The First Jeep - The History Of The Bantam Blitz Buggy

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The First Jeep - The History Of The Bantam Blitz Buggy

The Phony War

It was july of the year 1940. France had collapsed the month before in the face of the overwhelming force of the Nazi onslaught. England was desperately digging in for the Battle of Britain which was to follow in the weeks ahead. The "phony war" in Europe had become a conflagration and the situation in the Pacific was rapidly deteriorating. FDR would soon ask Congress to appropriate an unprecedented US$32.8 billion for defence purposes. Tension was mounting, for the United States was heavily committed to the Allied cause. It was obvious a global conflict was in the making.

Karl K. Probst and Art Brandt

The alarming mobility of the Nazi juggernaut had caused the Army to reassess its inventory of surface transportation. The overall picture was nothing short of appalling, particularly with regard to light utility vehicles capable of absorbing intense punishment under front-line combat conditions. The Army needed a small, highly maneuverable command-reconnaissance car and it needed it fast. On Saturday, July 13, 1940, the telephone rang in the office of Karl K. Probst on Grand and Woodward in Detroit. Probst was an automotive engineering consultant with a brilliant record of achievement spanning more than 30 years. The caller was an old friend, Art Brandt, former general manager of Pontiac. Brandt had been drafted onto the staff of William Knudsen, production coordinator of the National Defence Commission. He wanted Probst to come to his office for the purpose of discussing an engineering proposition.

Frank Fenn and The American Bantam Car Co.

A mutual acquaintance, Frank Fenn of the American Bantam Car Co., had asked Brandt for a favour. Allied intelligence sources in Europe had gotten word that Hitler's engineers were planning to convert Dr. Ferdinand Porsche's promising little rear-engined Volkswagen "People's Car" into a troop carrier. Fenn had nearly sold the same idea to the Army; that is, converting the diminutive 22-bhp Bantam automobile to meet a general purpose military requirement. Fenn, however, had a few problems to iron out. The Bantam company, over which he presided somewhat precariously, was flat broke. Bantam had never sold more than several thousand cars a year and, by the early summer of 1940, production had declined to practically nothing.

A skeleton crew of about 15 office workers and factory hands remained on the payroll, but Bantam's engineering talent had long since departed. Fenn wanted Brandt to persuade Probst to come to the Bantam plant in Butler, Pa., and turn his midget car into a proper military conveyance. Apart from expense money, the job offered nothing in the way of salary. If the venture was a financial success, Probst would be rewarded for his efforts. But if it was a flop, Fenn would be out of a job and Probst would have to write the whole thing off as an injudicious investment. Probst said he didn't think he was interested.

A Formal Invitation For Bids

On the following Monday, Fenn called Probst to personally confirm the fact that he was, indeed, anxious to obtain Probst's professional services. Furthermore, the Army engineers had drafted a specification for the utility vehicle in question and a formal invitation for bids was being sent to Bantam, Ford, Willys-Overland and Crosley. Fenn urged Probst to reconsider. Probst suggested that Fenn call him again when the specification arrived. If it looked like the Bantam car could be converted, he would see what he could do to help. The next day Brandt phoned from Washington to say that he had discussed the matter personally with William Knudsen. Knudsen was well aware of the project's potential importance in the defence program and told Brandt that he believed Probst could do the job faster and more efficiently than any of the big companies. Financing would be available if Bantam's vehicle met the Army requirements. Probst agreed to drive down to Butler as soon as the specification was in hand.

Fenn called again on Wednesday, the 18th. He had just read the specification and he was furious. The Army was no longer interested in a small field car of conventional concept. On the contrary, the specifications described a compromise design, a hybrid combining the desirable characteristics of two completely unrelated vehicles. In essence it would be a 4-wheel-drive 1-ton truck with the low silhouette, agility and to-hell-and-back tenacity of a motorcycle. It was to have a minimum of 40 bhp and a maximum unloaded weight of 1300 lb. The Bantam engine developed only 22 bhp and none of the car's running gear could be adapted to a 40-bhp unit. There was no alternative; they would have to abandon the plan to convert the Bantam and begin from scratch.

