Allied forces launched an unprecedented naval, air and land offensive called Operation Overlord to liberate France, which was occupied by Germany’s Nazi forces. The campaign began on the beaches of Normandy. Grit and courage played a decisive role in pushing back German forces but the task would have been considerably more complicated without the help of a then-new vehicle nicknamed Jeep.
In 2019, Jeep has morphed into a brand that stands proud as the crown jewel of parent company Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). Jeep almost didn’t exist, though. Autocar visited Normandy this week to take a closer look at the story. Join us for a look at where it comes from, and the important role it played in the Second World War:
Bantam, Ford or Willys?
In 1940, a year before the United States officially entered the Second World War, three companies frantically designed, built and tested experimental light-duty utility vehicles that could help soldiers navigate battlefields around the world should the government decide to intervene. The US government promised the winner a lucrative, multi-year manufacturing contract but Willys-Overland, Ford and Bantam Car Company were also motivated by national pride.
Even on paper, the project was relatively complicated. The vehicle needed to offer four-wheel drive and carry a three-person crew within a 75in (1905mm) wheelbase, though that figure was later stretched to 80in (2032mm). Its track couldn’t exceed 47in (1194mm), its windshield needed to fold down to make it easier to transport, and it needed to carry at least 660lbs (299kg). Finally, it couldn’t weigh more than 1300lbs (590kg) and the Army asked for an engine with at least 85lb ft of torque. These guidelines shaped the Quad (pictured), the original Jeep prototype.
From the Quad to the MA
Designed, allegedly for free, by freelance engineer Karl Probst (1883-1963), Bantam’s Blitz Buggy ticked all of the aforementioned boxes and the firm very nearly received the contract. However, the Army worried the company wouldn’t be able to quickly deliver the volume it needed; Bantam had financial problems.
After kicking Bantam out of the race, and after raising the weight limit to 2160lbs (980kg), the American government asked Ford and Willys to deliver 1500 prototypes each so that they could be tested in real-world conditions. The Willys Quad became the MA (pictured); the Ford Pygmy morphed into the GP. Willys secured the contract in July 1941 because its MA was more powerful than the GP and cheaper to build.
The Jeep goes to war
Willys began producing the final version of the car – which was formally called MB – in November 1941. The following month, the United States entered the Second World War after Japanese forces bombed America's Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. Willys and Ford – two former rivals – set aside their differences to defend their country. Ford notably agreed to help Willys produce the MB to meet demand.
The Willys MB was powered by a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine called Go Devil that made 54hp at 4000rpm and 105lb ft of torque at 2000rpm. It spun the four wheels through a three-speed manual transmission and a two-speed transfer case. It was capable of driving through 25in (635mm) of water and it could reach 65mph if given a long enough stretch of tarmac. Significantly, the MB’s short wheelbase and short overhangs allowed it to effortlessly keep going where bigger vehicles got stuck.
Traveling through the air
And so to D-Day. Getting thousands of Jeeps to the battlefield without being dangerously detected by the Germans was a Herculean task. Building them in Europe was nearly impossible so the Army loaded them onto planes and gliders (such as the Horsa) that parachuted them (along with light tanks and artillery pieces) over pre-determined landing zones near the beaches of Normandy in the small hours immediately before the seaborne landing. They were to be retrieved almost immediately by Allied soldiers. This worked well in theory; in application, the cars often touched down well outside of the landing zone.
War-ready Jeeps also disembarked from boats. In both cases, the model’s unrivaled off-road capacity allowed it to force its way through sand dunes, swamps, forests or anything else that stood between its landing point and the base it needed to get to.
The invasion was a success. By June 7, 1944, the Allies had landed 155,000 soldiers into France via Normandy’s beaches; many of them then traveled in Jeeps. Others drove tanks or bigger trucks made by GMC and Dodge. That number grew to 850,000 (and about 150,000 vehicles) by the end of June. It took three months for the Allies to liberate the northern part of France.
The Army’s do-it-all
While Willys developed the Jeep as a reconnaissance car, it ended up assisting soldiers in nearly every part of the offensive against Germany. It carried the wounded back to safety on stretchers that ran along the front of the vehicle, it hauled heavy radio equipment, and it was used to lay communications lines.
