Car Collector Corner: Jeep, American Bantam and Willys-Overland
Q: Greg, was the first Jeep made available to the public made by Willys? Also, how did the Jeep end up at Chrysler? Thanks much, I'm retired in Illinois and loving life. Albert K., Illinois.
A: Albert, the first commercial Jeep available to the public came in 1945, under the ownership of Willys-Overland and called the Willys Quad. The vehicle was an American Bantam design copy, and similar to its GP (General Purpose) military version that found Willys winning a huge military contract in 1941. Willys trademarked the Jeep name after the war, and it's been a true American success story ever since American Bantam, however, was actually the original designer of the Jeep and never associated with Willys-Overland in any manner. Their prototype Jeep was dubbed the BRC, which stood Bantam Reconnaissance Car. The company built 2,600 BRC's, and some of the motors and chassis were imported from United Kingdom's Austin division car company. The bodies were produced in America at Bantam production facilities in both Detroit, Mich., and Butler.
Bantam, however, did not have the financial strength or political clout to build the Army's needed 16,000 vehicles, and since the bidding was open to Willys-Overland and Ford, Bantam's successful initial experience with the military all fell by the wayside. Bantam had the idea and the know how, but didn't have the money or "inroads" of Willys-Overland and Ford, the latter which won the backup producer contract.
To this day, Jeep's Wrangler has roots back to the original Bantam Jeep, while the popular newspaper comic strip "Beetle Bailey" still has focus on that military design in its daily and weekly adventures.
As for how Jeep ended up at Chrysler-Fiat, in 1953, Henry Kaiser, the noted shipbuilder, car manufacturer and founder of the first ever managed health care plan called Kaiser Permanente (still in existence) bought Jeep from Willys-Overland. Then in 1969, AMC bought the Jeep brand and it became the nucleus of its manufacturing business. Following AMC's demise in 1986, Chrysler bought the brand for $1.1-billion and since then, it's been a strong seller.
Today, consumers have a Grand Cherokee, Liberty, Patriot, Compass and legendary Wrangler to choose from. In ending, the American Bantam Car Company, which dissolved at the end of 1941 building vehicles, stayed in business until 1956 building Jeep trailers for the military.
Thanks for your question.
(Greg Zyla writes a weekly syndicated column on classic cars and auto nostalgia and welcomes reader questions at 116 Main St., Towanda, Pa. 18848 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org)