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.
The Lincoln Zephyr, designed by John Tjaarda and Howard Bonbright of the Briggs Manufacturing Company for Ford under the supervision of Henry's son, Edsel, and revised by Bob Gregorie (see below), was introduced in 1936. It was based on an earlier rear-engine design by Tjaarda, the Briggs Dream Car shown at The Century of Progress Exhibition in 1933-1934. (See separate article on this car) The design had a short front hood which sloped down quickly (similar to the original VW Beetle) which was consistent with the new "streamlining" trend. Gregorie had just been chosen in 1935 by Edsel Ford to head up Ford's new internal styling group, which from this time on would not need to use Briggs or any other outside styling sources. Gregorie used his new authority well. He had witnessed the 1934 controversial introduction of the Chrysler Airflow (see separate article on this car) which was "too streamlined" to suit public taste. In particular, the public disliked the blunt, rounded hood. He did not repeat this fatal error. So he moved the engine (of the Dream Car concept) to the front and added a graceful hood shape similar to an inverted, underwater ship's prow, which dramatically changed the character of the design. Gregorie's classic revised design was patented in 1935. The name Zephyr was clearly a reference to the first truly streamlined train, the Burlington Silver Streak Zephyr, designed by Albert Dean of the Budd company, that debuted at the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago in 1934. The very word, Zephyr, suggested the latest in streamlining technology. The Museum of Modern Art later called the Lincoln Zephyr the first successful streamlined car in the US, and it led to the even more classic Lincoln Continental of 1939. Eugene Turrenne "Bob" Gregorie, Jr., US auto designer was born in New York City in 1908. In 1927 he started as a draftsman at Elco Boat Works in Bayonne, NJ, and moved to yacht designers Cox & Stevens in NY in 1928.
At the Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition (1933-1934), Ford displayed a concept vehicle called the Briggs Dream Car, a rear-engine car with unitized body designed by John Tjaarda of Briggs Manufacturing Company, Ford's major body supplier. Tjaarda based his design on aero- dynamic monocoque designs and models he began working on in 1926, called the Sterkenberg Series, which he refined in 1930 while working for Harley Earl. In 1932, he was hired by Briggs as chief of body design in their new in-house design center. Briggs had just bought out LeBaron, Inc., and became Detroit's largest independent body producer. John Tjaarda (say "charda"), 1897- 1962, was born in Holland of a titled family in the Sterkenberg area. He trained in aeronautical design in England and served as a Dutch Air Force pilot before emigrating to US in 1923. He worked first on custom bodies in Holly- wood, then pioneered in monocoque streamlined designs while working for Duesenberg and Harley Earl. Tjaarda and others were inspired toward aerodynamic car design by initial work started in 1921 by Austro-Hungarian engineer Paul Jaray, who began testing car models in aircraft wind tunnels. Jaray later used this data to design the streamlined 1933 Tatra 77 built in Czechoslovakia, which remained in production into the 1990s. The Tjaarda Dream Car bore an uncanny resemblence to the 1932 inexpensive rear-engine small car developed in Germany by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche for the NSU Company called the Type 32, or Kleinauto, which in 1933 was already on its way to becoming the Volkswagen Beetle. On the other hand, Porsche's design owes a lot to Tjaarda's Sterkenberg Series of the late 1920s. Chrysler picked up on aerodynamic research in 1927, prototyping a design in 1932 which resulted in their infamous Airflow design of 1934. Ford, in 1933, had begun annual styling changes (pioneered by Chevrolet in 1928 and causing the demise of Ford's Model T).