What was to become the second World War had already started in Europe, but America was still on its second cup of coffee and wondering what to wear. The country's military decided it needed an all-terrain reconnaissance vehicle. By 1940, they decided what it would be.
Among other things, it had to have a maximum height of 40 inches, approach and departure angles should be 45 and 40 degrees respectively; the body needed to be of a rectangular design, big enough to seat four, small enough to fit into an aircraft. And all-wheel drive was a necessity.
Three companies came forward: American Bantam (of Pennsylvania), Ford, and Willys-Overland. Bantam built the first Jeep in 1940. The prototype from Willys had the cast-iron, 2.2-liter, inline four-cylinder L134 engine, nicknamed Go Devil, that made all of 60 hp and 85 lb-ft of torque. With a 79.4mm bore and 111.1mm stroke, it was probably the most under-square engine ever produced, but good for low-end grunt-essential in an off-roader.
Toward the end of 1940, Willys (pronounced "Willis" not "Willies," by the way) got the nod to make Jeeps (it had made the lowest bid) and began cranking out the MB. One week later, Ford was also awarded a Jeep-building contract using blueprints from Willys, since the government knew it could perform mass production. The Blue Oval's model was codenamed GPW.
And now we come to the history of the Jeep moniker. One school of thought has it that the term comes from the initials GP, for general (or government) purpose, which became bastardized and phonetically shortened to Jeep. Another source says it comes from that Ford code where G stood for government, P stood for Pygmy (short wheelbase) and the W referred to Willys.
Making things even more confusing, soldiers might possibly have called it Jeep in reference to Eugene the Jeep, a bizarre animal in the Popeye cartoons, said to be a multi-dimensional being living on a diet of orchids. Eugene could go anywhere, as could the Jeep.
However, Major E.P. Hogan, writing a history of the development of the Jeep for the Army's Quartermaster Review in 1941, said that Jeep "is an old Army grease monkey term that dates back to World War I... referring to any new motor vehicle received for a test." It became cemented into the modern lexicon when a model was driven up the steps of the Capitol building that same year in a publicity stunt. Test driver Irving Haussman was asked what the vehicle was called. He answered: "It's a Jeep."
From the Willys factory in Toledo, Ohio, and Ford's Rouge complex, Jeeps were produced for the war effort at the rate of one every two minutes. From '42 to '45, Willys made around 360,000, with Ford contributing 277,896. Unit cost estimates vary, from just over $300 to $738.74.
The Jeep went to every theater of combat, from Normandy to the Philippines. Some were adapted to be amphibious, some were equipped to ride on rails, and others were fitted with machine guns. The Jeep also became an ambulance capable of going through mud, bomb craters, and/or snow to reach the wounded and get them back to the medics. General Eisenhower praised it as a major factor in winning the war.
After World War II, Willys found there was still a demand from returning servicemen who had grown fond of their rugged and dependable wartime wheels-uncomfortable canvas seats and all. The CJ-2A was the first civilian Jeep, aimed at farmers and construction workers. It could plough a field during the week and take the family to church on Sunday.
Then the Korean War required its services and later, Vietnam.
The Jeep has been made in countries all over the world, including Brazil, India and Japan. New York's Museum of Modern Art hails it as a masterpiece of functionalist design (the institution owns a 1952 model).
In peacetime, it has transcended its utilitarian brief to become a plaything, a leisure vehicle, a desert racer; it was the original sport utility vehicle. One enthusiast website says: "If there's a road or trail anywhere in the world, chances are that sometime, somehow, a Jeep has driven over it."