There are several versions of how the Jeep got its name. Some say it came from a character in Popeye cartoons, others say it comes from the Ford GP model Jeep (“GP” sounds like “Jeep”) and some say it was originally a military slang word “Peep” that got transformed into Jeep. Whether or not you buy any of these stories, the Jeep has its own history and it officially turns 75 this year.
No matter who owned Jeep (Willys, Kaiser, AMC, Renault, Chrysler, Daimler or Fiat), the history of the brand has always been marked from the first government order for Jeep production in 1941. That’s the case, even though the preliminary work on a ¼-Ton Light Reconnaissance Vehicle started around 1939 when FDR sniffed that war was coming and coughed up some big money to develop a small military vehicle that could go practically anywhere.
There were strict specifications and big automakers weren’t much interested in the project. Willys-Overland of Toledo, Ohio, which had once been a leading carmaker, needed the business. So did American Bantam, which built small cars in Butler, Pa. Bantam didn’t have a big factory, so it tied in with Checker Motors of Kalamazoo, Mich., to develop some prototypes.
Willys eventually created a vehicle called that met the government guidelines and tested out well. America ordered 16,000 copies in 1941. Bantam got the consultation prize—a job building Jeep trailers. When the war clouds got darker, Ford was asked to manufacture the Willys version, but Henry Ford’s ego prompted him to put his name on the tailgate and an “F” on cylinder head bolts.
Willys got rights to the Jeep name and understood from the get go that there was a civilian market for Jeeps. Civilian versions of the Army model were called Universals. But the creativity didn’t stop there. Before long there were Jeep station wagons, Jeepster phaetons, pickup trucks and sedan deliveries, forward-control Jeeps and even Jeep surreys with the fringe on top (If you watched James Garner’s “Maverick” TC show as a kid, you probably saw that Kaiser-Jeep model advertised along with wagons with “guided missile” side trim.
When AMC took over, it started making Jeeps with all kinds of decals, chrome goodies and even high-performance engines. When Renault teamed with AMC it didn’t have much affect on the Jeep, but after terrorists killed the French automaker’s chief, Renault started looking for a suitor and Lee Iaccoca stepped up to the plate with $60 million. It was one of his best moves since the Mustang.
Chrysler turned the Jeep into a refined, upscale ride with more of an emphasis on the SUV market than ever before. The Army Jeep that had become the CJ (Civilian Jeep) became the Wrangler. Station wagons came in different styles with names like Cherokee Sport and Grand Cherokee. Later, the Rubicon and Liberty arrived. Jeep never had a shortage of names or cache. It has always been a special type of vehicle whether its driver was fighting of funning.
To put it bluntly, the Jeep is an American LEGEND and this year we’re celebrating 75 years of legendary Jeep vehicles.