During World War II, one vehicle seemed to be everywhere and go anywhere, the Jeep. It was a 4-wheel drive utility vehicle with simple, rugged lines and a lot of horsepower for the time – 60 hp to be exact. The legendary workhorse may have begun life as a spin off of an agriculture machine company. Or, maybe not.
The farm implement company Minneapolis-Moline boasted in a 1944 ad:
“Even before 1938, Minneapolis-Moline was working on the conversion of a farm tractor to serve our Armed Forces. This vehicle was the first that the Armed Forces called the ‘Jeep,’ so named by Army men at Camp Ripley, Minn., in 1940. MM ‘Jeeps’ are now serving on many fighting fronts.”
However, that wasn’t actually the first time the name had been used. One Army quartermaster wrote in 1941 that the term had been used in the First World War by Army mechanics to refer to any new vehicle that came into the shop for testing.
Then in 1936, the name turned up in a wholly unexpected place – the Popeye comic strip by E. C. Segar. Eugene the Jeep was a dog-like character who supposedly came from Africa, walked on his hind legs, subsisted on orchids, was said to be able to cross into the fourth dimension, always told the truth and barked “Jeep” in a high voice. (How they knew he told the truth when all he ever said was “Jeep” wasn’t a problem – Eugene did a lot of pantomine.) The popularity of the comic strip took the name into everyday public use.
In the 1930s, some individuals called their cars, trucks and even airplanes “Jeeps.” The next industrial use of the term was the Minneapolis-Moline 4×4 truck. It was actually a converted tractor. It was tested by the Army, but never saw wide spread service.
In 1940, the Army sent out specifications for a new “General Purpose” vehicle to 135 auto manufacturers. They were invited to compete for a lucrative contract to produce the vehicle for the military. To qualify for the competition, a company had to supply 70 prototype vehicles within 75 days. The main competitors were the American Bantam company, Willys and Ford. Forty million miles of test drives later, Willys won the contract. Later, Ford subcontracted to build some of the Jeeps using the Willys’ design.
During the war, around 600,000 Jeeps were produced, and they saw action in every theatre of the war. Many were shipped to allies like Russia and the United Kingdom. They became very popular for their rugged versatility. Glenn Miller and his Air Force Band immortalized the utilitarian vehicle in a song “Jeep Jockey Jump.”
For a while after the war, there was a brisk business in surplus Jeeps, and the story comes full circle back to agriculture. In August, 1945 – before the war had officially ended – the Nebraska Farmer magazine ran an article about the “Post-War Jeep.” The author wrote, “Among the farm uses demonstrated were: plowing; disking; drilling grain; shelling and grinding grain; threshing wheat; elevating grain into bin; pulling pick-up baler and hay wagon; spray painting buildings; digging post holes; and crop spraying.” All for the ceiling price of “$1,090, f.o.b. Toledo.”
Unfortunately for Willys, the Jeep never caught on as a farm implement. But, it went on to establish the new civilian 4×4 market and, eventually, the SUV.
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.