a red truck parked on a rocky beach

Image credit: Autoweek.

The History of the Jeep

by Paul Reiners Jr

Jeep vehicles have been the transportation of choice for the military and adventurers for over 50 years. Jeep was not always jeep, nor was it always available for civilian use. The original Jeep vehicle was born of necessity, and hand-built in a rush in just seven weeks. The U.S. Army had been long looking for a fast, lightweight all-terrain vehicle, however in 1940 it became urgent. The U.S Army put out a call to automobile manufacturers for a prototype for such a vehicle in just 49 days. Karl Probst, a Detroit engineer accepted the challenge without salary. In just two days he had completely laid out plans for the Bantam prototype. Bantam’s first hand-built prototype was complete and running by September 1940, meeting the 49-day deadline. The Army then put this prototype through testing, taking the Bantam Jeep vehicle over 2,700 miles off road and was declared to have ample power and all requirements of the service.

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. In light of Bantam’s poor 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 such as Ford. During World War II, Willys and Ford filled more than 700,000 orders, with Willys Overland supplying more than 330,000 units. Instantly Jeep vehicles were recognized by soldiers and civilians as the vehicle that could go anywhere and do anything. But where did the name Jeep come from? Well, nobody officially known as there are dozens of theories behind it. Whatever the origin of the Jeep name, the Jeep brand of vehicles has become one of the most recognized brands in the world.

The Beginning of Jeep

In 1950, Willys obtained a Trademark for the Jeep name. 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. 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 bringing peace to the world. The CJ-2A and the first all-steel station wagon was the beginning of the Jeep line, and the grandfather of today’s Wrangler and Cherokee.

Jeep Hit the Civilian Market

In 1942, Willys-Overland recognized that the popular Jeep vehicles could serve the civilian market as well. 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. The first civilian Jeep vehicle, the CJ-2A, was produced in 1945. It came with a tailgate, side-mounted spare, larger headlamps, an external fuel cap and many more items that its military predecessors did not include. 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 to 1984. 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.

Jeep Under Kaiser

Willys-Overland was sold to the Henry J. Kaiser for $60 million in 1953. This would be the beginning of Kaiser’s influence of 4WD sport utility as the company began an extensive research and development program that would seek to broaden Jeep products in this area. 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.

Jeep Over the Years

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 Jeep vehicle celebrated its 35th birthday, and 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 Scrambler. 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.

The Jeep Wrangler

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.AMC responded to this market demand 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.

The Jeep Cherokee

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 “4×4 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 “4×4 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.

The Future Of Jeep

Five models populate Jeep showrooms these days, but among them, only the Grand Cherokee and Wrangler are fresh, but Jeep isn’t standing still. They are coming up on replacements for the Liberty, Compass, and Patriot.

Jeep Grand Cherokee Diesel : A diesel option debuted earlier this year. The “EcoDiesel 3.0″ is an Italian-designed V-6, and delivers 224 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque. It is the least-expensive diesel vehicle with four-wheel drive in the U.S.

Wrangler Option: Something along the lines of the JK-8 pickup-truck conversion kit that Jeep introduced last year will be available some time next year.Two prime options are the Mighty FC and J-12 concepts based on the Wrangler.

Subcompact B-Segment Jeep: Jeep will expand targeting crossovers like the Mini Countryman, the Nissan Juke, and the Honda Fit. An exec has told us that Jeep will get more playful with this vehicle than its other trucks, but still will be a Jeep. There will be a Trail-Rated version.

Jeep Liberty : The replacement will launch in the second quarter of 2013 on a Fiat platform. There’s a small chance it’ll return to the Cherokee name. Either way, the new truck will see improvements in weight, fuel economy, and handling. Jeep’s next-gen all-wheel-drive system should give the Liberty all the off-road capability customers demand.