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Jeep Genesis - the Rifkind Report

This book would be of great value to those interested in the history of the Jeep from initial developments by Bantam to the subsequent awarding of major contracts to Willys Overland for the Jeep MB and to Ford for the essentially identical Ford GPW.

The book traces the development of the Jeep from early experiments with light cars and other vehicles, to the setting of an initial specification, the first (Bantam) prototypes, revisions of specifications and the controversy over the admission of Willys-Overland and Ford into the programme, and the award of major contracts to the latter two companies.

During World War I the US Army used a great many different types of commercially based vehicles which brought difficulties in maintenance and the supply of spare parts. This created a desire to standardise on a small number of types. In 1932 the Infantry Board (p8) purchased a couple of Austin light cars (4x2) for evaluation in reconnaissance and messenger duties. The British used the light car in this way as an alternative to motor-cycle and side-car. There was also a need for a small motorized carrier for the heavy (.50) machine gun, the 37mm anti-tank/ anti-aircraft gun, and 81mm mortar. In 1937 Captain Howie constructed a rudimentary 4x2 vehicle using Austin parts and its cross-country ability added impetus towards a very light four wheel drive vehicle. By 1940 the Infantry was hoping to obtain a vehicle with a height of 36", a weight of just 750-1000 lbs and four wheel drive. Amphibious ability was also desired if this did not compromise or delay the design.

Discussions were held with the Bantam Car Company, makers of light 4x2 cars, in June 1940 (p14). Some of their cars were tested and the possibility of four wheel drive discussed. An initial specification for a 1/4-ton (nominal load capacity) cross-country vehicle was issued in July 1940 (p15) specifying a weight of 1275 lbs and an 80" wheelbase. Thus beginning a steady process of weight-gain. The Quartermaster Corps now called for bids to produce 70 vehicles; Bantam and Willys-Overland bid, the former being accepted, and the first Bantam pilot model was delivered in September 1940. Weight had blown out to just over 2000 lbs which the Infantry viewed with disfavour. Pictures of early Bantams show a typical "light-car" bonnet (hood) with a simple open box-body at the rear.

A perennial question concerns the origin of the term `Jeep'. Rifkind quotes the Quartermaster Corps Motor Transport Division as stating that the term had been commonly applied to a 1/2 ton 4x4, the 1/4 ton 4x4 initially being dubbed `peep', `baby jeep' and only later `jeep'. An alternative explanation is the abbreviation of `general purpose', or of Ford's GP (G: Government, P: 80" wheelbase), to `geep' and `jeep'.

After initial trials, there were recommendations to buy 1500 Jeeps; Ford had become openly interested by this stage, each of the three companies supplying one third. Willys-Overland submitted the `MA' and Ford submited its own design. By July 1941 the nominal load had increased to 800 lbs and the vehicle weight to 2,268 lbs. The Willys-Overland design was selected for a major contract of 16,000 on the basis of cost; this effectively froze the design and, as the Jeep MB, it was eventually produced in volume by that company and also by Ford.

Some sections of the army, the government and the press believed that various moves had been made in the contract process specifically to favour Ford and to disadvantage Bantam, prompting an enquiry and a report (this book). The book paints a balanced picture of an aggrieved Bantam missing out on the lucrative contracts to eventually build 700,000+ Jeeps which it felt to be its own conception. On the other hand, the design was arguably an Army creation, the latter calling for tenders and selecting the companies that put in the lowest bids and were most likely to be able to deliver; e.g. Ford provided tooling to produce the scarce axles and transfer-cases which the tiny Bantam company could only buy in. It must be remembered that the USA was not at war until late in the Jeep project, although it was soon supplying equipment to Great Britain under the "lend-lease" agreement, and war was probably anticipated. It is certainly interesting that the decision making process seems to have been finely balanced and the arguments heated; there were no findings of impropriety but one can only speculate what part politics, even "office politics", played in the final outcome.

Other interesting topics briefly covered are the amphibious Jeep, four-wheel steering prototypes and post-war uses envisaged for the Jeep.
original documents.

- L. A11ison