The original American Bantam
The original American Bantam, evaluated by the American Army in early 1940. A little underpowered at only 22bhp, it would nevertheless contribute to the final design of the Jeep.

First Bantam Jeep Evaluation Test
Picture from first Bantam Jeep evaluation test, held at Camp Holabird in 1940.

Bantam Jeep Swamp Test
Entering the swamp test during Bantam Jeep evaluation.

Bantam Jeep Axle Test
Axle and Bog test of Bantam Jeep - it got out.

Almost unstoppable, almost unbreakable - the original Bantam Jeep
Almost unstoppable, almost unbreakable - the original Bantam Jeep.

Karl Probst
Karl Probst worked for many auto makers, although Henry Ford once refused to hire him because of his advanced ideas.

Camp Holabird

To further compound Fenn's vexation, the bids and preliminary design drawings had to be submitted to the Office of the Quartermaster at Camp Holabird, Baltimore, Md., no later than 9:00 a.m. on the following Monday. If Bantam bid successfully, Fenn would have a scant 49 days to deliver a prototype, and there would be no guarantee of further orders. Was it worth risking what little cash remained in the till on anything so speculative? Fenn thought it was. Bantam had slipped to the bottom of the financial ladder. The situation could hardly be worse.

If Bantam's stock moved in any direction, it had to be up. With less than five days to design, Probst knew he could not begin to meet the fantastic weight requirement, nor could anyone else. The whole venture looked hopeless at best, but Probst was in the business of solving complex engineering problems. It was a unique challenge and he was determined to make the most of it. Probst turned the affairs of his consulting firm over to his partners, packed a few clothes and headed for Butler.

An hour and a half later Probst was in Toledo conferring on the matter of axles and transfer cases with Bob Lewis, the Spicer company's chief engineer. After studying Spicer's line, a decision was made to cut down the standard Studebaker Champion rear axle and use a modification of a transfer case already in production. By mid-afternoon he was on his way again. In Fenn's office the next morning, Probst was introduced to Harold Crist, the factory manager. Crist had helped build the first Duesenberg car and he had been with Stutz 18 years before joining Bantam.

In the old days he had been a racing driver. A master technician - skillful and resourceful - Crist would prove to be indispensable in the hectic days ahead. The official Army specification showed only a rough outline of an open, 4-passenger vehicle and its limiting dimensions, power and performance requirements. The 40-bhp engine could be obtained from several sources easily enough, but the 1300-lb. empty weight figure was completely out of reach. Probst would be doing well to keep it under a ton. It was too early to say whether or not the car could be built in 49 days. It might take six months, even a year.

Major Lawes

Probst quickly came to the conclusion that more than half the vehicle's chassis components would have to come from existing stocks of high-production items modified to suit the Bantam design. Fenn, Crist and the remaining personnel of the purchasing department got busy collecting data on clutches, transmissions, steering gear, brakes and anything else that might be utilized in the design. At 1:00 p.m., Probst entered the drafting room, dusty from disuse, and started drawing. He worked 10 hours, then snatched some sleep.

He was back at the drawing board at 7 o'clock Friday morning, completing the general arrangements layout by evening. Probst dictated the chassis parts list during the night and the next day figured an estimate of costs. Sunday morning he and Fenn filled in the bid forms, ran off blueprints and completed the paperwork. By noon they were bound for Baltimore and an all-night conference with Commander C. H. Payne, Bantam's military sales representative.

Payne winced when he read the estimated weight figure: 1850 lb. was too much. The Army wouldn't even consider the Bantam proposal if it was 500 lb. over weight. Payne insisted that the bids and paperwork be changed to approximate the specification. They could straighten out the weight business later on - if they got the contract. A few minor revisions were made and by 3:30 a.m. everything was in order. Five hours later they assembled at the Holabird Quartermaster Depot.

