The term "Jeep" originated in the comic strip Popeye. There it referred to an extra-dimensional cat-like critter which could travel anywhere it wanted and always said "Jeep!"

The term was applied to various military vehicles, usually large carry-all vehicles, well before it was applied to the small utility vehicles to which the name now sticks like glue.

It is the considered opinion of many that the go-anywhere nature of Popeye's Jeep "pet" is the reason why the name stuck to the 4-wheel drive small wheelbase vehicle so well.

As the US Army transitioned from WWI to the cusp of WWII they recognized the need to standardize a vehicle platform for command and staff use. On July 7th, 1940 an invitation to bid on a new military vehicle was issued to 135 US automobile manufacturers with the following 18 specifications to be included in 70 delivered prototype models.

  1. A driving front axle with 2-speed transfer case including provisions for disengaging the front axle drive.
  2. A body of rectangular design with a folding windshield and 3 bucket seats.
  3. Increased engine power.
  4. Means for towing.
  5. 30-caliber machine gun mount.
  6. Blackout lighting.
  7. Oil-bath air cleaner.
  8. Hydraulic brakes.
  9. Full floating axles.
  10. Wheelbase of 80".
  11. Maximum height of 40".
  12. Maximum weight of 1275 lbs.
  13. Approach and departure angles of 45 and 40 degrees, respectively.
  14. Must reach 50 mph on hard surface.
  15. Special bracing for a pintle hook setup.
  16. No aluminium to be used for cylinder head.
  17. At least 4 cylinders.
  18. 8 of the 70 vehicles to made had to be four-wheel-steer.

On the 23rd of September 1940 Bantam, a rather small company, delivered the first prototype for review, designed almost exclusively by free lance engineer Karl Probst. It was 740lbs overweight but was deemed acceptable nonetheless. Shortly thereafter, Willys Overland delivered sketches and plans for their prototype vehicle and sharply underbid Bantam's price. Because they were unable to deliver a working prototype within the submission window however, penalties were applied to the bid and the Bantam offer came out lower after all. Bantam therefore, received the go ahead order of 70 Model 60, or MKII, vehicles.

In November of that same year Willys Overland and Ford Motor Company delivered their own prototypes. The Willys Quad arrived on the 11th and the Ford Pigmy rolled in on the 23rd. Both had many design and function similarities to the MKII and many jeep evangelists would have you believe that such is a testament to the pure function over form design that the jeep would eventually become. These shared elements, they will claim, are simply evidence that the jeep is the perfect harmonious off road vehicle. The truth is that both Willys and Ford were given free access to the Bantam prototype and designs and saved money by incorporating proven elements whose R&D had already been paid for.

All three of the vehicles were pronounced worthy and 1500 units of each were ordered for extended field testing. The submitted models were the Bantam BRC, the Willys MA and the Ford GP.

This is a good time to discuss the origins of the word Jeep. It's a common myth that the name is a slurred version of the acronym GP, used by the government to designate its new General Purpose vehicle. It's so common that it is often reported as fact by a variety of well meaning but ultimately incorrect sources, such as the Discovery Channel and the History Channel. The truth is that the Vehicle was never intended as a general purpose vehicle but rather as a support vehicle for command and staff and possibly as a scout replacement for the motorcycle if the new vehicle exceeded expectations. Its use as a general purpose vehicle grew more out of its function and capabilities than due to any specific desire of the Army.

In fact, the official military numerical designator for the vehicle was not GP, but G503. The Ford Motor company did give its model of the G503 the internal designator of GP but that was only used by the Ford Motor Company for logistic purposes and the GP didn't stand for General Purpose, but rather; G=Government and P=wheelbase of 80".

The most likely origin for the Jeep's name was from the Popeye character of the same name. The Jeep was a dog like, whimsical creature that could walk through walls, fly and mostly just befuddled poor Popeye. It was outrageously popular at the time and the GIs adopted the name for their tough new vehicle that could seemingly go anywhere and do anything.

...But I digress.

In July 1941 the War Department decided that three models was two models too many and adopted a single model. The Willys MA was selected because of its lower bid price, but its design was modified using the results from the extended field tests. The contract to manufacture the G503 was extended to all three original bidders but Bantam opted out as they were incapable of meeting manufacturing expectations. Interestingly enough, while Bantam couldn't meet production demands for the US they did produce about 1000 Model 40 BRCs for the Russian Army under the lend-lease agreement and they were the first to use the jeep in combat against the German Wehrmacht. Ford accepted the contract to manufacture the Willys and changed their internal designator to GPW. The added W was for the more powerful Willys engine and reflected 'ol Henry's attitude on manufacturing some one else’s vehicle.

The G503 came with a warranty guaranteed by the manufacturers. Any part that failed was to be replaced by the manufacturer at no charge. Since all the parts were made to the same specifications and were practically identical any part could be returned to either Willys or Ford for replacement. Ford didn't want to pay for broken parts made by Willys though and so he had every part made for his GPW stamped with the stylized F of the Ford Motor Company, all the way down to the bolts.

The Jeep turned out to be a rugged soldier who provided more than forty years of service to all branches of the US military. For years after its use in the second World War, Korea and Vietnam the G503 was available on the surplus market and an avid, even crazed, market for collectors and restorers emerged. It continued in active service until the mid '80s when a need for a faster, more modern and even more reliable field vehicle was realized, and it was replaced by the M998 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle or HUMVEE.

In time the origins of this new vehicle’s name will become lost to the mysts of myth as the official acronym is HMMWV. For no apparent reason the W was dropped, and a U and two Es were added, possibly because HMMWV simply didn’t roll off the tongue. The new acronym is so prevalent, that it is often seen in official documentation from both the military and AM General, the manufacturer. This delicate matter was further obfuscated when AM General trademarked both Humvee and Hummer, when they produced the commercial version of the vehicle lending a swagger of offcialness to both words.

I shall relate the following as an anecdotal reference to the dependability of the G503. While stationed in Ft. Carson CO, I had a platoon leader who purchased a surplus G503 from a local dealer. It had seen better days and didn't appear to have received any maintenance since it's time of active duty. The Lieutenant drove it to work everyday and often on weekend outings to the mountains. Every evening during final formation he would select several of us to assist him in starting the vehicle.

The starter was non-functional and he needed our help to push start it. He was careful to park on a hill near his house at night, so that his wife, who refused to go any where near the vehicle, would not make have to help him start it in the morning. One Monday morning during PT he regaled us with a tale of how he had made in error while four wheeling over the weekend and had rolled it at least a dozen times down the side of a mountain. After finishing his automotive acrobatics he took a deep breath, checked for injuries, retrieved his hat and pushed it down the hill to restart it. The vehicle appeared no worse for wear and for all I know he still drives it when his wife isn't watching.

Sources
http://www.off-road.com/~early/history.html by José Borges de Almeida
http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/jeep_man/bantam.htm
Mail Call on the History Channel
Personal Experience

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