The WILLYS MB (1941-1945) was one of the first military vehicles mass-produced in the United States. It would soon become found everywhere, “world-famous” Jeep, the Willys MB, and Ford GPW models made it one of the most successful military vehicles ever produced for the war.

The design of the World War II jeep was the result of a long process, involving the contributions of both US military officers and civilian engineers. In 2010, the American Enterprise Institute called the jeep “one of the most influential designs in automotive history.”

Not only did it become the workhorse of the American military, as it replaced the use of horses and other draft animals in every role, from cavalry units to supply trains.

By the eve of World War II, the United States Department of War had determined it needed a ​1⁄4-ton, cross-country reconnaissance vehicle. The US Army’s Quartermaster’s Corps (a logistically-minded branch of the Army) wanted an all-wheel-drive 4×4 Command & Reconnaissance (C&R) light vehicle.

The major caveat was the requirement of a completed pilot (prototype) vehicle to be completed within 50 days of the contract signing. In turn, there lay the promise of riches through a potentially lucrative and long term US Army contract. This requirement went out to some 135 possible manufacturers with only three responding – American-Bantam (Bantam), Willys-Overland (Willys), and Ford Motor Company (Ford).

Before the production of the MB and the GPW produced by Ford, other attempts were made to satisfy the Army’s need for a light utility vehicle as the United States entered WWII. The first prototype presented to the Army by the American Bantam Car Company nicknamed the “Blitz Buggy.”

The “Blitz Buggy” did satisfy the requirements, Bantam was not able to deliver with the fiscal strength or production capability needed to win the contract with the War Department.

By July of 1941, the War Department needed to standardize a flexible reconnaissance vehicle for mass production and selected Willys-Overland to fulfill its contract. It had a powerful featured the “Go Devil” 4-cylinder engine with 60 horsepower, low-cut body sides, a low bid of $748.74 per unit, and Willys ability to fulfill production needs.

In October 1941, the US Army was concerned about Willys’ single-factory production capabilities and invited the Ford Motor Company to utilize its wide-reaching manufacturing resources to add to jeep production.

The Willys “MA” was then renamed the Willys “MB,” and featured the powerful “Go Devil” engine and a welded flat iron “slat” radiator grille (which was later replaced by a stamped grille in March of 1942). By October 1941, due to an increased demand for production, Ford was contracted to assist Willys-Overland and changed their model’s name from “GP to “GPW,” with the “W” referring to the “Willys” licensed design.

In practice, the Willys MB and her copied counterparts proved excellent utility and multi-role vehicles. They could be called upon to undertake all manner of battlefield roles, including personnel transport, cargo carrier, weapons carrier, patrol, reconnaissance, security, police, crowd control, command, and control, VIP transport, artillery spotter, and medical litter transport.

Between both Willys and Ford, total Jeep production reached 634,569 units for use by the US military and all allies. From this, Willys-Overland produced 354,569 of the type with the rest handled by Ford.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower in his Willys MB jeep during the liberation of Lower Normandy. The lieutenant general in the backseat is Omar Bradley.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower later wrote that the Jeep was “one of the six most vital” US vehicles to win the war. The sturdy, simple, Jeep 4×4 became the GI’s best friend—second only to his rifle. Often described as “America’s greatest contribution to modern warfare.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning war journalist and WWII Reporter Ernie Pyle wrote, “It did everything. It went everywhere. The Jeep was faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It constantly carried twice what it was designed for and still kept going.” The faithful MB earned a place in every GI’s heart, in every area of combat, in every conceivable role.

Author Charles K. Hyde wrote: “In many respects, the jeep became the iconic vehicle of World War II, with an almost mythological reputation of toughness, durability, and versatility.”

Enzo Ferrari famously called the Jeep “America’s only real sports car” is one of the very few things designed by a committee that turned out to be successful.

Willys’ Go Devil Engine

The robust little engine that helped power the Allied victory. The Willys L134 (nicknamed Go Devil) was a straight-4 automobile engine in the Willys MB and Ford GPW Jeep. The engine powered nearly all the Jeep vehicles built for the US and Allies. Later in a variety of civilian Jeep vehicles. The Willys Go Devil four-cylinder engine became the heart of the Jeep and part of the legend.

