Historical Markers
Invention of the Jeep Historical Marker
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Invention of the Jeep

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Hansen Ave. in Butler

Dedication Date:
October 17, 1993

Behind the Marker

"Good Lord, I don't think we could continue the war without the jeep. It does everything. It goes everywhere. It's as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It constantly carries twice what it was designed for, and still keeps on going."
                                                   -Ernie Pyle, famed World War II correspondent, June 4, 1943

Color image of the jeep on display.
The world's oldest Jeep, manufactured in 1940 by the Bantam Motor Car Company...
When German troops swept across western Europe and North Africa early in 1940, they did so with breathtaking speed. Determined to have its own fast, lightweight, all-terrain reconnaissance vehicle as quickly as possible, the U.S. Army put out a call to American automobile manufacturers for a running prototype for such a vehicle, and it insisted that it be presented in just forty-nine days!

According to Army specs, the vehicle had to have four-wheel drive, a wheelbase of not more than 80 inches, tread of not more than 47 inches, ground clearance of at least 6.25 inches, a payload of 600 pounds, cooling system that would prevent engine overheating at sustained low speeds, and a vehicle weight of approximately 1,300 pounds. (Soon recognizing that the weight target was completely unrealistic, the Army soon raised it to 2,160 pounds.)

To revive its fading fortunes, the American Bantam Car Company of Butler, Pennsylvania, decided to submit a bid, but it first had to hire a designer. By the time it lured Detroit freelancer Karl Probst to the job, only five days remained until the bids were due. Working round the clock, Probst met that deadline, designing the nation's first four-wheel drive, all-terrain vehicle in less than five days.

Image of truck with soldiers riding in the back making its way through a town as citizens of Brest, France watch.
A Mack truck carrying soldiers and pulling an M1 155mm "Long Tom" gun through...
Bantam had started in 1929 as American Austin Car Company, one of the country's few makers of small cars. When the company folded in 1934, leading Austin salesman Roy Evans purchased the firm in receivership, and in January 1938, the reorganized company, now named the American Bantam Car Company, redesigned its models in streamlined styles, and submitted three vehicles for Army testing. Tests by the Pennsylvania National Guard in 1939 caught the interest of the Chiefs of Infantry and Cavalry, and in June 1940, Army technicians toured Bantam's plant and tested its products. One of the technicians–who was also one of the two builders of the Bellyflopper–stayed a week to formulate the specifications for such a car.

A few days later the Army asked 135 manufacturers to submit bids for a vehicle with specs close to the ones formulated at Bantam. They would have twenty-five days to deliver a proposed layout and another forty-nine days to deliver a vehicle.

Shots of airborne jeeps are common; here, a leaping Bantam BRC-60 tows an anti-tank gun too.
"Bantam Rough Riders" test an early BRC Bantam Jeep, circa 1941.
Bantam had again gone broke in 1940, so only fifteen workers and managers remained. To submit a bid the company needed a chief engineer, which led them to Karl Probst. In five days, Probst met the requirements except for the weight; instead of the asked-for 1,275 pounds, his design would weigh 1,850. Hoping for some trimming-down during production and a little leeway, he marked the design at 1,300 pounds.

When the deadline came to deliver bids to the Holabird Quartermaster Depot in Baltimore, representatives from Ford, Willys-Overland, and Crosley were all waiting at the depot. Only Willys had a bid in hand, and it was less expensive than Bantam's, but only Probst, accompanied by Bantam president Francis Fenn, had the required blueprints. When Willys" reps said they needed seventy-five days to build a prototype, Bantam got the contract. If they could deliver on time a vehicle that passed its tests, the Army would order another seventy vehicles for field tests.

Image of a jeep and riders bouncing over rough terrain.
A Ford "jeep" going through its paces, August 8, 1941.
Bantam finished the prototype, or pilot car, just two days before deadline. After some quick tests, minor adjustments, and a final coat of paint, Bantam delivered the vehicle to the Holabird Depot just a half-hour before the deadline. And then the tests began. The first challenge was to drive up a sixty-degree incline, which it did effortlessly. It took twenty days of abusive tests before the frame cracked. Delighted, the Army awarded Bantam a contract for seventy more vehicles in twelve weeks.

Seventy Bantam Reconnaissance Cars, known both as BRC-60s and Mark II, entered service late in 1940. Field-tested in simulated war games under the command of then-Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower, they proved a complete success. In March 1941, the Army ordered 1,500 more, model name BRC-40, most of which were shipped to the Soviets to fight Germany.
Photograph of three jeeps and four men standing in front of them, posing for this photo.
The first "Jeep" vehicles manufactured by the Bantam Motor Car Company, 1940.

Unfortunately for Bantam, however, its plans were government property. When the government called for new bids, Willys won the contract for 16,000 jeeps. Soon, Ford was also brought on board to fill the Army's voracious demand for new "jeeps." Unable to compete with Willys and Ford's vastly greater capacity, Bantam late in 1941, after building 2,675 jeeps, changed over to the manufacture of cargo trailers and other jeep accessories.

American automakers built nearly 650,000 jeeps during World War II. Rugged, reliable, and easy to fix, they became synonymous with video American ingenuity and derring-do. After the war, Willys produced a civilian version, which sold only poorly at first, in an era when Americans were entranced with large, powerful sedans, covered with chrome. In the decades that followed, however, the jeep carved out a respectable segment of the marketplace, even as it bounced from one parent owner to the next. Bantam continued producing trailers until 1956, when the firm finally folded. The factory survives in Butler, altered but with a smokestack making it easy to spot along Bantam Avenue.

Not long after the jeep started production, companies and individuals began claiming to be its creator. Willy's even said so in print, so in 1943 the Fair Trade Commission charged the company with false and misleading advertising and began investigating the origins of the unique vehicle. It eventually ruled that the jeep was indeed the creation of Bantam, born and built first in Butler, Pennsylvania.
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