Of those players in the field leading to the standardized war time jeep, American Bantam Car Company was the smallest with “an approximate investment of one million dollars and employing around 450 men.” Bantam had been through financial difficulties and receiverships, had applied to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation for first-mortgage loans dating back to 1938.
Bantam was on the verge of collapse in early 1940. Americans just weren’t ready for a small car. While it’s marketing force was great, the orders just didn’t come in. According to All-American Wonder
, Volume One author Ray Cowdery, Bantam produced only 1,227 cars in 1939.
During the late 1930s, Bantam had tried to interest the War Department in the utility of their small cars. While several where tested, the immediate results went no where. At this same time the US Army had been testing various concepts for 4×4 vehicles. They had recently purchased many 1/2-ton 4×4 trucks. While these trucks performed fairly well, they were just too big, too heavy, too long and needed refinement.
“On June 19, 1940, a special subcommittee (US Army) and Major Howie, whose presence had been requested by the subcommittee so that he could give full information on his carrier (Howie Belly-Flopper Machine Gun Carrier), met with the officials and engineers of the Bantam Company at their Butler, Pennsylvania plant, for discussion of the possibilities and limitations of the Bantam chassis as a basis for both the proposed command-reconnaissance car and the Howie Weapons Carrier. Several of the regular Bantam 2-wheel drive cars were put through a brief test, including runs over hilly country with grades
estimated at ten percent. Carrying one or two men, and with a gross load of approximately 1500 pounds, they performed well. To test the car’s structural strength, a stripped, dry chassis weighing 680 pounds, was statically loaded with 4500 pounds of sand without damage to the chassis.
A discussion of engineering details followed resulting in a tentative decision to require, among other things, a driving front axle with a 2-speed transfer case including provision for disengaging the front axle drive; a body of rectangular design with folding windshield and three bucket seats; increased engine power; means for towing; a .30-caliber machine gun mount on a telescoping pedestal; blackout lighting and oil-bath air cleaner; and such regularly accepted components in the automobile industry as hydraulic brakes and full floating axles. Based on the recommendation of the using arms, a modified set of military characteristics was drawn up that limited the weight to a maximum of 1200 pounds; the wheel base to approximately 75 inches; and the maximum height to 36 inches; angles of approach and departure were set at 45° and 40° respectively, and a speed range on level, hard surface of 3 to not less than 50 miles per hour was required.
Approval of the Ordnance subcommittee’s report and recommendations was quickly forthcoming from the Secretary of War and the expenditure of not more than $175,000 of Quartermaster funds was authorized for this project, with the vehicles to be ready in time for the late-summer maneuvers of 1940, if possible. Following testing under the supervision of the using arms’ test boards, their findings were to be coordinated by the Quartermaster Technical Committee after which final recommendations were to be submitted by the Quartermaster General to the Secretary of War. The tentative specifications, dated July 2, set forth in detail the service requirements of the vehicle and contained some specification changes agreed to by the representative of the Infantry and Cavalry at Holabird conference July 1. The weight was raised seventy-five pounds to 1275, the maximum wheelbase was increased to 80 inches, and the overall height was raised to 40 inches. Special bracing of the rear end of the frame for pintle mounting was specified, and no aluminum was to be used in the cylinder head of the motor which was required to be of at least four cylinders.
In the meantime, the American Bantam Car Company had gone ahead with the laying out of the jeep proper, in accordance with the rough sketch and general specifications arrived at between the engineers and the Ordnance subcommittee at their June 19 conference. On several occasions it was necessary for Bantam engineers to visit Holabird to iron out different engineering matters. The Spicer Manufacturing Company of Toledo, Ohio, which had devoted considerable time to the development of a four-wheel drive, also was called in by Bantam for consultation and become the axle supplier for the jeep from then on. Both the Bantam people and Holabird agreed that the standard Bantam motor would have to be stepped up in power, resulting in the development by Continental Motors Corporation of the heavier engine that was installed in the 70 original jeeps.
