Today, the name Jeep has become synonymous with American patriotism, adventure, and even freedom, giving consumers the chance to get off the beaten path and explore the country as they see fit. But the Jeep brand wasn’t created overnight. It took years for this 4x4 vehicle to make it to the mainstream, earning the respect and admiration of drivers everywhere. From outdoor excursions and Jeep lift kits to everyday errands, there are so many reasons to invest in a Jeep. Learn the surprising history behind one of America’s best-selling off-road vehicles.
Willys Quad – The First Jeep
Back in 1940 with the WWII looming on the horizon, the U.S. military was in the market for an off-road vehicle that could help the troops traverse all kinds of terrain, including mud, dirt, deserts, and the open countryside.
The American Bantam Car Company was the first to manufacture the jeep. The company submitted three vehicles to the U.S. Army for testing. Based on the success of these early models, the Army asked 135 auto manufacturers to submit contract bids for a vehicle similar to the one developed by Bantam. Willys-Overland was the only other company to submit a bid, but Bantam had the right blueprints. The Army ordered 70 more jeeps from Bantam in the next 12 weeks. But Bantam was falling on hard times, and the company eventually lost the next contract, this time for 16,000 jeeps, to Willys-Overland. Within a year, Willys created the “Quad,” which became the Army’s vehicle of choice during WWII.
Deemed too heavy and slow for an active warzone, the Quad was eventually retooled into the Willys MA, complete with a gear shift on the steering column, low side body cutouts, and a handbrake. The new model was so successful at navigating off-road terrain, the U.S. military embraced it with open arms. The Army soon contracted Willys-Overland to manufacture 16,000 Willys MBs, an updated version of the original Willys MA. The newer model would be lighter than the Willys MA, helping the military stay agile in the field.
Soldiers and Their Jeeps
It wasn’t long before the brave soldiers of WWII started to fall deeply in love with the name “Jeep.” Soldiers began nicknaming the vehicle “Eugene the Jeep,” which eventually led Willys-Overland to register the name “Jeep” as its official trademark in 1950. One Willys MB was even awarded the Purple Heart, the highest honor a soldier can receive. Cartoons and footage from the war highlighted the vehicle’s power on unpaved surfaces, piquing the interest of consumers far away from the front lines. The Willys MB was eventually introduced to the public in 1945, leading to a new generation of off-road enthusiasts.
The Jeep Goes Mainstream
As the American economy continued to grow and the troops returned home, consumer demand for off-road vehicles was growing at a rapid rate. Soldiers spoke highly of their experiences with the Jeep in battle and started looking for a similar vehicle when they returned home. With extra money to burn and new national parks to explore, it was only a matter of time before Jeeps started popping up on nearly every block in America.
With public interest in off-road vehicles on the rise, Willys-Overland saw an opportunity. They created the CJ-2A, the world’s first civilian Jeep. To distinguish it from the Willys MB, the company added larger, flush-mounted headlights and a seven-slot grille, instead of the MB’s nine-slot grille. The CJ-2A also came with a T-90 transmission, an upgrade from the MB’s T-84 transmission. The company marketed the vehicle to farmers, dubbing the vehicle an “All-Around Farm Work-Horse” that could do the job of two heavy draft horses.
The company also advertised the vehicle as a “Powerhouse on Wheels,” targeting industrial workers, businesses, and other laborers. It wasn’t long before Jeep became one of the most recognizable brands in the country, wooing over an entire generation of workers.
A Jeep for All Seasons
But the Jeep brand was just getting started. The company eventually expanded its line to include 14 different kinds of Jeeps, including the all-new FSJ Series or Full-Size Jeep lineup that included a Jeep Wagoneer for the family or even the Jeep Gladiator Pickup.
For the first time in the history of the company, there was a Jeep for every kind of driver on the road. These new models featured an automatic transmission—making them more consumer-friendly—independent suspension, and some models even had the new V6 engine, which had double the power of previous models. The Jeep brand evolved beyond its industrial roots and became the vehicle of the people, capturing the imagination of families looking for a new adventure.
Demand for recreational vehicles continued to rise as the years went on. To stay in the game, Jeep continued to update its models with the latest off-road features. During the “Great Escape” marketing campaign of the 70s, the company unveiled the Quadra-Trac 4x4 System, the world’s first automatic full-time four-wheel-drive system, helping drivers take their vehicles farther off-road. Buying Jeep Chrysler lift kits also became more popular during this time, as drivers started making their own off-road modifications.
During the 1980s, the company introduced the Jeep Cherokee XJ, the first compact four-door SUV, and the Jeep Wrangler, a series of compact and mid-size SUVs with all-wheel drive and off-road capabilities for drivers that love the thrill of adventure. Thanks to the success of these new vehicles, the company was enjoying all-time-high profits. These advancements also solidified Jeep as one of the most forward-thinking automakers in the world.
The Jeep as We Know It Today
After over 75 years in the business, Jeep remains one of the most trusted brands in the auto industry. The company is constantly unveiling some of the most sought-after models on the market, meeting the needs of all kinds of drivers. Recent models, including Grand Cherokee and Renegade, feature a mix of both on and off-road capabilities, helping drivers stay versatile. Jeep announced a massive 13.4% increase in sales during 2016, and they show no signs of slowing down. Thanks to the abundance of Jeep lift kits on the market, drivers can further modify their vehicles, making room for larger tires.
When you own a Jeep, the sky’s the limit. From running errands and driving on the highway to exploring mountains and deep forests, these versatile, compact vehicles are perfect for all kinds of adventures on and off the road. If you want to take your Jeep even further, and experience the magic of leaving the paved road behind.