At 9:00 a.m., Major Lawes of the Purchasing & Contracting office called for bids. Representatives of the Ford, Willys-Overland and Crosley companies were on hand, but only the Butler group was prepared to submit an actual design layout. Ford and Crosley declined to bid. Lawes asked the automobile men to return in half an hour. He would announce the successful bid at that time.

Bantam vs. Willys

At 9:30, Lawes advised the group that Willys had bid the lowest price. Fenn turned to Probst in stunned silence. The Bantam price had reflected only a very marginal profit. But price was not the only consideration. Bantam had promised to deliver a test model in the prescribed 49 days and Willys had asked 75 days to do the job. The time element was the deciding factor. Bantam was awarded the contract. After the Willys salesmen were gone, Lawes confessed he was cognizant of the fact that Bantam had no engineering staff. Probst would have to find one in a hurry. It would take the procurement people a couple of weeks to process the papers. After that Bantam had seven weeks to deliver. If the car survived the test program without a breakdown of more than 24-hours duration, Bantam would receive an additional order for 70 preproduction vehicles for further evaluation in the field.

Probst immediately caught a plane for Detroit. Within 10 days he had recruited three engineers with the necessary qualifications. Fenn found another man. Bantam now had the nucleus of an engineering department. The Army contract became effective on August 5, which meant that Probst and his team had until Sept. 23 to deliver. Bantam was, in effect, bankrupt and owed the RFC the better part of $275,000. If they failed to finish in seven weeks, Fenn would have to scratch for the cash to pay the $100-a-day penalty.

Late into the night, seven days a week, Crist and his key technicians - Chester Hempfling and Ralph Turner - worked with tireless determination. Tooling and parts had to be fabricated from rough sketches. More often than not they worked without any drawings at all. Word of the project leaked out and soon the automobile industry was following Bantam's race against the calendar. In Detroit the odds were said to be 5-1 Bantam wouldn't make the deadline.

The Blitz Buggy

Probst's money said the Army would have its "blitz Buggy" on schedule. By the fourth week it looked as if the sceptics were right. Progress was discouragingly slow. Everything depended on the subcontractors, Spicer in particular. If the drive system arrived in time, there was still a chance of finishing before the 23rd. Two weeks later the vehicle had been pushed to an advanced stage of completion. Wiring the suppliers, Probst promised to have the Bantam running and available for tests on September 22nd. Each supplier would have a maximum of one hour to inspect and test drive the car.

If for any reason a malfunction occurred, it would have to be eliminated on the spot. On Saturday, the 21st, the Bantam was ready for a trial run. At 5:00 p.m., Crist got behind the wheel and kicked the starter button. The 45-bhp Continental responded smoothly and Probst climbed in on the right. Crist drove several miles to the outskirts of town, cautiously studying the general road handling characteristics. Everything seemed to be functioning properly so they decided to investigate the Bantam's grade-climbing capabilities.

Just off the road was a large hill with a grassy 45° slope. Probst thought a motorcycle might reach the top, but he knew of no 4-wheeled vehicle with the required performance. Crist swung off the pavement, shifted into low range and pushed the throttle to the floor. Wailing like a banshee with a hotfoot, the Bantam lurched forward and charged up the hill. Even before they had reached the summit, Probst realized that his blitz buggy had performance that could not be challenged by any similar vehicle in existence. Further testing by 10 suppliers on the 22nd was concluded without incident. By the end of the day the odometer indicated about 150 miles, scarcely enough driving to warm up the oil, much less reveal any weak points in the design. The Bantam had startling off-the-road performance, but no time remained to find out how it would stand up under prolonged abuse. That night some minor changes were made to improve the steering and brake system, and a final coat of olive drab was applied.

