Why is the American military Jeep so iconic?

On the road with a restored Jeep, and a detailed look at the history of the iconic vehicle.

There can be few single pieces of military machinery that are as symbolic of American warfare in history than the iconic Jeep.

Now a consumer brand, the Jeep was once the workhorse of US military operations – an all-purpose vehicle that could be put to a wide range of uses, from simply getting personnel and officers from A to B in battle, to being fitted with machine guns for combat, to working as field ambulances to quickly move wounded soldiers, and countless other practical operations in theatre.

Watch just about any film or TV series depicting US troops in the Second World War, or the Korean and Vietnam wars, and a version of this compact military Jeep, commonly known as the Willys Jeep but more formally the US Army Utility Truck, is likely to feature.

US Army Chief of Staff during the Second World War, General George C. Marshall, once described the Jeep as "America's greatest contribution to modern warfare,” and the vehicle became a hero to thousands of, not only American, but Allied soldiers in WWII combat the world over.

Almost 650,000 of the all-purpose vehicle were manufactured in American factories between 1941 and 1945, a number which contributed to its image as synonymous with the US efforts in World War Two.

Versions of the Jeep went on to serve in both the Korean and Vietnam wars – further defining its status as an icon of US wartime operations throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

But what made the vehicle such a versatile and popular choice for Allied forces, what were its capabilities and how did it get its unique name?

World-War-2 enthusiast Ian James, who owns a Jeep and is often seen driving it while he wears the 1940s uniform of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), gave a demonstration of the vehicle in action to give an idea of how the workhorse on wheels might have looked during wartime operations.

His car is a relic of the end of the Second World War and comes complete with the numbers and letters “8* 398BG” and “600” on either side of his rear number plate, which would have been the insignia of a member of 600 Squadron, part of the 398th Bomb Group of the US Eighth Air Force, which was based in England during World War 2.

Mr James has carefully restored his Jeep, giving anyone who sees it an illustration of one of the most iconic vehicles of the Second World War.

What follows is an overview of the story of the Jeep, including its history and its name, as well as a look a Mr James’ working model.

WW2 re-enactor standing in front of his restored jeep
Ian James with his jeep (picture: writer’s collection)

Why ‘Jeep’? The history of the vehicle, and the story of its name

The first question many people will have about the jeep is how it even came to be called the ‘jeep’ in the first place.

The name of course goes naturally with the 4 x 4 vehicles because these days it is so iconic, though when it was first being developed there was nothing inevitable about its name.

The US Army simply designated it as the “1/4-ton truck 4x4”, which, as will be explained below, was really a misnomer.

“Jeep” eventually became commonplace instead after it was widely circulated by a 19 February 1941 story in the Washington Daily News about what was then a mysterious, new military vehicle.

The article featured a picture of a Jeep driving up the steps of the Capitol building as a means of showing off its capabilities to US lawmakers. The article said:

“LAWMAKERS TAKE A RIDE- With Senator Meade, of New York, at the wheel, and Representative Thomas, of New Jersey, sitting beside him, one of the Army's new scout cars, known as "jeeps" or "quads", climbs up the Capitol steps in a demonstration yesterday. Soldiers in the rear seat for gunners were unperturbed.”

The writer, Katherine Hillyer, noted in the article that it was referred to as a ‘Jeep’. This helped put the name into wider circulation, though exactly how and why the vehicle came to be referred to as the jeep in the first place is less clear.

There is a story that the word came from the initials GP being sounded out (i.e. “Gj eee p”), with GP standing for General Purpose. Though as Steven J Zaloga points out in ‘Jeeps 1941 – 45’, this is apocryphal.

The exact origins of the word and how it came to be applied to the vehicle we today call the jeep is not really known. What is known is that the word was certainly in circulation for a number of different reasons before 1941, any or several of which may have contributed to it coming into use for the US Army’s new lightweight vehicle.

Both the Jeep and its name are at least traceable back to World War 1.

The word Jeep was used by those in the US Army during that earlier conflict to refer to any new vehicle.

The First World War also played a role in the story of the Jeep in another way: it was the lack of any standardisation of new vehicles being brought into Army service, and the confusion caused by their various different parts that was the impetus for designing a new vehicle in the 1930s. The intention this time was to make something specifically to fit US Army specifications. The Army wanted purpose-built vehicles in any future conflict so that parts would be standardised and interchangeable, and thus the hassles that came with the mass purchase of private vehicles during the First World War could be avoided in future.

WW2 jeep rear view
A rear view of Ian James’ jeep (picture: writer’s collection)

The design came out of the need for a small 4x4 vehicle that could be used for internal communications within battalions, as well as the transport of officers and heavy-weapons teams.

A number of different companies became involved in the project, and by mid-1941, three of them had submitted their own designs for consideration. One came from Bantam, another from Willys and a third from Ford.

The Willys version was the most favoured, though the Army report that compared all three models also said that a few aspects of the Ford design (the shift leaver and handbrake) should be incorporated into the Willys model. Later Ford models were dubbed Jeep GPW, with the W referring to the basic Willys design (more below.)

