Jeep vehicles have been the
transportation of choice for liberators and adventurers for over 50 years. Here you'll
find a history of the Jeep vehicle from the beginning to the Wrangler (TJ), and the
evolution of the 1946 Willys Utility Vehicle into today's Cherokee and Grand Cherokee.
The original Jeep vehicle was born of necessity, and hand-built in just seven weeks
with lots of hard work and genius.
Since at least as early as World War I, the U.S. Army had been looking for a fast,
lightweight all-terrain reconnaissance vehicle. In early 1940, however, things became
urgent as the Axis powers began to score victories in Europe and Northern Africa and the
need to rapidly develop this vehicle became more urgent. The Army put out a call to
automobile manufacturers asking for a running prototype for such a vehicle in just 49
The original government specifications were as follows:
- Vehicle weight: approximately 1,300 pounds (This
proved to be totally unrealistic and later was raised to 2,160 pounds.)
- Four-wheel drive
- Engine (power): 85 pound-feet of torque
- Wheelbase: Not more than 80 inches
- Tread: Not more than 47 inches
- Ground Clearance: Minimum ground clearance of 6.25
- Payload: 600 pounds
- Cooling System: Good enough to allow a sustained
low speed without overheating the engine
The Bantam Car Company, which had supplied some
earlier reconnaissance vehicles to the Army, and Willys-Overland were the only two
companies that responded to the Army's call, although over 130 companies had been invited
to respond. The 49-day deadline was problematic, however, and Willys-Overland asked for
more time to finish their vehicle. Bantam's only hope to meet this deadline was to bring
in outside help.
Bantam's savior turned out to be Karl Probst, a Detroit engineer who had worked for
several automotive firms. Enlisted by National Defense Advisory Committee head William S.
Knudsen (former president of General Motors), Probst accepted the patriotic challenge
without salary and went to work July 17, 1940. In just two days he had completely laid out
plans for the Bantam prototype, the precursor of the Jeep® vehicle. On July
22, Bantam's bid was submitted complete with layouts of this new vehicle. The bid claimed
that the vehicle met the weight limit of 1,300 pounds although it was actually much
Bantam's first hand-built prototype was complete and running by September 21, 1940,
meeting the 49-day deadline. The Army put this prototype through torturous testing, taking
the Bantam Jeep vehicle over 3,400 miles, all but about 250 of which were unpaved. The
testers eventually concluded "this vehicle demonstrated ample power and all
requirements of the service."*
Ultimately, Willys and Ford both submitted prototypes based on the Bantam plans supplied
to them by the Army. The Willys "Quad" and the Ford "Pygmy" prototypes
added their own changes and modifications to the basic Bantam design.
For example, the Willys Quad prototype also exceeded the specified weight limit, due in
large part to its superior engine. This ultimately worked to Willys' advantage when the
weight limit was increased: the strength in the Willys vehicle powered by its
"Go Devil" was the only one that met the Army's power specifications. In
fact, the Willys' 105 pound-feet of torque not only exceeded the required power, but
dwarfed Bantam's 83 and Ford's 85 pound-feet of torque.
In light of Bantam's shaky manufacturing and financial position, and the advantages of the
Willys vehicle, the Army contract was awarded to Willys. Since the War Department required
a large number of vehicles to be manufactured in a relatively short time, Willys-Overland
granted the United States Government a non-exclusive license to allow another company to
manufacture vehicles using Willys' specifications. Pursuant to this agreement, Willys
supplied Ford Motor Co. with a complete set of specifications.
During World War II, Willys and Ford filled more than 700,000 orders, with Willys Overland
supplying more than 330,000 units.
We do know that overnight Jeep vehicles were recognized by soldiers and civilians alike
as the vehicle that could go anywhere and do anything. But where did the name Jeep come
Although no one really knows for certain, everyone has their favorite theory about how
Willys Quad came to be called the Jeep vehicle.
Some people say the Jeep name came from the slurring of the acronym G.P. for General
Purpose vehicle, the designation the Army gave to the new vehicle.
Another explanation, according to Col. A.W. Herrington, is that the name was used in
Oklahoma as early as 1934 to designate a truck equipped with special equipment for
drilling oil wells.
Others claim the vehicle was called a "Jeep," in reference to the character
"Eugene the Jeep" in the 1936 Popeye comic strip by E.C. Edgar. Eugene the Jeep
was a small, impish looking animal that had the power to travel back and forth between
dimensions and could solve all sorts of problems.