Prepared now to undertake the construction and delivery of the 70 Bantam jeeps with four-wheel drive and 85 cubic inch motors, the American Bantam Company offered to negotiate a contract with the Quartermaster Corps for the lot at a price of $2500 per car, making a total of $175,000 or the exact amount authorized by the War Department. This the Quartermaster Corps refused to do, despite the previous recommendation of the Chief of Infantry that the negotiated procedure be followed for this development. In its letter of July 10 to the Assistant Secretary of War requesting approval for the issuance of a 10-day advertisement under the invitation for bids, the OQMG considered the Bantam offer “reasonable for such a development program, ” but since the offer involved tooling costs, it felt that “acceptance would place the firm at a decided advantage over competitors in possible future procurement of this type vehicle.” While noting that the preliminary development of the jeep had been accomplished with the collaboration of the American Bantam firm, the OQMG nevertheless believed it advisable to resort to the competitive bidding procedure in order “to permit any other qualified and interested producers to submit bids.” It mentioned the fact that beside the Bantam concern the Quartermaster Corps knew of only one other potential bidder. Clearance for the issuance of bids was given by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of War the following day.
When the bids were opened, the competitor of the American Bantam Company was disclosed as the Willys-Overland Company of Toledo, Ohio. For some time prior to 1940, this concern had been trying to interest the Government in using some of its cars as experimental machine gun or personnel carriers.
The technical analysis of the Bantam and Willys bids made by Holabird, revealed that while the Willys bid was nominally low, it actually was higher than Bantam’s, when to it was added the liquidated damages which would result from the acknowledged inability of Willys to make delivery within the time limit of seventy-five days specified in the invitation for bids. Therefore both the Chief of the Engineering Branch and the Purchasing and Contracting Officer at Holabird recommended that the contract award be made to the American Bantam Company, since “the product described in the bid submitted by the American Bantam Car Company most nearly meets the specification requirements, and is the lowest in price…” The Holabird officers noted several exceptions and deviations from the specifications in the Bantam bid and suggested that the using arms be consulted on these so that all “controversial questions” could be adjusted by the time of the award. They also suggested that the specifications should be revised as soon as the results of the field tests were available. On the above basis the Office of The Quartermaster General, on July 25, 1940, awarded contract to the American Bantam Company.
In accordance with the agreement in its bid, the American Bantam Car Company built and delivered the first pilot model to Holabird in 49 days. During the construction of this original model, the bugaboo of weight cropped up again. It became evident to both Bantam and Holabird that strength and material limitations, as well as other engineering factors, would make it virtually impossible to meet the 1275 pound weight requirement. Hence all 70 jeeps weighed some hundred pounds more, although still less than the 2100 pound limit set in the tentative specifications of July 7, 1941, or the still later revised military characteristics of July 3, 1942, which raised the final weight of the jeep, for the period covered by this study, to not more than 2450 pounds.
When the jeep reached the using arms in the field it success was instant and sensational. At posts, camps, and stations all over the country, it won the admiration of everyone for the manner in which it performed. The demonstrations it gave of climbing and leaping, and its all-round ability to push its way through tough situations, impressed all beholders…It’s four-wheel drive proved that it could operate over the roughest terrain. Water eighteen inches in depth was forded with ease. Although riding in the jeep was far from pleasure driving, it auxiliary transmission, providing six speeds forward and two reverse, enabled it to hit a mile-a-minute clip on the highway or claw its way up grades of 60% or better, in low. In its appearance, too, the jeep was radically different. Soon well-known to every school-boy on the street were its squat, rectangular, utilitarian shape in its coat of olive-drab, lustreless enamel that had been developed shortly before; its low silhouette; the flat fenders on each of which an additional man could be carried if necessary; the heavy brushguard protecting the front; the folding windshield and detachable folding top or canopy; the pintle and towing hooks; the heavy duty mud-and-snow tread tires; and the front and rear blackout lights.” – from The Jeep –It’s Development and Procurement Under the Quartermaster Corps, 1940-1942 by H. Rifkind, 1943.
The jeep proved so very successful that it has remained in production with minimal changes so that even today “every school-boy” still recognizes a jeep vehicle. Unfortunately, the jeeps’ success would not be tied to the success of American Bantam Car Company. The company would lose the bid for the standardized war-time jeep to Willys-Overland. Then through negotiations Ford Motor Company would be selected as the alternate producer of the Willys jeep. Bantam after delivering its last Bantam BRC would never again produce cars for the government or anyone else. During the war it produced trailers pulled by the Willys MB and Ford GPW. The company survived after the war for a time producing civilian versions of the jeep trailer. The company was bought by another concern and quickly faded from the scene. A sad ending for the first designer and builder of the jeep.
Photo Sources: TM 10-1205 (color enhanced) and the Army Heritage and Education Center