The Midget Scout Car Will Make Military History

Early on the 23rd, the Bantam began the 250-mile drive to Holabird. At a break-in speed of 25 mph, it would be a long day's journey. Crist and Probst swapped turns at the wheel, while Fenn and Turner followed close behind in another car to keep inquisitive motorists at a safe distance. They arrived on the post at 4:30 p.m., 30 min. under the deadline. About a hundred soldiers and civilians, including the Ford, GMC and Chrysler test crews, converged on the strange little car. They were accustomed to seeing experimental vehicles of every shape and description, but here was something singularly different, an automotive curiosity unlike anything ever built before. With a tread of only 47.5 in. and a wheelbase of 79 in., it looked something like a standard command car in the embryonic stages.

After a cursory inspection. Major Lawes asked Crist to drive the Bantam up a 60% slope in second gear (there was a choice of six transmission speeds). The car crawled up the incline effortlessly with the throttle opened about one-third. Lawes then slid behind the wheel and proceeded to give the Bantam a wild, 15-min. workout. The major had tested every type of vehicle the Army had acquired in the previous 20 years and he could spot weaknesses quickly. He was impressed with the Bantam's lively performance and declared that he thought the midget scout car would make military history. On the following day the Bantam was demonstrated for the benefit of the procurement heads of the Army and Marine Corps, who had come up from Washington. The weather had turned foul; it was cold and rained constantly. Capt. Eugene Mosley, chief of the testing section, shuttled the brass around the Holabird test track until early afternoon.

The Hell-Hole

The Holabird obstacle course featured a mud pit called "the hell-hole," an artificial bog about 300 ft. in diameter and several feet deep in the center. Only large 6-wheel-drive trucks and tanks had succeeded in transversing the quagmire. The officers wanted to see how long the Bantam would last in the muck. Mosley backed far enough away for a running start and was on the point of assaulting the pit when several high-ranking observers motioned him to wait. The captain was riding alone and the officers insisted the test be conducted with a full crew aboard. In the absence of volunteers the officers themselves c limbed in and Mosley stomped on the throttle. Halfway across, the Bantam was hopelessly swamped, its carburetor choked with mud and water. The marooned passengers could do nothing but sit in the drizzling rain and contemplate the prudence of their decision. Possibly the idea of installing a canvas top occurred at this time.

Lawes summoned a 6-wheeled rig and the gumbo-plastered Bantam and its occupants, wetter but wiser, were hauled to solid ground. While the mud was being cleaned out of the carburettor, Probst remarked that he thought the car could push through the muck if Mosley skirted the centre and went in no deeper than 2 ft. After all, it had to have air, and beyond that depth the Bantam would be practically submerged. This time Mosley coaxed the Bantam all the way across to the opposite side. The War Department people nodded approvingly. Later, during a field conference, the subject of the Bantam's weight was raised. The car weighed 2030 lb. un-laden, 730 lb. in excess of the specification. Probst was on the spot. He had held the weight to an absolute minimum and knew that he couldn't afford to trim off a single ounce. If anything, a production version would be a few pounds heavier. After some discussion, the senior cavalry officer commented to the effect that if a couple of soldiers could manhandle the machine out of a ditch, the Army needed it. He was a big man, about 6 ft. 3 in. tall and weighing close to 250 lb. Walking around to the rear of the car, he took a firm grip on the bumper and hefted the back end off the ground. Probst was relieved. The weight issue had been settled for good. The question was, how long would it take Mosley and his men to break the car?

Gene Rice Promotes The Willys Alternative

On his way to the hotel that evening, Probst shared a cab with Gene Rice, the Willys-Overland representative. Rice was frank to admit his amazement over the Bantam car, which he had never believed the company could produce in the first place. He had seen it perform and was convinced that vehicles of its type would revolutionize military transportation. Willys was then working on a version of its own, but it was a long way from being finished. Rice was going to stir things up a bit in Toledo and see if he could get the project moving. Bantam was going to have some stiff competition. On Sept. 27, the Bantam was handed over to the testing section. In the weeks to follow it would receive an unmerciful pounding at the hands of Capt. Mosley and his drivers. It was their job to break prototypes as soon as they could. In the end they seldom failed. The Bantam would be driven full tilt over log roads and plowed fields, through sapling forests and across sand traps calculated to tear the heart out of a vehicle.

