80th Anniversary of the Jeep

Rigorous testing at Camp Holabird in Maryland proved that the prototype Bantam Reconnaissance Car could perform like a horse and even tow field artillery over the roughest terrain. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Rigorous testing at Camp Holabird in Maryland proved that the prototype Bantam Reconnaissance Car could perform like a horse and even tow field artillery over the roughest terrain. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Happy 80th anniversary to the jeep, the tough motorized vehicle manufactured in 1940 by the American Bantam Car Company in Butler, Pa.

Just prior to our nation’s participation in World War II, the United States Army was in search of a motorized vehicle that would replace the horse. In 1940, the U.S. Quartermaster General issued a request for proposals to 135 car makers in America. The big car companies laughed off the 49-day deadline for the production of a prototype vehicle that would weigh less than 2,000 pounds, climb a 30-degree grade, pull a cannon, and go anywhere a horse could go.

Only one company met the Army’s deadline and requirements: the tiny American Bantam Car Company in Butler. After working day and night to meet the Army’s 49-day deadline, the jeep was born – cobbled together with equal measures of spare parts, ingenuity, and “can-do” spirit. Bantam was the only company to meet the Army’s deadline and on Aug. 5, 1940, was officially awarded a contract for 70 vehicles.

Originally called the “Bantam Reconnaissance Car,” historians have speculated that the jeep’s namesake was derived from “GP,” for General Purpose vehicles, while others believe it was named for Eugene the Jeep, a magical creature popularized in Popeye cartoons.

Workers with Gramps outside of the Bantam Car Company, Sept. 21, 1940. Ralph Turner is in the back row, fifth from the left behind the driver.
Workers pose with the first jeep ever produced at the Bantam Car Company, Sept. 21, 1940. Ralph Turner is in the back row, fifth from the left behind the driver.

Over the next year, Bantam worked hard to produce jeeps. But by 1941, the government feared that little Bantam could not meet wartime production demands and turned to Willys Overland and the Ford Motor Company for nearly 700,000 vehicles. Today, the jeep is known worldwide as an American original.

You can see the world’s oldest surviving jeep (on long-term loan from the Smithsonian) in the History Center’s first floor Great Hall. Affectionately known as “Gramps,” the iconic vehicle recently had a special visitor to help mark its 80th birthday.

In 1954, Ralph Turner, one of the Bantam Car Company workers who helped build the jeep, visited “Gramps” while on display at the Smithsonian. Fast-forward to Sept. 21, 2020, when we were thrilled to welcome Ralph’s son Dave Turner, who stopped by the History Center to pay homage to one of Western Pa.’s greatest innovations and honor the legacy of his father.

Ralph Turner with the Jeep on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. in 1954.
Ralph Turner with the Jeep on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. in 1954.
Ralph’s son, Dave Turner, with the world’s oldest surviving jeep (on long-term loan from the Smithsonian) in the History Center’s first floor Great Hall.
Ralph’s son, Dave Turner, with the world’s oldest surviving jeep (on long-term loan from the Smithsonian) in the History Center’s first floor Great Hall.

Brady Smith is the Director of Communications and Marketing at the Heinz History Center.

One thought on “80th Anniversary of the Jeep

  1. The old Bantam Jeep “Gramps” is a BRC60. Unfortunately, the display signage identifies it as a BRC40, which is incorrect. The last time I was there I brought this error to an employee’s attention. Has this been fixed?
    I manage the history exhibit at the annual Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival, and have a wealth of documentation to prove that the Smithsonian Jeep is indeed a BRC60.

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