Brief History of the Original 4x4

The History of the Jeep An Abridged Version By Rick Péwé 
Photography: 4-Wheel & Off-Road Archives

Whether you’re a Jeep fan or not, the diminutive vehicle played a big role in all of our lives, from winning wars to freeing our souls in the search for the outback. And while DaimlerChrysler doesn’t look kindly on trademark infringement, the word Jeep or jeep is bandied about in a multitude of versions, and often applied to other 4x4s simply because the word seems as generic as Coke, Kleenex, or Clorox.

So how did this history-making vehicle come about and survive all of its permutations through the years? It’s a convoluted story and would take more pages than most of you would care to read, so we present the abridged, condensed, and compacted version for your reading enjoyment.

Most historians agree that the world’s first ¼-ton 4x4 in a form recognizable as a Jeep was the Bantam Reconnaissance Car, built by the American Bantam Car Company of Butler, Pennsylvania. This prototype was developed by the Army and Bantam in the summer of 1940, with Bantam building and delivering the first vehicle to Camp Holabird, Maryland, on September 23, 1940. The testing proved that four-wheel drive on a small, light vehicle delivered phenomenal performance off road, a concept still in use today.

During the testing, representatives from Ford and Willys inspected the Bantam and, according to Bantam, stole the ideas for their own vehicles. Both Willys and Ford produced prototypes for testing, and Bantam produced an improved model. After all three prototype vehicles were deemed satisfactory with many improvements, a final contract for 1,500 vehicles from each manufacturer was awarded. These pre-standardized jeeps are rare and highly sought after by collectors, and some may still lurk in musty old barns. Finally, the standardized ¼-ton 4x4 contract was awarded to Willys, partially due to the Go-Devil engine, which gave the Willys the best performance. With Bantam out of the picture, Ford was granted a contract to produce the Willys design, and together they made more than half a million jeeps during WWII.

Willys was, needless to say, ecstatic about the contract, and hyped and advertised that it had invented the jeep, whereupon Bantam sicked the government hounds on Willys. The Federal Trade Commission slapped Willys’ hands soundly, and ordered the company to cease and desist the inaccurate advertising. When the smoke had settled from Congressional hearings of who invented the Jeep, Willys attempted to trademark the name, which it wasn’t able to do until 1950. 

And what about that name, Jeep? Other than family names, the word first crops up as Eugene the Jeep, a mystical animal of sorts, capable of anything, who appeared in the Popeye cartoon strip in 1936. From here, the word was also noted in publications as an unproven recruit or vehicle in the military, and was applied to the first jeeps as well other vehicles, including airplanes. And no, jeep didn’t come from slurring the initials GP, which supposedly stood for General Purpose vehicle. In the Ford nomenclature system, G stood for government, and P indicated an 80-inch wheelbase vehicle. Sorry, Ben Stein. You owe us money. A final note: While DaimlerChrysler owns the trademark Jeep, vehicles built before the trademark was granted in 1950 can be spelled jeep, although usually any post-WWII Jeep is capitalized. If you want to know more of early jeep history, Jeep Genesis: the Rifkind Report and Jeep, both by Jim Allen, are must-read books for the true Jeep enthusiasts.

The Rest of the Story

But what about after the war? In reality, Willys was far ahead of the game by testing agricultural derivatives of the WWII model. As soon as the war was nearly over, the CJ2 was developed and produced, giving rise to the CJ2A. This vehicle was marketed as a replacement to the tractor, and over 214,000 were produced between 1945 and 1949. At the same time, Willys introduced the two-wheel-drive Jeep all-steel station wagon, trucks, and Jeepster models, and later offered four-wheel-drive wagons and trucks.

In 1948, the improved CJ3A was introduced and was made until 1953. With the Korean War looming, the flattie got a face lift and makeover to 24-volt electrical, and the M38 version was made from 1950 to 1953. The M38 was probably the strongest flatfender made and is highly desired by both collectors and modifiers. The trucks and wagons received minor facelifts as well in the early ’50s, and the Jeepster quietly faded away.

The most revolutionary change in Jeepdom was the simultaneous end of the regular flatty era and the introduction of the CJ3B and the M38A1. The CJ3B was basically a CJ3A with a high hood to house the new F-head four-cylinder engine which was also used in the M38A1, the military predecessor of the CJ-5. The M38A1 was the bulbous brother of the angular M38, with many parts being interchangeable. The A1 was produced from 1952 to 1971, while the CJ3B was made from 1952 to 1968.

Finally, the famous CJ-5 made its debut in 1954 and was produced until 1983, longer than any other derivative. And speaking of derivatives, we could not begin to fit all of the other styles from DJ3As to CJ10, along with many one-offs and prototypes, but remember this is the condensed Jeep history. In 1976 the CJ-7 was introduced, which ran until 1986. In 1987, the Wrangler YJ broke tradition with rectangular headlights and later gave rise to the Wrangler TJ in 1997, with no ’96 models being produced of either type.

As for fullsize models, the Wagoneer and Gladiator were introduced in 1962, with the last fullsize bowing out as the Grand Cherokee in 1991. By now, the Cherokee XJ had captured a market since its introduction in 1984, but it ceased production in 2001, the year the new Liberty first sprouted its wings as an ’02 model. The new Grand Cherokee arrived as a downsize in 1993, and is still in production as we well know from our 4x4 of the Year competition.

As we mentioned, a true Jeep history would take more than all of the books ever written on the subject to be complete and accurate. We simply hope that you have garnered a bit more information and that you’ll put that knowledge to good use. If you have any interesting facts or trivia about Jeep history that you think we haven’t heard, please drop us a line.