Mosley would try every trick in the manual, throwing in a few of his own for good measure. Sooner or later something would have to give. Then Mosley thought he could fracture the frame or tear the body loose if he drove the car off the end of a 4-ft. freight loading platform. He tried it time and again at speeds of 10, 20 and 30 mph. Nothing failed. Mosley would have gone off at 40 but his back ached from the bone-rattling jouncing. Lawes advised him to give it up and try something else. Another time the Bantam was being demonstrated before Army engineers at Ft. Belvoir, Va. A 75-mm field piece was attached and Mosley began towing the heavy weapon across the parade grounds. He had gone about 100 yards when he realized that the observers, who were watching from a distance, were shouting and waving frantically. The gun crew had failed to lock up the recoil sprag and it had ploughed a deep furrow across the field. Clearly, the Bantam had tractor-like pulling power.

A Saggy Underbelly

A few days later, on the way to Butler for a factory inspection, the Bantam was forced off the road and slammed into a drainage ditch, nearly turning over. With the help of two men, Mosley and a corporal were able to extricate the battered vehicle. A hasty inspection revealed that a front wheel had been knocked badly out of alignment; otherwise the machine was reasonably intact. Despite violent wobbling of the wheel, the Bantam finished the trip under its own power. Finally, on Oct. 16th, Mosley succeeded in putting the Bantam temporarily out of service. After 20 days of continuous abuse, the body was beginning to sag in the middle. Both frame side-members had cracked under the severe strain. By this time, however, the vehicle had proved itself to the Army's satisfaction. The Bantam company was directed to build a batch of 70 units within 12 weeks.

Production was well in hand when, on Nov. 13th, the Willys prototype was delivered for testing. Ten days later the Ford version arrived at Holabird. Although heavier and, in the case of the Willys, substantially more powerful, both vehicles bore a marked resemblance to the Bantam. The similarity was no coincidence. Ford and Willys technical representatives at Holabird had ample opportunity to study the Bantam under test. In order to expedite production, the Army had given them free access to Bantam blueprints. No one really remembered for certain just when the Bantam picked up the name Jeep, but evidence seems to indicate that it was sometime during the winter of 1940-1941. One authoritative source credits a QM sergeant by the name of Ross with distinction of having originated the popular appellation. He got the idea, so the story goes, from the Popeye comic strip which was then featuring a quaint little Kilroy-type character called Jeep.

The 4X4 GPV - General Purpose Vehicle

The fact that the Bantam was often referred to in official circles as a 4X4 GPV - General Purpose Vehicle - may have had something to do with it. Anyway, someone tagged it the Jeep and the name stuck. The preproduction Bantams entered service late in 1940. Shortly thereafter they were sent to Louisiana for the war games. Under the command of a contemporary colonel familiarly called Ike, the Bantams were employed in a tactical problem involving the movement of an anti-tank company across a section of swamp land. The Bantams performed brilliantly and the operation was a huge success. Dwight D. Eisenhower's Jeep-mounted troops took the opposing armour completely by surprise. The Bantam had begun to revolutionize the art of surface warfare.

In March, 1941, the Army ordered the Jeep into quantity production with an initial contract for 1500 units. It began to look as if the nearly-defunct American Bantam Car Co. was to have a new lease on life. In June, the company's books showed a slight profit (US$16,965), the first in its 4-year history. Up to this point Bantam hadn't earned a dime building automobiles and small utility trailers. In the meantime, Probst had been approached by Herb Snow, chief engineer of Checker Motors, Kalamazoo, Mich. Snow was interested in entering into a joint manufacturing agreement. He knew that Bantam lacked the facilities to produce the Jeep in the quantities foreseen by the War Department. Washington sources indicated the Army would eventually need 350 units a day, far more than Bantam could build in its small, 14-acre factory. If Checker and Bantam were to combine their resources, Snow thought they could keep pace with the Army's stepped-up demands.

