Prototype Jeep Goes on Display

Date 2003/4/25 0:00:00 | Topic: Miscellaneous

The last jeep from the original batch of 70, made in 1940, is going on display.

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

It's the mother of all jeeps, as well as all those Humvees prowling the sands of Iraq.

The last jeep from the original batch of 70, made in 1940, is going to be parked in Pittsburgh for a while, not far from its birthplace.

For about two years, the car will be in the Great Hall of the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, where it is on loan from the Smithsonian Institution.

"That happens to be the only one that's left. There are no other of the 70 prototypes that were built between October of 1940 and December of 1940 that are known to exist," said Leeland Bortmas, director of the Butler County Heritage Center and an expert on jeeps.

Jeep is now a trademark of Chrysler, but GIs coined the term in 1940 for the general-purpose vehicles created for World War II. The car also was known as a "peep" or "blitz buggy," but jeep was what stuck.

The vehicles quickly attained hallowed status.

Gen. George Marshall once said if it hadn't been for the square-bodied jeep, the United States would not have won World War II, and said it was America's greatest contribution to the war.

The prototype of the vehicle that became known as the jeep was designed and made in Butler after Karl Probst, a brilliant engineer, roughed out a sketch of "the little car that could" in about 18 hours.

The jeep to be exhibited in Pittsburgh was made Nov. 29, 1940, at the American Bantam Car Co. in Butler, and tested at Fort Knox, Ky.

The round-nosed car, with a round grill and squared, angular fenders, was retired to the Smithsonian in 1944 after 100,000 miles of service.

The jeep, Bortmas said, "could pull a 52-car train with railroad wheels attached to the jeep axles. Service chaplains used them as a chapel. They laid their sacraments out on the hood. Also, stretchers were used on the hood for wounded personnel. They put reels of telephone wire on the back of the body. It was just a universally adaptable vehicle."


After initial testing, the Army ordered 70 cars.

In January 1941, the U.S. Army ordered 1,500 general purpose vehicles each from Bantam, Willys-Overland and Ford and set the delivery deadline for May 1, 1941.

"Willys-Overland and Ford got into the picture because the Army just didn't believe that little Bantam could produce the numbers required by the Army. They turned to Willys and Ford and allowed [them] to have the design plans produced by Bantam. And Bantam was not compensated for that. The Army said we've got a war upcoming and we need these things right away," Bortmas said.

Unlike Bantam, Ford and Willys-Overland had fast production lines that turned out a car about every two minutes, while Bantam turned out 30 cars per shift, or about 90 per day. Eventually, the Army decided Bantam couldn't produce them fast enough, and Willys-Overland and Ford became the suppliers.

The 70 jeeps built between October and December of 1940 each cost $2,399.40. Later, the Army got a bargain, because the last 2,500 jeeps Bantam built were sold for $955.59 each, less 1 percent for payment in 10 days. They were known as Bantam Reconaissance Cars and about 40 of them are left.

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