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Willys Jeep
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Willys Jeep

Carroll Gantz
The American Bantam Car Company
Willys Jeep

Many know that today's ubiquitous Jeep can trace its design to a famous World War II military vehicle. But few know that its earlier predecessor was the first US compact car, designed in 1930 by a Russian Count. The American Bantam Car Company of Butler, PA developed a design of a general purpose (GP) army vehicle with consulting engineer Karl K, Probst, based on their Willys Overland Americar, the lightest full-sized car then on the road. The design was perfected by Willys engineer Delmar G. "Barney" Roos, and in 1941 was standardized by the US Army. Military contracts were awarded to Bantam (Bantam BRC), Willys (Willys MA) and Ford (GP), but Bantam capacity was relatively low. The GP designation led servicemen to call it the "Jeep", but they also called it the Peep, Blitzbuggy, Jitterbug, Bettlebug, Iron Pony, Leaping Lena, and Panzer Killer. The American Bantam Car Company originated in 1929, when Sir Henry Austin of England formed the American Austin Car Company and began development of a tiny car for the American market derived from a previous 1922 English Austin 7 model. It became the first US "compact" car, designed by Alexis de Sakhnoffsky (1901-1964), then of the Hayes Body Company of Grand Rapids, MI, who was born in Russia to the financial advisor of Czar Nicholas II and who became a US citizen in 1939. Production began in Butler, PA in 1930 and the mini-car became a popular US photo event and Hollywood movie comedy prop. After bankruptcy in 1934, American Austin was reorganized as the Bantam Automobile Company in 1936, with Thomas L. Hibbard as designing engineer. In 1920, Hibbard had been the co-founder. along with Raymond Dietrich, of Le Baron Carrossiers in Manhattan, an early custom car design firm which established the process for modern automotive design, as later formalized by Harley Earl at General Motors in 1927. After the war, in 1945, a re-designed CJ-2A Universal Jeep went into civilian production at the Willys-Overland plant in Toledo, along with military vehicle production. In 1946, the first all-metal station wagon, the Wagoneer, designed by Brooks Stevens (1911-1995) debuted. In 1948, Stevens also designed a snazzy convertible version called the Jeepster. Stevens would go on to design all post-war Jeep station wagons until his death, including the 1974 Cherokee, the first of what led to the popular sport utility vehicles (SUVs) of today. The Cherokee was produced by American Motors, which had just absorbed the Kaiser Jeep Corporation, which had previously acquired Willys. In 1982, AMC produced the last Jeep for the military, and in 1985, announced that production would stop on the civilian version. However, public outcry was so loud that they rescinded the decision. In 1986, Chrysler bought American Motors, including the Jeep name and line, just in time for it to become chic.

100 Years of Design consists of excerpts from a book by Carroll M. Gantz, FIDSA, entitled, Design Chronicles: Significant Mass-produced Designs of the 20th Century, published August 2005 by Schiffer Publications, Ltd.
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