Yet another version is that Irving "Red" Haussman, a Willys-Overland test-driver
who tested the first pilot model picked up the Jeep name that some soldiers at Camp
Holabird had been using. Shortly thereafter, Red gave a demonstration ride to a group of
dignitaries in Washington, D.C. Among the group was Katherine Hillyer, a reporter for the
Washington Daily News who wrote an article about the vehicle that was published in
February 1941 with the photo caption headline, "Jeep Creeps Up Capitol Steps." +
This was perhaps the first reference to the vehicles' Jeep name by the media.
Whatever the origin of the Jeep name, the Jeep brand of vehicles has become one of the most
recognized brands in the world.
In 1950, Willys obtained a United States Trademark Registration for the Jeep trademark.
Since then, ownership of the Jeep trademark, which is also registered internationally, has
passed from Willys-Overland to Kaiser to American Motors Corporation, and most recently,
to Chrysler Corporation. Today, Chrysler Corporation, owns over 1,100 registrations for
the Jeep® trademark throughout the world.
The chariot of the liberators was the mighty Jeep vehicle which played a extraordinary
role during its first years in World War II.
From the start, Jeep vehicles captured the attention and admiration of people everywhere.
They served their country in the war in Europe and the Pacific, and led an amazing life,
helping to defeat the Axis powers and bring peace to the world.
War correspondent Ernie Pyle characterized the Jeep vehicle in this way. "It's as
faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule and agile as a goat."
Jeep vehicles were used by every division of the U.S. Military and large numbers were also
shipped to the Allied Forces of Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
Jeep vehicles became a vital part of all action on land. They were used to lay telephone
communications, to transport the wounded, and as taxis to carry battle commanders,
generals, prime ministers and presidents.
They were crated and freighted, broken down and built up, modified, converted and moved
about by sea, rail, road and air. Transport crews could load a complete Jeep vehicle into
a C-47 cargo plane, as they needed to be easily and rapidly deployed on the front lines
where they were needed most.*
The CJ-2A and the first all-steel station wagon were the beginning of the Jeep vehicle
line, and the forerunners of today's Wrangler and Cherokee.
As early as 1942, long
before the war in Europe or the Pacific came to an end, Willys-Overland recognized that
the popular Jeep vehicles could serve the civilian market as well. The phrase "the
Jeep in Civvies" often appeared in Willys-Overland magazine and newspaper ads
published on the home front during and just after World War II.
Other ads touted the heroic exploits of the Jeep vehicles in the war, declaring "the
power and the stamina of the versatile "Jeep" will serve many needs in the years
of reconstruction ahead."
Willys began to promote the versatility of the Jeep vehicle as a delivery, work and
recreational vehicle with quotes like "When I get back I'll get a Jeep. It'll make a
swell delivery car," "A Jeep can beat a team of horses all hollow." and
"Gee wouldn't it be swell to have a Jeep at the lake after the war? Are you Jeep
The first civilian Jeep vehicle, the CJ-2A, was produced in 1945. Advertisements
proclaimed it to be "A Powerhouse on Wheels," again selling it as a work vehicle
for farmers and construction workers. It came with a tailgate, side-mounted spare, larger
headlamps, an external fuel cap and many more items that its military predecessors did not
In 1946, Willys-Overland introduced the auto industry's first all-steel station wagon and
sedan delivery vehicles. These two-wheel-drive vehicles featured seven-passenger capacity
and reached a top speed of 65 mph. When four-wheel drive and a Willys six-cylinder engine
were added in 1949, the Jeep All-Steel Station Wagon truly became the forerunner of the
modern-day Jeep Cherokee.
The new 'Jeep' station wagon had pressed steel framing and three-tone paintwork which
simulated the wood look. It used Jeep running gear and MB-style front sheet metal and was
designed to compete against the "real" wood wagons still being manufactured by
Detroit's Big Three. The new vehicle chassis was also available in a sedan delivery truck.
Four-wheel drive would become available in these models in 1949 along with the 148
cubic-inch 'Lightning' six-cylinder engine.
The Jeep CJ-5 had the longest run of any production Jeep vehicle stretching from 1954
The CJ Model was updated in 1953, becoming the CJ-3B. It was the first Jeep CJ with
noticeable body changes from its military predecessor. It had a taller body grille and
hood to accommodate the new Hurricane F-Head four-cylinder engine. Although it had the
same displacement as the original "Go Devil" engine, the "Hurricane"
featured a revised valve train. The CJ-3B remained in production until 1968 and a total of
155,494 were manufactured in the U.S.
