There are few brands in the United States with the absolute presence and power of Jeep.
In four simple letters, Jeep conjures up images that range from overlanding across a God-forsaken landscape to scampering up impossibly tall rocks with little effort. Today, Jeep has become a deeply American lifestyle brand that offers everything from the classic Wrangler to the ultra-luxurious Grand Wagoneer and a litany of vehicles in between. The reality is, however, that the Jeep of today would not be such a force of nature if it were not for some dumb luck and a world war that ripped our planet apart over 80 years ago.
So, what’s the real story behind the history of Jeep? Today, we’re going to tell you all about this amazing brand:
The birth of the company we now know as Jeep has its roots in a little-known automobile company known as Willy’s - Overland. Post World War 1, the Americans became quite interested in a tiny British reconnaissance vehicle that was built on the chassis of a tiny Austin 7 Here in the states, however, Austin found themselves having to restructure into what became known as American Bantam due to financial woes. By 1938, the War Department purchased the rights to the reconnaissance design from American Bantam and set about refining the design for usage on a Worldwide stage. This unique vehicle was known as the Bantam Reconnaissance Car or BRC.
Bantam Reconnaissance Car
In early 1940, war was already raging in Europe and the immediacy for a new design was at a fever pitch. The plucky Bantam Reconnaissance Car was seen as a vital part of the American war effort and a bid was put out and originally, only Willy’s - Overland and American Bantam responded in the insane timelines laid down by Army's Ordnance Technical Committee. In eleven days, both companies submitted bids for the contract and were given a mere 49 days to submit their first prototype and 75 days to complete 70 test vehicles. Whoa. Ford later jumped into the fray, and produced their own series of prototypes, claiming they should be allowed late entry due to their massive production capabilities. Turns out, they weren’t wrong!
Over the course of 1940 - 1941 Ford, American Bantam and Willy’s - Overland would proceed through a rapid testing process that hastily moved each design through (even though none of them met the stringent demands originally laid out by the Army). Eventually, the Army saw the need to standardize the design and chose one manufacturer to produce 16,000 examples of the vehicle, now known as the G.P., for the allies. In the end, it was Willy’s design that won the contract due to its “Go-Devil” Straight 4 that produced a stout 60 Horsepower.
Within one year, Willy’s was in major trouble because they were not able to keep up with the intense demand of the growing war effort. Remember Ford? Well, they got back into the mix at the request of the military and were tasked with producing exact replicas of the Willy’s design, even though they insisted upon changing it to meet their production standards. The Army quickly shut that down and insisted they may EXACT copies. Shockingly, Willy’s received no license fee’s and Ford went on to produce some 280,000 Jeeps during the course of the war. Willy’s went on to produce a staggering 363,000. Bantam? Well, they produced Jeep trailers for the war effort.
The Origin Of “Jeep”
The name “Jeep” seems to have been in use since World War I but it really took off as a slang term once E. C. Segar's Popeye cartoon had a character named Eugene the Jeep, who was capable of going through any dimension to solve any problem, grew into a worldwide phenomenon. Well, that “go anywhere” nature of Eugene was beloved by fans all over the nation and his name started to become attached to vehicles that excelled at getting off the beaten path. Thanks to Eugene, the term Jeep was born!
The Rise Of The Outdoor Lifestyle
At the end of World War II, soldiers coming back from overseas found themselves missing the Jeeps that had gotten them through World War II. Luckily for G.I.s, Willy’s was happy to oblige and produced a version of the Jeep known as the CJ or “Civilian Jeep”. Enthusiasts would get together in events known as “Jamborees” and share their love of this uniquely American vehicle, building a strong foundation for future Jeep comradery. Those that currently participate in the Jeep lifestyle know that these “Jamboree” events are still a hallmark of the community!
The first true, production-ready CJ was the CJ-2A, which started production in 1945. Although the CJ-2A was primarily designed for agricultural applications (it only came standard with a driver’s seat and a mirror!) this platform would be the basis for continual improvement over several subsequent generations.
The first Jeep to really separate its styling from the military version was the 1953 CJ-3B (that would stay in production until 1968) and gently lead into the most revolutionary Jeep to date and one that would absolutely lead the charge right into the latter half of the Millenium.
It must also be noted that the 1950s is when the push to get outside and enjoy the newly founded National Park system imbued the motoring public with a sense of wonder for the outdoors. Guess who was at the forefront of this movement? You guessed it. Willy’s and their legion of Jeep fans.
1954 Jeep CJ-5
In 1953, Willy’s - Overland was bought out by the Kaiser Automotive Corporation for a purported $60 Million dollars and subsequently released a new version of Jeep known as the CJ-5. Heavily inspired by the Jeeps being used in the Korean War, the CJ-5 was larger, more capable, better to drive, and more comprehensively equipped. Not only would the CJ-5 effectively become the granddaddy of all modern Jeeps, but it would also stick around for a staggering 29 years. Yes, for 29 years, the CJ-5 soldiered on with a HUGE number of special editions, revamps, and upgrades but at the end of the day, it was still the same damn vehicle that was sold in 1954!
Under the Kaiser buyout, several other vehicles showed up in the lineup that were not quite as notable as the CJ-5 but still deserve a strong mention due to their impact on vehicles down the line.
