In 1940, the U.S. Army requested bids from automakers to develop what was to become the Jeep, what was called a "light reconnaissance vehicle" made to Army specifications in the event the U.S. was pulled into World War II. Three of the 135 U.S. automakers solicited responded - American Bantam, Ford, and Willys-Overland. The three actually worked together to create the first Jeep design, and Willys delivered a prototype in November 1940. It was called the Quad because of its 4x4 system.
The Willys MA (for "Military," model "A") was the next prototype delivered, and the few models produced were mostly sent to Russia and England for use by U.S. allies. It was the following Willys MB - what we know as the original Army Jeep - that led the Army to award their contract to Willys-Overland in July 1941. That contract called for 16,000 MB models to be delivered to the Army at a price of $738.74 each.
The GIs loved their Jeeps. The all-purpose MB could be fitted with .30 or .50 caliber machine guns for combat. They could be modified and used for long range desert patrol, telephone cable laying, and saw milling. Jeeps were used as snow plows, firefighting pump trucks, field ambulances, and tractors. With suitable wheels, they would even run on railroad tracks. MBs could be loaded into transport aircraft and deployed quickly and easily, and they were small enough to fit into the large gliders used in the D-day invasion of Europe.
So if the vehicle was officially the Willys MB, where did the name Jeep come from? No one really knows for sure, but if you scour the Internet, you come up with several possibilities, including:
- The original Ford version of the Jeep was called the GP, "G" for government contract use and "P" to designate any passenger vehicle with a wheelbase of 80 inches. GP could have been shortened to a single syllable - Jeep.
- A character in the Popeye comic strip of the 1930s was called Eugene the Jeep. He could go anywhere and do anything (go through walls, climb trees, etc.). Supposedly, U.S. soldiers were so impressed by the capabilities of the Willys MB they called the vehicle a Jeep after that character.
- An article in the Washington Daily News that appeared in February 1941 as the result of a press event staged by Willys to demonstrate its vehicle's capabilities described the vehicle as a "jeep." That name was apparently passed along to the reporter by a test driver on the Willys development team who had heard soldiers describing the MB as a jeep.