Willys-Overland was sold to the Henry J. Kaiser interests for $60 million in 1953. This
would be the beginning of Kaiser's influence on the future of 4WD sport utility as the
company began an extensive research and development program that would seek to broaden
Jeep products in this area. The fruits of this project would first be seen in the fall of
Kaiser introduced the 1955 CJ-5 whose production and popularity would reach all the way
into the 1980s. It was slightly longer and wider than the Jeep CJ-3B as it had an
increased wheelbase, overall length and was wider. Constant improvements in power plants,
axles, transmissions and seating comfort made the Jeep CJ-5 the ideal vehicle for the
public's increasing interest in off-road activities. Although very similar to the CJ-2A
that it replaced, it featured softer styling lines, including rounded body contours.
The 50s also saw the introduction of the "Hurricane" engine which was then the
most economical and powerful engine in its class. This was the standard engine on the
wagon with the "Lightning," the optional V6. During this time, Willys-Overland
continued to sell their four-wheel-drive all-steel station wagon, and even licensed out
its manufacturing to companies in Japan and Argentina.
During this time, Kaiser truly made the Jeep CJ vehicle an international symbol. In the 16
years of Kaiser ownership, manufacturing facilities were established in some 30 foreign
countries, and Jeep vehicles were marketed in more than 150 countries around the world.
The debut of the J-Series Jeep Wagoneer was the beginning of the modern day Cherokee
and Grand Cherokee. And the Jeep CJ became more powerful and popular than ever with the
introduction of the six-cylinder engine, "Dauntless."
For 1963, Jeep introduced the new J-series with the Wagoneer. This vehicle was bigger than
the station wagon and the first of what could properly be called a sport-utility vehicle.
The Wagoneer, powered by the first modern mass-produced overhead-cam six-cylinder truck
engine known as the "Tornado-OHC" six, could also be had with an industry first
automatic transmission on a four-wheel-drive vehicle and independent front suspension. It
was offered in two and four-wheel-drive versions.
This, along with the J-series "Gladiator" pickups, was the first fresh
non-military design from the company since the all steel-station wagon and sporty
two-wheel-drive Jeepster. Both the Wagoneer and the Gladiator found a huge market with
construction, agricultural and military buyers and evolved into a niche with everyday
retail buyers who wanted a good looking, all-terrain vehicle for fishing, skiing, hunting,
hauling and off-highway adventuring.
In the fall of 1965, a new "Dauntless" V-6 engine was introduced as an option on
both the 81-inch wheelbase CJ-5 and 101-inch wheelbase CJ-6. The 155-horsepower engine
almost doubled the horsepower of the standard Hurricane four-cylinder engine. It was the
first time a Jeep CJ could be equipped with a V6, but would be only the beginning of the
available six-cylinder engines that would come in the years to follow.
The second-generation Wagoneer also included a Super Wagoneer Station Wagon that featured
three-tone body striping, vinyl roof, chrome roof rack, full wheel hubcaps and
white-walled tires. The Super Wagoneer came with four-wheel drive and power supplied from
a 327-cubic inch V8 engine, and said Kaiser Jeep, "constituted a unique and dramatic
approach to the station wagon market ... designed for the prestige buyer who is rapidly
becoming aware of the advantages of four-wheel drive. While being the ultimate in detailed
elegance, the new vehicle still has all the traditional versatility and ability of Jeep
vehicles to go on-or off-road."
As production of Jeep vehicles increased threefold during the 1970s, AMC made many
improvements to Jeep vehicles including a choice of four, six or eight-cylinder engines.
In 1970, after two decades of growth and international expansion, Kaiser Jeep was bought
by American Motors Corporation. Their first move was to split civilian and military
vehicle production, and this proved to be the right move as 4WD vehicles became more
popular than ever in the civilian market. By 1978, total Jeep vehicle production was up to
600 vehicles a day, over three times what it had been at the start of the decade.
American Motors sold their Jeep vehicles with the line, "with the guts to come on
stronger than ever." All Jeep CJ's came equipped with AMC-built engines, and all were
available with 304- or 360-cubic inch V8 engines. AMC equipped both the CJ-5 and CJ-6 with
heavier axles, brawnier brakes, a wider track, and higher-capacity heater/defrosters while
attaching a new theme to this legend, "If a new Jeep vehicle can't take you there,
maybe you ought to think twice about going."
Also in the 70s, four-wheel drive vehicles made a major leap from utility to family
motoring. By the end of the decade, Ford, Chevrolet and Chrysler had all launched new
vehicles for the burgeoning sport-utility market.
The Jeep Wagoneer for 1972 included the biggest standard engine in the 4WD station wagon
field a 258-cubic-inch AMC-built OHV 6-cylinder. In 1974, the Cherokee became the
two-door version of the Wagoneer, and there was also the larger Custom Wagoneer. A four
door model of the Cherokee was available by 1977.
Also introduced to the Wagoneer line during the 70s was Quadra-Trac®, an
automatic full-time 4WD system. This was another industry first.
