Seven decades ago, the first small trucks built to bolster the U.S. Army's efforts in World War II rolled off a Ford assembly line. Wired.com's Autopia takes a look back at 70 years of Jeep history. - Ed.
From the battlefields of World War II to the sand dunes of California, perhaps no other vehicle brand is as entwined with American history as Jeep. It's fitting, then, that Chrysler decided to celebrate the iconic brand's heritage at this week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, unveiling special 70th Anniversary editions of new Jeep vehicles.
Born as a military spec vehicle and ending up in suburban parking lots, the Jeep brand has been through a lot of changes during seven owners — four of them with "Chrysler" in the name. In honor of Jeep's history, we've decided to take a ride down the rocky, muddy trail that is Jeep's memory lane.
The U.S. military asked 135 automakers in July 1940 to bid on a vehicle that would replace the hodgepodge of Model T's and motorcycles that made up the Army's fleet. According to specs, the vehicle had to weigh less than 1,300 pounds, have four-wheel drive with a two-speed transfer case, be able to carry 600 pounds, and feature a wheelbase of less than 75 inches.
Three automakers — Willys, Ford and American Bantam — responded. Most of the Fords and Bantams got shipped to the Soviets and the British as part of the Lend-Lease program, but the Willys (pronounced like the name of the character in Diff'rent Strokes) MA ended up the most successful of the three.
The U.S. Army decided in 1941 that a single, standardized vehicle would be more cost-effective. Willys won the contract, but Ford was also tasked with building the new vehicle, an improved version of the MA with fewer weight restrictions. It was named MB. The MB ended up as much an icon of World War II as General Eisenhower and the M4 Sherman tank.
It was Ford engineers who pinched pennies by stamping out a slatted grille, though the original Ford design had nine slats. The well-known seven-slat grille found on civilian Jeeps post-war was created so that Willys could copyright the design.
The name "Jeep" may have also come from Ford, whose original military spec vehicle was named "GP" for "General Purpose." After the war, Ford sued Willys for the use of the name, but lost.
Willys sensed that there might be a market for the MB after the war among rural farmers and mountain-dwellers who needed a tough vehicle capable of handling rugged terrain. Designers added windshield wipers, a tailgate, a spare tire and civilian-style lighting to the MB, and the Willys CJ (for "Civilian Jeep") was born.
On some of the earlier production models, leftover military parts were used. More than 1.2 million CJs were built worldwide between 1944 and 1986. Though ownership changed from Willys to Kaiser to American Motors, the CJ continued in production with few changes over 42 years until it was eventually replaced by the Wrangler.
Perhaps an omen of great portent for on-road, mall-running SUVs to come, the Jeepster nonetheless was an attractive vehicle, penned by Brooks Stevens. Originally offered only with rear-wheel drive, it offered little of the off-road capabilities of the CJ series. Though sales were disappointing, countless SUVs and crossovers currently on the market can trace their lineage back to the original 1948–1951 Jeepster.
Trucks from the Jeep FC series (for "Forward Control," another term for cab-over-engine design) retained Jeep grilles, but otherwise looked like life-size Tonka toys. The forerunner of urban delivery vehicles from makers such as Isuzu and Hino, the FC series was smaller than a tractor-trailer cab and could be ordered with a choice of bodies ranging from delivery vans to tow trucks to fire trucks.
Mention "Jeep" and the CJ-5 is what most people think of. The vehicle was introduced in 1954 and built through 1983. It was based on the M38A1 Jeep used during the Korean War. Kaiser continued using the Willys engine until 1965, when it switched to a 3.6-liter mill based on a Buick V6. American Motor Co. bought Jeep in 1970 — and that's a whole 'nother story — and started using its own engines in 1972 and started offering the same 5.0-liter it used in its muscle cars. The new engines required stretching the hood and fenders 5 inches. The CJ-5 was damn-near ubiquitous, with more than 603,000 of them cranked out during one of the longest production runs in automotive history.
Photo: ekonon / Flickr
The CJ-7 differs from the CJ-5 in that it has a longer wheelbase and doors that are a bit more square. AMC also made some mods to the frame to improve the handling. You could get it with just about any engine you might want, from an anemic four-banger to a 5-liter V8. It even made a diesel — using an Isuzu engine — for export. AMC built more than 379,000 of them between 1976 and 1986.
Designers from AMC and Renault got together to create the Cherokee, the vehicle that started the SUV craze. With a unibody frame and a Quadra-Link suspension, plus a compact footprint and reduced weight compared to its competitors, the Cherokee was one of the first SUVs that also appealed to car owners.
It was a superb off-roader that could also be optioned out as a luxury land yacht. The Cherokee was so popular that it remained in production with few changes until 2001, well after the introduction of the Grand Cherokee that was supposed to take its place.
If you grew up in the suburbs in the '80s, either your dad or your next-door neighbor's dad drove a Grand Wagoneer. Actually, a lot of people drove Grand Wagoneers. During its 28-year production run, from 1963 to 1991, it underwent only minor changes, making it the longest-produced vehicle in the United States. In its final year, it still featured a carbureted V-8 designed by AMC.
In comparison to other four-wheel drive vehicles of its time, the Grand Wagoneer was downright posh. Though it's been at least 15 years since we last sat in one, we can still feel the chrome door handles, stick-on woodgrain trim, red leather interior and plush carpet.
The ideal vehicle for fun in the sun, the Wrangler was sufficiently removed from its battle-scarred CJ predecessor that even Barbie wanted one. With a more comfortable ride and modern, square headlights derided by purists, it gained popularity both on-road and off.
In addition to a return to round headlights, the Jeep TJ got coil spring suspension for a better ride and handling. The TJ series, introduced in 1996 as a 1997 model, got a straight six and a variety of trim packages, including the "sport" model shown above.
The spiritual successor to the Jeepster, the Compass has little in common with any other previous Jeep. There's a reason there's no "Trail Rated" badge on the Compass: Conceived during the ill-fated DaimlerChrysler years, it features front-wheel drive on the base model and shares a platform with the Chrysler Sebring, Peugeot 4007 and Dodge Avenger and Caliber.
We're pretty sure the one in the picture is actually stuck in the sand, and those tire marks are from a tow truck. It's not the worst car on the road, but it's definitely not worthy of the Jeep nameplate.
Pulizter Prize-winning gearhead Dan Neil put it best when he said of this ugly leviathan, built from 2006 until 2010, "The purpose of the Commander — based on the Grand Cherokee platform — is to give Jeep a seven-passenger vehicle, two more seats than the Grand Cherokee. Which raises the question: Who are these two additional people and what did they ever do to Jeep?"
Arguably the finest SUV on the road today, the new Grand Cherokee emerged as a phoenix rising from the ashes of a failed Chrysler. We're seriously amazed that a product this good could come out of a company that was in so much trouble, though it did cannibalize the parts bin of the Mercedes-Benz ML class during the last of the DaimlerChrysler years.
The newest Grand Cherokee features an optional air suspension, a selector knob that adjusts vehicle dynamics for different kinds of terrain, and an interior that's one of the best we've ever seen come out of Detroit.
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