Checker Motors

Probst quickly recognized the wisdom in Snow's thinking. A working agreement between the two companies was indeed the key to Bantam's survival. Without outside assistance, Bantam could not begin to compete with Ford and Willys, both of which had received substantial orders from the government. Fenn took a dim view of the idea, but agreed to cooperate on a tentative basis. Checker could go ahead and build a specimen for production evaluation. Probst was authorized to furnish all the necessary blueprints and engineering data. Before the last of the drawings could be shipped, Fenn stomped into Probst's office and angrily announced that negotiations had been completely unsatisfactory. In fact, he was calling the whole thing off. No additional technical material was to leave the factory. Probst knew that Fenn had to work with Checker in order to meet future production commitments. More than business was at stake - the Army needed Jeeps faster than Bantam could build them. An additional source of supply was essential to the defence effort. Fenn must surely resolve his differences with Checker.

Assuming full responsibility, Probst directed his staff to send the remaining blueprints. Weeks later Fenn discovered that Checker had built a Bantam for test purposes. He was incensed and demanded to know why Probst had deliberately ignored his instructions. Probst defended his action as being in the best interests of both Bantam and the country. He urged Fenn to reconsider his position while there was still time to negotiate. Fenn stubbornly insisted that he could finance large-scale production without Checker, or any other company for that matter. In the beginning, Probst had agreed to stay only a few weeks - long enough to design the Jeep. He had remained almost a year and at great personal sacrifice and expense. His consulting office had been obliged to turn clients away and he seldom saw his family. He had seen the Bantam through its teething problems and well into production, more than fulfilling whatever obligation he may have had. Probst advised Fenn to hire a new chief engineer. He was leaving.

The Lend-Lease Act

In July, 1941, the War Department decided to adopt standardization insofar as the Jeep was concerned. Henceforth only one model would be used by U.S. armed forces. Willys had perfected its Jeep months before, so had Ford. Both were versatile, ruggedly-constructed vehicles offering the same dependable service as the Bantam. However, Ford and Willys-Overland had enormous manufacturing potential. Willys alone could easily turn out 150 units a day and more than double that figure if necessary. At its peak. Bantam might deliver 30-40 units in a day. Fenn's expansion program had not materialized. Willys was able to bid a lower price than Ford and subsequently secured a contract for 16,000 Jeeps. If the War Department was no longer interested in the Bantam, the Russians were. Hitler had launched his attack against the Soviet Union in June and Stalin had an immediate use for as many Jeeps as he could lay hands on.

The Lend-Lease Act had been passed and the Army was directed to release more than 1000 Bantams for service with the Red Army on the Eastern Front. Thus, with red stars on their flanks, the Bantams went to war. Armed with machine guns and anti-tank weapons, Bantam brigades infiltrated deep into enemy territory, harassing armoured columns and slashing Nazi lines of supply and communication. For a period of about four months, the entire Bantam output was turned over to the Russians. In the meantime the Willys Jeep became available in vast numbers. By October, the might of the Ford organization was being tapped to permit an even greater flow of Willys Jeeps. At the same time the Bantam Jeep was being phased out of production. The company which had introduced the first Jeep would spend the war years in obscurity, turning out utility trailers, torpedo motors and airplane parts. Just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the 2675th Bantam Jeep rolled off the Butler assembly line. It was the last automobile the American Bantam Car Company would ever be able to build.

Also see:

Willys Jeep | Jeep Car Reviews | Jeep - The Toughest Word On Four Wheels (USA Edition)
Bantam Jeep
An early production line Bantam Jeep. Ten examples were fitted with experimantal 4-wheel steering too.

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