The Go Devil engine was developed in-house by Willys’ Chief Engineer, Delmar “Barney” Roos. He was noted as a great “engine-man” and had created several notable engine designs. The Go Devil engine (60 hp) was the most powerful of the three prototype vehicles evaluated by the US Army for production. The Go-Devil was in US production into 1965 and was built under license in France, Japan, and Argentina.

M1919 Browning Machine Gun

The M1919 Browning is a .30 caliber medium machine gun that was widely used during the 20th century, especially during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The M1919 saw service as light infantry, coaxial, mounted, aircraft, and anti-aircraft machine gun by the US and many other countries.

The M1919 was an air-cooled development of the standard US machine gun of World War I, the John M. Browning-designed water-cooled M1917. The M1919 machine-gun was distinguished by its smaller size and the use of a holed jacket around the barrel used on most versions.

The gun’s original design was as a water-cooled machine gun. When it was decided to try to lighten the gun and make it air-cooled, its design as a closed-bolt weapon created a potentially dangerous situation. If the gun was very hot from prolonged firing, the cartridge ready to be fired could be resting in a red-hot barrel, causing the propellant in the cartridge to heat up to the point that it would ignite and fire the cartridge on its own.

BC620 Radio Receiver and Transmitter

Radio BC-620-A contained a portable, low power frequency-modulated radio receiver and transmitter with communication over a range of approximately 5 miles. The radio set could be operated from a stationary position, such as on the ground or some other fixed support. It obtains its power from dry batteries.

The Origin of Jeep’s Iconic Seven-Slot Grille

One of the most recognizable features of the Jeep brand is the iconic seven-slot grille that is on every Jeep model. Willys made its first 25,000 MB Jeeps with a welded flat iron “slat” radiator grille.

It was Ford who first designed and implemented the now familiar and distinctive stamped, vertical-slot steel grille into its Jeep vehicles, which was lighter, used fewer resources, and was less costly to produce. Along with many other design features innovated by Ford, this was adopted by Willys and implemented into the standard World War II Jeep by April 1942.

After the war, Willys wanted to produce Willys MB for the civilian market. To be able to get their grille design trademarked, Willys subtracted two of the nine slots to giving their post-war jeeps a seven-slot grille instead of the original Ford nine-slot design.

The Jeep’s flat hood was used as a commander’s map table, a chaplain’s field altar, the GIs’ poker table, or even for field surgery.

The seats were found uncomfortable, sometimes caused the so-called “Jeep riders’ disease” and cramped in the rear, but many soldiers enjoyed driving the nimble Jeep, appreciating its powerful engine. With its lightweight, low-cut body sides, bucket seats, and manual floor-shifter, it was as close to a sports car as most GIs had ever driven.

Many American allies procured the series, and many are still in circulation today in private hands. While the comfortable civilian street Jeeps of today live on for younger generations (in brand name only), the “jeep” of World War 2 was an entirely different beast of rugged, robust, and reliable qualities that many-a-service-member may have lived or died by.

In 1950, the “Jeep” name was registered as an official Willys-Overland property, which protected its use as a generic label.

Jeep Etymology

There is no consensus among historians as to how the US Army’s World War II quarter-ton reconnaissance car became known as the “jeep,” let alone how the word originated in the first place. Explanations have proven difficult to verify. With certainty, the term “jeep” was already in use before WWII, designating various things, while many designations and nicknames indicated early jeeps.

As early as spring 1936, a character called Eugene the Jeep created in E. C. Segar’s Popeye cartoons. Eugene the Jeep was Popeye’s “jungle pet” and was small, able to walk through walls and move between dimensions, and could go anywhere and solve seemingly impossible problems. Eugene the Jeep’s go-anywhere ability resulted in various industrial and four-wheel drive vehicles getting nicknamed “Jeep” in the late-1930s.

Military officers and GIs involved in the procurement and testing of the multi-purpose vehicle may have called it Jeep from the WWI slang. Civilian contractors, engineers, and testers may have related it to Popeye’s “Eugene the Jeep” character.

From 1941 on, a “constant flow of press and film publicity,” as well as Willys advertising as of 1942, proclaiming it had created and perfected the Jeep, cemented the name “Jeep” in the civilian mind.