The Birth of Jeep Willys

When John North Willys bought the Overland Automotive division of the Standard Wheels Company in 1908, he likely would have never expected such confusion over the name of his most popular selling vehicle.  The name Jeep Willys has had its share of misspellings, mispronunciations, and rumors about where the name came from, but that is one of the reasons the Jeep Willys is so interesting.

In the late 1930’s, WWII was rapidly spreading into Europe and and the U.S. Military was looking for a new, light-weight, four-wheel drive reconnaissance vehicle.  They put out a bid for a vehicle with those specifications, an 80”wheelbase and weighing around 1300lbs in June of 1940.  They received bids from Fords, Willys, and Bantam. The government selected the design by Bantam, but they did not have mass production capabilities, so both Willys and Ford were contracted to produce this GPW vehicle (Government, Pigmy, Willys) that would basically had interchangeable parts.

This is where some of the name confusion came into play.  There are two rumors as to how these vehicles got their “Jeep” name.  The first was that a GI soldier thought the vehicle was called a “GP” for General Purpose and pronounced it “jeep” when talking about it to other GIs, so the name stuck.  The other rumor is that the vehicle was named after a Popeye cartoon character named “Eugene the Jeep” who had all kinds of magic powers because the Jeep was so multifunctional.  Add this to the mispronunciation of Willys (will-iss), which was pronounced will-ees or just Willy because that’s what the DMV printed, and there was a lot of confusion.

This confusion did not stop the now renamed Willys-Overland company from producing 360,000 of  the 500,000 vehicles the government needed, though. While Willys was not one of the prewar era automotive giants, they couldn’t ignore the civilian market for this rugged, dependable and durable Jeep.  So, they trademarked the “Jeep” name and began production on the Jeep CJs (Civilian Jeeps) and the Willys vehicles.

The Jeep CJs became very popular, especially with their CJ5 (611,000) and CJ7 (379,000) models.  The Jeep name also produced the DJ (Dispatcher Jeep) that was a 2WD, right-hand controlled postal vehicle and the Wrangler (YJ and JJ), which was a direct descendant of the CJ line, which means the original CJ line is still being produced today.  The Willys became popular with the release of their Willys Jeep Wagon (‘46), the Willys Jeep Truck (‘47) and the Willys Jeepster (‘48). Customers flocked to these because they were tough and utilitarian versus the smooth, graceful prewar vehicles.  The Wagon was much like a panel/delivery truck with 4WD and those unmistakable flat fenders. The truck came in 2WD or 4WD and with a 4-cylinder or 6-cylinder engine. Finally, the Jeepster was ½ military vehicle and ½ convertible sports car. The Jeepster was resurrected in the 1960’s by AMC as the Jeepster Commando.

They say that all good things must come to an end, and this is partially true for Willys and Jeeps. Kaiser bought Willys-Overland in 1953, changed the name to Kaiser Jeep in 1963 and stopped producing the Willys in 1965.  However, the Jeep name stuck and was bought by AMC in 1970 and by Chrysler in 1987.  Chrysler merged with Daimler in 1998, still keeping the Jeep name, but producing some irony; the vehicle that beat the Germans in WWII is now owned by them.

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