The Jeep legend began in November 1940, in the early days of World War II, just a year before the United States entered the war. The US War Department realized the armed forces needed a small reconnaissance vehicle. It put out requests for proposals to U.S. automakers on an extremely aggressive timetable. The four-wheel drive reconnaissance truck “pilot model” produced for the U.S. Army was built by the American Bantam Car Company of Butler, Pennsylvania.
From 1941 to 1945 Willys-Overland produced the MB model, the original go-anywhere, do-anything vehicle, which came to be known by its nickname, “Jeep”. Made famous during World War II, Willys produced over 300,000 MB vehicles. On the battlefield, the Jeep was fast, nimble and tough. The Jeep also served as an ambulance on the battlefield. It could handle nearly any terrain, and when it did get stuck, it was light enough for soldiers to lift free. It inspiring General Dwight D. Eisenhower to conclude that “America could not have won World War II without it.”
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, transfer case, 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.
CJs remained in production until the late-1980s, when they were replaced by the Wrangler. But even without the legendary CJ, Jeep continues to fulfill its early promise of freedom and functionality to drivers in the U.S. and around the world.