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.
During the late 1930s, Bantam had tried to interest the United States 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 (four-wheel drive) 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.
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 (Infantry, Cavalry and Field Artillery) in the field its 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 brush guard 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.”
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.
For even more about Bantam and other early jeeps, check out Jeep – Its development and procurement under the Quartermaster Corps, 1940-1942.