This is important, because one part of the story behind the Jeep’s name comes from these competing designs. Zaloga says that at this point, “Jeep” came to be used for the Willys version in order to distinguish it from the other two. The term had continued to be used during the 1930s to refer to new recruits, and then to new vehicles.

It also had a concurrent usage within popular American culture, since the appearance of a new comic-book character in 1937: Eugene the Jeep, the name of Popeye’s dog.

So it seems that for these various and overlapping reasons, the word was still in circulation during the 30s, and came to be applied to the standard Willys design that went on to be the basis for future US Army Jeeps. From there, it stuck, in large part it seems because of the February 1941 Washington Daily News article.

As for the reality behind the GP added to the end of its name (as in the Ford GP model), once again, this did not mean General Purpose. Rather, the G meant “Government” (since it was being produced for the government), while the P was the designation within Ford for the wheelbase size of 80 inches, which the Jeep had.

Although the Willys design was the one that was chosen, Ford was required anyway because jeeps were to so widely produced, particularly once the Pearl Harbor attack occurred and the US entered World War 2.

So the government extended the contract to include Ford, since it was a larger company than Willys and was better able to handle the vast scale of the manufacturing required. At this point, it became the Jeep GPW, with the W referring to the original Willys design.

How the jeep became so iconic

Ian James’ jeep turns out to be one of Ford’s GWP models, and its particular story is a good illustration of just how widely circulated jeeps became.

Mr James' Ford GPW came out of Italy, where it served at the end of the war (perhaps on the Gothic Line), and then ended up in the Italian army after the war, before he purchased it years later.

He said that when he got it, and before he had restored it, the vehicle had a number of holes in it – some from bolts for a .30 or .50-calibre machine gun in the back and others from a .30-calibre gun on the step by the passenger side, and yet more holes from gunfire.

The whole restoration project took him six years. He said:

"It took me six years. I really wanted to get it as good as I could ... like when it left the factory in 1944."

Though the restoration did not take so much time because of a shortage of body parts. As Mr James explained, after the war, the French company Hotchkiss continued manufacturing Jeeps and there are providers of parts in other parts of the world today, precisely because they are in demand, such is the vehicle's enduring popularity. "All the components are like they would have been," Mr James said.

While parts around the body were easy enough to find, the engine of the Hotchkiss was different to the original Willys and Ford models, and the Italians upgraded the Jeep's gearbox from a T-84 to a T-90 type. This was an improvement, but it took the Jeep further away from its 1940s US origins. And because the T-90 gearbox was bigger, the floor above it had to be altered to fit it in. Mr James put a T-84 gear box in, and had to readjust the floor of the Jeep again:

"I had to buy a brand new floor part", he said.

He also went to some trouble to get the original engine in good working order, making his own stencils for putting writing on the hose pipes, just as it would have been at the time. He also bought parts to help rebuild the engine, and in the process found something else that needed clearing up:

"I took my radiator apart and there was a wasps nest in it!"

And yet, despite the difficulties, he got all the work done and it looks just like it would have during wartime.

How fitting that his own vehicle’s story, its battle scars and its wide circulation, seem to tell so well the story of the jeep more generally.

Zaloga calls the vehicle “the most influential military tactical vehicle of the 20th Century” and says its very durability and mass-production both helped it become so iconic, as did the fact that it was used a lot outside of the US. Thirty percent of all Jeeps produced ended up being sold overseas (and more were transferred within theatre) – these largely went to the UK and the USSR.

Zaloga notes that there are discrepancies between the sources about the exact number of Jeeps produced, though his book does have a table showing the manufacturing rates of each model by year. His source was ‘Summary Report of Acceptances, Tank-Automotive Materiel 1940-45, Army Service Forces’. It lists the total figure for jeeps of each main type produced throughout the war as 634,569, which rises to 647,343 when the jeep GPA is factored into the total (the A standing for the Amphibious variant.) The original Willys design cost an economical $648.74 per vehicle.

The original plan was for there to be 36 Jeeps allocated to each US infantry regiment, but this increased to 149 by 1944. Infantry divisions had 612 Jeeps by 1943 and armoured divisions 449 each, so it is easy to see how they became so widely used.

It is also the very mass-producibility and convenience of the Jeep that seems to have helped continue to keep it alive. When he made up his mind to restore a World War 2 vehicle, Mr James was considering a larger truck from the period, or an ambulance, though storing either would have been considerably more difficult than a Jeep.

He spoke to a number of veterans who had military vehicles and many of them advised him that it was the most convenient vehicle to have, as well as being versatile - something he could nip up to the shops in to pick up some milk, for instance, if he decided he wanted to.

The easy maintenance was also a factor, and, apart from the fuel pipe, which can, because it is wrapped around the engine, overheat and lead to a vapour lock (i.e. where the flow of fuel to the engine is interrupted), maintenance of the jeep has been relatively straight forward.

"I've had a slight problem with that", Mr James said, "but it seems to be okay most of the time".

