From Workhorse to Leisure Vehicle: A History of the Jeep
Few automobiles have a storied and long history like the Jeep. The car that would have come close to it in terms of enduring appeal has gone out of production. The Jeep persists 80 years after it was first produced. Here is a short history of an iconic American automobile, the Jeep.
The Jeep’s Origins
The Jeep was created out of the need for a US Army vehicle. It could replace both the horse and the motorcycle as a general-purpose transport. One of the popular theories about the “Jeep” name is that it came about from its military acronym, GP, which stood for “General Purpose.” Others claim that the Jeep was named after cartoon character Popeye’s friend, Eugene the Jeep. Whatever the exact origin of the name, “Jeep” has stuck to it until this day.
It was initially designed by the American Bantam Car Company, which operated out of Butler, Pennsylvania. The company had its start in making licensed copies of the British Austin, but in 1940, the company nearly closed as the government began bidding out for a small, four-wheel-drive military vehicle.
American Bantam’s Bid
American Bantam put together a prototype that went over the US Army’s design parameters but approved its design. The Army was hesitant to award the entire contract to the tiny automaker, so it contracted Willys Overland and Detroit giant Ford to build what would be the world-famous Jeep. Ford attempted to annex the Jeep by branding as many parts it could with an “F” to set its Jeeps apart from those made by Willys.
After the War
Willys was the company that first tried to make the Jeep a civilian vehicle. In wartime, it was known as the Willys MB, but the company decided to rebrand it into the CJ-2A, where “CJ” meant “Civilian Jeep.” Willys would go on to make the CJ in several distinct generations for the next 40 years. The CJ has since been replaced by the Wrangler, occupying a similar niche today.
Willys didn’t stop at the CJ-2A and sought to come up with an entire line of vehicles; this would be the beginning of the Jeep’s transition into a distinct, standalone brand. Willys produced a bunch of interesting designs, such as a Jeep station wagon in 1946, a pickup truck-like Jeep a year later, and the Jeepster, a small convertible Jeep that was more car than Jeep. This concept of having car-like Jeeps would be revisited in Jeep crossovers decades later.
The Legend that Spawned Industries
Despite the Jeep brand being passed on to many automakers, many off-road enthusiasts continue to patronize and modify all manner of Jeep makes and models from different years and manufacturers. The Jeep itself has spawned entire industries that specialize in producing aftermarket, heavy-duty parts for specific Jeep models. Some of them are Jeep JL driveshafts, special lift kits, suspensions, tires, snorkel kits, winches, and just about every accessory or modification imaginable to make the Jeep synonymous with its “Go Anywhere, Do anything” motto.
The Jeep in the 50s, 80s, 90s and Beyond
Some years after the war, the Jeep brand was bought by a company that acquired Willys, a carmaker named Kaiser. Their acquisition turned into Kaiser-Jeep in 1963, dropping the Willys name altogether. In 1969, AMC bought Kaiser-Jeep but couldn’t keep the legend alive, even after entering a partnership with Renault and creating two iconic Jeep models, the XJ-generation Cherokee and the Liberty.
When 1987 rolled in, AMC was bought by Chrysler, which was more interested in the Jeep brand. The Jeep brand enjoyed significant sales under Chrysler, until its merger with Daimler to create Daimler-Chrysler in 1998. Less than a decade after the merger, Jeep would be unloaded and sold to Italian automaker Fiat, which would also eventually buy Chrysler to create the Fiat-Chrysler brand.
Whatever Jeep model you’re lucky enough to ride in, remember that you’re in an automobile that’s seen many conflicts in different countries and maybe gone to places you’ve never seen. The next time you get into a Jeep, it’s a safe bet the ride will be a real adventure, especially if it’s off the beaten path.