Despite all the incredibly revolutionary vehicles that were produced by Jeep up until the early 1970s, they were positively hemorrhaging cash. This caused Willy’s to look for a buyer, and in 1970, they found exactly that with AMC. After $70 million dollars changed hands (despite fighting from the top brass at AMC) the merger was complete, and AMC was able to capture the iconic Jeep name. At the time, the most lucrative contracts were not in the civilian versions of their vehicles but in 2 separate government contracts: the postal service and the military.
Yes, for nearly 30 years the USPS utilized Jeep DJ delivery vans to deliver mail all over the United States! This huge contract, combined with the M151 Jeep used in Vietnam meant that AMC gamble was poised to work out incredibly well for AMC. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, Under AMC, Jeep would continue to refine the CJ-5 lineup with special editions like the now legendary Renegade.
One of the more significant achievements from the Jeep malaise era was the introduction of the Cherokee in 1974. Essentially, the Jeep Cherokee was a sporty version of the Wagoneer and was aimed at a more adventurous, younger buyer who was interested in hitting the great outdoors. By 1977, a four-door version of the Cherokee was also available and captured not only the adventurous crowd but younger growing families as well. Although different in its mission from the CJ, the Cherokee offered a ruggedly durable performance, without punishing the occupants out on the open road. This simple concept has been copied over, and over again ever since.
In 1984, this behemoth would eventually give way to the much more fuel-efficient and smaller XJ Cherokee
After a staggering 20 years, the CJ-5 was finally ready for its successor and AMC was absolutely going to swing for the fences. The CJ-7 dropped in in 1976 with all the tough, iconic Jeep looks but with a wheelbase that was 10 inches longer than its predecessor and a much more livable interior (at least by 1976 standards). The CJ-7 is really where the options and features we know and love on today’s Wrangler started to show up. Full-time, part-time, and automatic 4 wheel drive systems were available, along with a variety of motors (including the legendary AMC Straight 6). For the first time ever, the CJ was available with a hardtop and steel doors. Trims including the Renegade, and the Laredo, along with a slew of special editions such as the Jamboree edition.
To complement the CJ-7, Jeep released a stretched wheelbase model known as the CJ-8 “Scrambler” in 1981. This unique model offered all the CJ goodness but offered a substantial 103-inch wheelbase that allowed owners to pack in more people and more gear.
CJ-8 Scrambler (1981 - 1985):
1986 saw AMC in major financial trouble, and again, the Jeep name was up for grabs. This time, the Chrysler Corporation purchased Jeep for a sum of $1.7 billion at the direction of the legendary Lee Iaccoca. The CJ-7 would quickly be replaced by a vehicle that most people instantly associate with the Jeep brand today: The Wrangler. Along with the Wrangler, Chrysler would also spur the development of the Jeep Grand Cherokee line as well.
From the 1980s until today, Jeep has kept to their core market of off-road fans but has gradually added in vehicles that range from compact SUVs to full-blown luxury rigs.
Here are some of the highlights from the latest generation of Jeep vehicles:
Jeep Wrangler (1986 - Current)
It’s hard to even begin to describe just how legendary of a vehicle the Wrangler truly is. By sticking to a formula, the Wrangler has only managed to get better and better with time and today is offered in a staggering number of engines, door configurations, top configurations, and near-luxury levels of equipment. Long duplicated, never replicated the Jeep Wrangler is a legend for a reason.
YJ, TJ, JK, or JL JL - no matter which one of these things you get your hands on, you’re basically driving a rolling piece of history that harkens right back to the Bantam Reconnaissance Vehicle of the WW2!
Jeep Grand Cherokee: (1993 - Current)
Built to fill the gap in the lineup left by the decidedly old-school Grand Wagoneer, the Grand Cherokee was one of the first SUVs that offered fantastic off-road capability and demure driving dynamics around town. Filled to the brim with luxury fitments, and powerful engines; the Grand Cherokee would go on to be the most imitated SUV of the 1990s. Today, the Grand Cherokee is still offered by Jeep and has grown into a three-row, mid-size SUV with performance and luxury that embarrasses all but the most expensive of brands.
A Beloved Icon
There is a real, tangible sense of comradery when joining the Jeep community. From the very beginning, when Jeep Jamboree’s were the only place to really meet like-minded enthusiasts, Jeep has stood out by offering a vehicle design so effective, it was without equal. For Americans, the idea of going more basic often seemed like a step backward in time, especially when our society wanted to charge forward. I mean, we did go to space in the 1960s, a feat that is in no small part due to our non - stop march towards progress. Yet, for a core group of enthusiasts, that’s exactly what they wanted. Basic, rugged, transportation.
It’s incredible to think that the military Jeeps of yore were really based on tiny Austin reconnaissance vehicles from Europe and that eventually evolved into the Wrangler. A vehicle that today is available as an electric hybrid that whisks along a trail silently and charges off trail placed solar panels. Yes, today, Jeep is less about producing basic vehicles, and more about selling the feeling basic vehicles give to their drivers. No one does this type of nostalgia better than Jeep.
Jeep has one hell of a story, and at the end of their seemingly endless mergers, a beautifully crafted brand has emerged and we couldn’t be more thrilled for the future!