In 1976, as America celebrated its 200th birthday and the Jeep vehicle its 35th birthday,
AMC introduced the seventh generation of the civilian Jeep, the CJ-7. For the first time,
the CJ-7 offered an optional molded plastic top and steel doors. Both the 93.5-inch
wheelbase CJ-7 and 83.5-inch wheelbase CJ-5 models were built until 1983 when demand for
the CJ-7 left AMC no choice but to discontinue the CJ-5 and concentrate on the CJ-7 and
A direct descendant to the Jeep CJ, the new 1987 Jeep Wrangler improved upon the
legendary design. And the Jeep Cherokee (XJ) was introduced for 1984, becoming one of the
most popular Jeep vehicles ever.
In 1983, after having enjoyed a 30-year production run, AMC discontinued the CJ-5 and
concentrated on the production of the CJ-7 and the Scrambler, a small 4WD Jeep CJ-like
vehicle that was also a small pickup that became known internationally as the CJ-8.
However, while the growing market for compact 4WD vehicles still sought the utilitarian
virtues of the Jeep CJ series, consumers also were seeking more of the "creature
features" associated with the typical passenger car. AMC responded to this market
demand in 1986 by discontinuing the CJ series and by introducing the 1987 Jeep Wrangler
(YJ). Although the Wrangler shared the familiar open-body profile of the CJ-7, it
contained few common parts with its famous predecessor. In fact, mechanically, the
Wrangler had more in common with the Cherokee (XJ) than the CJ-7. With the Wrangler, AMC
was able to improve the comfort, ride quality and appearance while preserving the
durability and unrivaled off-road prowess of the Jeep CJ-7.
On August 5, 1987, a little more than a year after the introduction of the Wrangler,
American Motors Corporation was sold to the Chrysler Corporation and the popular Jeep
brand became a part of the Jeep/Eagle Division of Chrysler Corporation.
A market research program undertaken by American Motors Corporation culminated in the
birth of the modern Cherokee.
Research had found that future markets lay in compact sport-utility vehicles. AMC then
pumped $250 million into the design and production of the new compact 1984 (XJ) Cherokee
and Wagoneer sports wagons. They were introduced to the press at Borrego Springs,
California, in late 1983 and immediately received rave reviews.
The new Cherokee was a unique and revolutionary vehicle. It measured in 21 inches shorter,
6 inches narrower, 4 inches lower and weighed 1,000 pounds less than the Jeep Wagoneer
(SJ) first introduced in 1962. It was the only compact sport utility to offer two-door and
four-door models. It was built as a UniFrame body rather than using a traditional chassis
and frame construction. It was named "4x4 of the Year" by three magazines in
1984. It was powered by either a four-cylinder base model or an optional 2.8-litre
six-cylinder engine. In 1987, a 4.0-litre I-6 would become the premium power plant.
Several four-wheel drive systems, including Command-Trac® and Selec-Trac®,
offered either part-time or full-time four-wheel traction. Various interior and exterior
styling, comfort and off-road performance packages were also offered. The model line
continued largely unchanged into the '90s, although many revisions and improvements were
made to the Cherokee.
The '90s saw the introduction of the highly popular and award winning Jeep Grand
Cherokee. And the Wrangler and the Cherokee were redesigned and refined for 1997 model
year. In recognition of this, Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off Road named the Wrangler
its "4x4 of the Year," and Four Wheeler magazine named Cherokee its
"Four Wheeler of the Year" in 1997.
The '90s saw Jeep engineers develop a right-hand-drive version of the Cherokee. This
produced a model that made it possible to sell to domestic mail fleets and to export
markets in Britain, Australia and Japan. Over half of all Chrysler vehicles sold overseas
are Cherokees. Jeep engineers had one more model to add to this winning new range: the
Grand Wagoneer Limited. It was introduced as the ultimate luxury performance model,
powered by an electronically fuel-injected 5.9-litre V8 engine. But with the introduction
of the 1993 Grand Cherokee, the Grand Wagoneer Limited was discontinued.
Today, the latest version of the Cherokee combines over 50 years of engineering and
technological excellence with the classic styling and practicality of a Jeep vehicle.
And the latest version of Jeep Wrangler includes the most user friendly folding soft top
yet and the Quadra-Coil suspension that improves both the Wrangler's
off-road prowess and on-road ride.
* Fetherston, David. 1995. Jeep: Warhorse, Workhorse and Boulevard Cruiser, Motorbooks
International, Osceola, WI. + Jeep/Eagle Public Relations. 1993.
Jeep: The first 50 years..., Chrysler Corporation, Highland Park, MI.