In the late-1930s, the U.S. Army set out to define a list of specifications for the ultimate scout car. After testing various vehicles, including the American-made Bantam, the Army settled on a list of requirements. The Army also delineated an aggressive production timeline — selected manufacturers would have 49 days to produce a working prototype.
Military decision-makers then waited with anticipation for American engineers to flex their ingenuity. Soon enough, it became clear that the specs and the timeline of the project were unrealistic. Of the 135 manufacturers that were invited to bid on the contract, only American Bantam and Willys-Overland responded.
Bantam’s bid for the Army contract was a sheer desperation play. The company was grappling with serious financial problems, to the point that there were no engineers on staff and manufacturing operations were closing down. With no in-house engineering resources, the company reached out to a freelancer named Probst . Probst, a patriot at heart, agreed to work without pay to design the new vehicle.
Bantam’s president, Frank Fenn, initially believed Probst’s work would be limited to modifying the existing Bantam car design. But a last-minute increase to the required horsepower dashed those hopes. When Fenn received the final list of specs on July 17, 1940, he gave Probst the bad news: “Our transmission won’t take it, our axles won’t take it, frame, suspension…We’ll have to jack up the horn button so you can design a new car under it!”
The bid deadline was fast-approaching, and Probst had just days to solve the problem. Since there was no time to reengineer parts, he needed to rely heavily off-the-shelf components. He immediately reached out to manufacturers to identify his options. One crucial deal he made was with Spicer to modify the axle used in the 65-hp Studebaker Champion to four-wheel drive.
In just two days, Probst had sketched out the framework for the Bantam Reconnaissance Car, also known less formally as the Bantam Blitz Buggy. This framework was the basis for America’s first Jeep
Bantam won the contract to produce the prototype, primarily because Willys-Overland couldn’t commit to the 49-day deadline. The resulting Bantam prototype met most of the Army’s requirements with the notable exception of weight.
After the war , Willys-Overland filed a trademark application for the Jeep name and worked to repurpose the MB for civilian use. The transition was a logical one, given that the Jeep had already earned fame as a war hero. Test vehicles CJ-1 and CJ-2 evolved into the production model CJ-2A, which was launched to the civilian agricultural market in 1945. Three years later, Willys-Overland introduced the all-purpose CJ-3A, which is considered the country’s first off-road, recreational vehicle. CJ-3A innovations included a one-piece windshield and an upgraded transmission, transfercase, and rear axle. Five years later, the CJ-3B appeared with a larger engine that produced 25% more horsepower than its predecessor. The CJ-3B remained in production for 15 years.
By the time the CJ-5 arrived on the scene in 1955, Jeeps had won over the American consumer just as they had won over the military. The CJ-5 has the distinction of being one of the most popular Jeeps of all time, remaining in production for three decades.