some even went to sea. In Naval service, besides being used around shore bases in the same ways as at any other military base, some were used aboard fleet carriers as aircraft “tugs.” In the ETO, many Jeeps were field-modified with a 3-ft vertical steel bar welded to the center of the front bumper to break decapitation wires strung across roads.

Through lend-lease, Jeeps of all configurations served prolifically with all Allied powers. Jeeps became so common in and around the European battle areas that German troops came to believe that each American soldier was issued his own Jeep.


Despite some shortcomings, the jeep was generally well-liked, seen as versatile, maneuverable, reliable, and almost indestructible. The seats were found uncomfortable, sometimes caused the so-called “Jeep riders’ disease” and cramped in the rear, but many soldiers enjoyed driving the nimble jeep, appreciating its powerful engine; and with its light weight, low-cut body sides, bucket seats and manual floor-shifter, it was as close to a sportscar as most GIs had ever driven. Enzo Ferrari called the Jeep “America’s only real sports car.” Nazi generals admired the jeep more than any other U.S. materiel, and it was the vehicle the most liked to capture for general use.

So ubiquitous was the Jeep and diverse in its capabilities that Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower listed it among the three primary tools that won the war: the Jeep, the Dakota, and the Landing Craft. Interestingly, none of these were weapons.

Technical Specs

Machinery4-cyl. side valves, 134 cu in (2199 cc), 60 hp, 1 throat carburetor, manual choke, 6Volt DC-current generator, Failsafe automatic fuse
Length3.33 m
Width1.58 m
Height1.83 m
Weight1.0 t


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