Curbside Classic: 1948 Willys Jeep MB – In The Beginning

The Book of Genesis says that In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  There are many who dispute this account, but pretty much nobody disputes that however it came about, there had to be a beginning.  And so it is with most vehicles.  There are sometimes different versions of “the beginning”, but a beginning there certainly was.  This Willys Jeep MB may not be the undisputed beginning of Jeep, but it is certainly a contender for the title.  Jeep’s beginnings are a little muddy, which is probably fitting for a vehicle that would become known for its ability to get down into the mud and back out again.

U. S. light military vehicles had been a haphazard mishmash through the 1930s.  The American military’s need for a simple,  nimble vehicle to transport a soldier or three quickly from one place to another had been fulfilled mostly by motorcycles (with or without sidecars) and even a few ancient Ford Model Ts leftover from World War I.  By early 1940, the military saw the need for modernization in this area and solicited proposals for a light vehicle suitable for reconnaissance work.

War was already underway in Europe and the government’s specs were demanding.  It was bad enough that requirements included 4 wheel drive, strong power, small dimensions and an upper weight limit of 1,300 pounds.  But the worst part was that manufacturers had 11 days to submit a bid, 49 days to submit a prototype and 75 days to have seventy vehicles available for testing.

The Bantam Blitz Buggy

 

Three companies submitted proposals.   The American Bantam company was the first with an on-time prototype, a feat that won it the initial contract over the low bidder, Willys-Overland.  The vehicle which American Bantam called Blitz Buggy (but better known since as Old Number One) became the template for what would eventually become known only as Jeep.

The Ford Pygmy

 

W-O and Ford had prototypes and test units built as well.  The Willys Quad and Ford Pygmy joined the Bantam Blitz Buggy as three differing approaches to military spec and orders of 1,500 units were given to each of the three companies for field tests.  These tests led to production of the Bantam BRC 40.  Because Bantam could not churn vehicles out at the needed rate, contracts were also awarded to Willys and Ford for their own variations, the Willys MA (Military Model A) and the Ford GP.

The Willys-Overland Jeep MA

By mid 1941, only a year after the original request for bids, the decision was made by the government to standardize design.  Willys-Overland’s version won out, mostly because the grunt of its 60 horsepower “Go Devil” engine was popular with troops. Ford’s Pygmy had featured a massaged version of the Ford 9N tractor engine that barely met the 40 horsepower minimum spec, while Bantam used a Continental-sourced plant of similar output. Bantam and Ford features that had been improvements over the Willys MA were incorporated into what would become the MB, which we see here.  Ford would soon build a version of the MB (which it called GPW, with W referring to the Willys license) in order for the military to get the numbers needed once the US became committed to the war.

That Willys Go Devil engine was a 134 cubic inch (2.2 L) inline four that was a hoary old thing even in 1941, but which had a heck of a pedigree.  The engine went back to the 1926 Whippet, Willys’ attempt to compete with the low cost Model T. By 1938, the engine was good for an output of 48 horsepower, but was known for high wear and oil consumption.

Automotive history has recorded the deeds of many talented engineers, and few of them were more talented in his era than Delmar G. (“Barney”) Roos.  Roos had been Studebaker’s Chief Engineer from 1926 to 1936, an era noted for Studebaker’s renowned President straight eight, as well as the company’s early 1930s runs at Indianapolis.  After a brief time overseas with Rootes of England, Roos returned to become the Chief Engineer at Willys-Overland.  Special-Interest Autos magazine did a very nice piece about him many years ago.

 

Roos thoroughly updated the old Whippet powerplant with such things as modern insert bearings, aluminum pistons and a new crankshaft.  Its 60 bhp at 4,000 rpm made it the hot rod in the world of flathead fours, but it was the engine’s 105 ft. lbs of torque at 2,000 rpm that made it so good at what it would become so famous for doing.  And when it was time to improve the Go Devil into the equally famous Hurricane F head four, it would again be Barney Roos at the sliderule.

The Jeep MB would become an icon of America to most of the rest of the world by the end of the 1940s.  The little vehicle that could go anywhere in practically any conditions and which could withstand almost everything short of a direct hit by an explosive would be prized wherever examples were left as the military retreated back to its more traditional postwar roles.

This particular MB was restored in Navy trim, which was the reason that its longtime owner Bill was interested.  Bill had served on the USS Oglethorpe during the Korean conflict and spent a lot of wheeltime in Jeeps just like this one.  Unfortunately, Bill has been sidelined from driving recently, which led to a fascinating text message one evening a few months back.

 

“Would you like to check out a 1948 Jeep with me?  It belongs to a patient who invited me to look at it.”  I had no idea who this was from, until I realized that the sender was my doctor.  I really like my doctor, and one of the things I like about him is that he is a car nut.  I am fortunate that we can spend more of my annual physical visit talking cars than having actual medical things done to me.   So I did not hesitate to text back that I would love to.

After a few weeks, we met after work and drove to Bill’s house.  An accomplished pilot, mechanic and all around good guy, I enjoyed meeting Bill just as much as I enjoyed the chance to check out the Jeep.  Bill has enough respect for his machinery that he tries to find ways to give it some exercise from time to time.  And when offered the chance to drive it, I happily accepted.  More on that later today.

 

There may be other vehicles in history that had more of an impact on civilization than the Jeep MB (the Ford Model T and Volkswagen Beetle come to mind), but there are not many of them.  And this early Jeep may have had more affect on the subsequent history of its maker(s) than anything ever.  Most folks today have never heard of American Bantam, and few would argue that the Ford GP had any kind of lingering influence on anything in a blue oval showroom today.  A Jeep, however, is still very much a Jeep.  Sure, there is not a single part that interchanges between this MB and its progeny of  seventy-some years hence.  But is there any doubt that the modern Wrangler owes its very existence to this little piece of the Arsenal of Democracy?

In the beginning, Willys-Overland created the Jeep MB.  And the entire world saw that it was very, very good.