SAS jeeps Second world war North Africa
Part of what may have added to the jeep’s legend in Britain, at least retrospectively, was its use by the embryonic SAS in North Africa (picture from ‘Jeeps 1941-45’ by Steven J Zaloga © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Weight – was it really a ¼-ton truck?

Since a ton is the equivalent of 2,000 pounds, a more-accurate name for the Jeep during its development would have actually been the 1-ton 4x4 Truck, rather than then ¼-ton 4x4 Truck. Whereas a lighter-weight version was developed, the main and widely successful Jeep design was accomplished when the weight limit was lifted from 1,275 lb (which, in any case, is closer to half a ton) to 2,160 lb.

Furthermore, the War Department Technical Manual for the ‘1/4-Ton 4 x 4 Truck (Willys-Overland Model MB and Ford Model GPW)’, published on 22 February 1944, and a copy of which Mr James has along with his jeep, reveals more exact weights for the Jeep under certain circumstances.

For instance, the manual states that the jeep required a crew of two (though it obviously only needed one driver) and that it could carry up to five people in total. If one takes the average weight of a man at the time as around 150 lb, this would total 750 lb for five passengers, coming just under the Jeep’s weight limit of an 800-lb load:

Road, including gas and water

2,453 lb

Gross (loaded)

3,253 lb

Shipping (less water and fuel)

2,337 lb

Boxed gross

3,062 lb

Maximum pay load

800 lb

Maximum trailed load

1,000 lb

Jeep capabilities – maintenance and speed

The Jeep was meant to be maintained in the field by those using it as much as possible, and in this its standardised and well-thought-out design came in handy.

For instance, the jeep had headlights that could be rotated around so that they illuminated the engine, making working on it possible at night without the need of a separate torch.

The War Department’s technical manual on the vehicle also sheds light, as it were, on this aspect of the jeep and the various ways and situations in which service personnel would have maintained and fixed the vehicle.

Swivel headlight on a WW2 jeep
Ian James demonstrating the rotating headlight pointing at his jeep’s engine (picture: writer’s collection)

The manual lists as many eventualities as possible, and what the soldiers using the Jeep should do in each situation.

Some of these seem rather obvious. At one point the manual lists the following problem:

“No fuel in tank.”

And what to do about it:

“Fill tank.”

Example listings for possible engine trouble are a little more elaborate, and not quite as obvious. For instance, in a section about the engine overheating, it lists one possible problem as “Cooling system deficient”, for which it advises:

“Water low; air flow through radiator core restricted, clean from engine side; clogged core, clean or replace radiator“.

A lot of the mechanical advise is more succinct than this though. Next to an entry for the water pump impeller being broken, it says:

“Replace pump.”

The manual also anticipates that not all problems would have been fixable in the field, at least not without assistance. Under a section on the vehicle’s body and frame it lists one possible problem as a damaged frame, for which the instruction is to:

“Report to higher authority.”

This instruction appears a number of times throughout the maintenance section, an ongoing reminder of the jeep’s place within the military hierarchy.

The manual also explains the gear system within the Jeep, and therefore the different speeds at which it could drive and its 4-by-4 capability. The switch between four-wheel drive and the faster, on-road two-wheel drive was done by two leavers next to the gear stick, both of which where attached to something called the transfer case, which the manual describes as follows:

“The transfer case … is an auxiliary gear unit attached to the rear of the transmission. The transfer case is essentially a two-speed transmission which provides an additional gear reduction for any selection of the transmission gears, also a means of engaging the disengaging power to drive the front axle.”

This then allows one to make sense of the way in which the speeds are listed:

“Maximum allowable speeds (mph) with transfer case in “HIGH” range:

“High gear (3rd) … 65

“Intermediate gear (2nd) … 41

“Low gear (1st) … 24

“Reverse gear … 18

“Maximum allowable speeds (mph) with transfer case in “LOW” range:

“High gear (3rd) … 33

“Intermediate gear (2nd) … 21

“Low gear (1st) … 12

“Reverse gear … 9”.

Interior WW2 jeep
The interior of Ian James’ jeep, with the two transfer-case leavers visible on the floor next to the gear stick (picture: writer’s collection)

In practice, Mr James said that he does not drive his Jeep at much more than 40mph, though he has taken it up to a maximum of 50mph. However, he also said that a brand new Jeep at the time almost certainly would have been capable of considerably more.

In any case, watching him drive at any speed is still a fantastic opportunity to be transported back to 1940s, particularly when he does so while wearing his period uniform. Mr James himself said of driving the jeep that:

"It's such great fun to drive, though I suppose that wasn't the main criteria in World War 2!"

When asked if this is why he put so much effort into the restoration, to be a kind of time traveller, he said it was absolutely the reason:

"It's just like going back in time. You sit there and hear and smell that engine, you know it's a piece of military equipment that's very robust."

So robust, in fact, that people are still driving World War 2 jeeps almost 80 years later.

For more on the jeep, including detailed illustrations, the history of its development and an overview of the different jeep variants, read ‘Jeeps 1941 – 45’ by Steven J Zaloga, and visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.