Gene Kleindl, a 97-year old World War II veteran, told Autocar that he remembers driving Jeeps fitted with a five-foot vertical wire-cutter attached to the front bumper (pictured) to clear paths. This was necessary, he explained, he because the German forces often stretched metal wire across roads to decapitate Jeep passengers.
The Jeep’s presence spreads
By the end of 1944, Jeeps were a common sight all over Europe. They followed American soldiers to every front; some went as far as France’s colonies in North Africa, while 51,000 were sent to Russia for use on Germany's eastern front. Soldiers often showed ingenuity as they modified them in the field to cope with harsh weather conditions ranging from freezing cold to scorching heat.
Jeeps were occasionally fitted with a machine gun and used to take down enemy aircraft; other times, they performed relatively dull tasks like taking soldiers from point A to point B.
The Jeep off-road – and in the water
The Jeep unquestionably proved its mettle on Normandy’s beaches and on the battlefield. It also replaced trains; it could be converted to rail use by simply fitting special wheels. Ford developed an amphibious variant of the Jeep named GPA (pictured) but it performed poorly, in part because it was too heavy.
Only about 13,000 examples of the GPA were made between 1942 and 1943.
The Jeep goes global
Before World War II, Army officials believed the Jeep would help them win the war. After World War II, they knew the role it played couldn’t be overstated. General George Marshall, the US Army’s chief of staff during the conflict, described the Jeep as “America’s greatest contribution to modern warfare," while Overlord's mastermind General Dwight Eisenhower named the Jeep as one of three tools that won the war, alongside the C-47 ('Dakota') transport plane and the Landing Craft - all three of which played a starring role on D-Day.
America’s friends and foes wasted no time in developing Jeep-like vehicles for their own armies. In 1942, in the Pacific theatre, Toyota reverse-engineered a Jeep to create a similar vehicle named AK10 for the Japanese Army. The Land Rover Series I and the Toyota Land Cruiser released in 1948 and 1951, respectively, were both heavily inspired by the original Jeep. In France, Hotchkiss manufactured the Willys MB under license between 1955 and 1966. Later examples received a Peugeot-sourced diesel engine.
The Jeep settles into civilian life
Willys manufactured 361,339 examples of the MB between November 1941 and September 1945 while Ford made approximately 280,000 more, though historians disagree on the final number. All told, over 630,000 examples of the Willys MB fought in World War II. Many were badly damaged or completely destroyed and most remained on – or near – the battlefield at the end of the war. Shipping them back to the United States would have cost far too much and there was no need for them.
Willys-Overland wanted to keep the momentum going after the war. It had trademarked the name Jeep in 1943 and it released the CJ-2A (pictured), an MB off-shoot developed for civilians in rural areas, in 1946. By 1950, its line-up of Jeep-branded cars included the aforementioned CJ-2A, the Station Wagon and a sportier, less rugged model called Jeepster.
Ex-Army Jeeps played a pivotal role in rebuilding France, Belgium, and other countries destroyed by war even after the American government enacted the Marshall Plan in 1948. They were often seen in fields, where they replaced tractors, or on construction sites, where they filled in for various heavy machinery. Rebuilding the economy and the infrastructure of a country should have been the Jeep’s last life but collectors opened a third chapter in its history.
The Jeep as a classic
The Jeep’s third – and, presumably, final – transformation occurred during the 1970s when it was finally accepted into the world of classic cars. Collectors formed clubs to swap stories, parts, cars and restoration tips. By the 1990s, most of the cars that had survived the post-war decades relatively intact had already received a thorough restoration.
Long criticized for being far too basic for its own good, the humble Jeep unexpectedly found itself in hot demand and priced accordingly.
The Jeep in 2019
In 2019, plan on spending about €20,000 (roughly $22,000/£17,000) for a Willys Jeep in running and driving condition. However, collectors told Autocar that prices spiked in the weeks before the 75th anniversary of D-Day and some of the nicer, better-documented examples traded hands for prices in the vicinity of €85,000 (about $95,000/£75,000), a figure which was unheard of a year before. And, somewhat ironically, enthusiasts are much more likely to find one in Europe than in the United States.