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Four Wheels for How Long? the History of Jeep Cars

There are many iconic cars in the world. From Ford’s Model-T through the Bugatti Veyron, some cars have a special place in our hearts (and bucket lists). But can you say that there is any more iconic a brand than Jeep? 

Probably not.

Jeep cars have been around over 75 years and are heavily featured in numerous movies and television shows. Remember the Wranglers in Jurassic Park? What about Daisy Duke’s Dixie?

Jeep cars are interwoven with American culture and history. But where did Jeep get its start? Read on to learn all about the history of Jeep!

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It Started with World War II

Jeep didn’t start out as it’s own brand. In fact, it didn’t even start as a car available to consumers. Rather, it was a term coined by the US military.

Jeep began on July 16, 1941, well into World War II. About a year prior, the American War Department recognized that the troops needed some kind of reconnaissance vehicle for use in the field. As with all building efforts put forth by the US government, the War Department requested auto manufacturers submit bids to build this vehicle — a Jeep.

Only two manufacturers responded: American Bantam Car Co. and Willys-Overland. Bantam developed the first prototype Jeep, but it was scrapped due to concerns about capacity. The War Department then invited Willys-Overland to create a new prototype using Bantam’s designs.

After about a year of development and multiple submissions by Bantam, Willys, and Ford, the War Department selected Willys to manufacture its reconnaissance vehicles. So, Willys-Overland Motor Co. contracted with the American military to produce what would become the Willys MB.

But so did Ford. The War Department later awarded Ford a contract to produce Jeeps for them. Between Ford and Willys, over 637,000 Jeeps were manufactured for World War II efforts. 

Much of the Jeep Wrangler’s iconic design — from the grille to the round headlights — was actually developed by Ford.

From Military to Civilian Life

How Jeep transitioned from a military vehicle to a civilian vehicle is murky. Willys, not Ford, decided to continue producing the Jeep after the end of World War II. They took the MB design and added a tailgate, this became the Willys CJ-2A — the design that would later become the Wrangler.

But how did it become such a popular vehicle when its only previous use was for war efforts? Well, Willys sold at least 15 percent of its vehicles overseas. This effort was aided by the fact that the US Army never brought back the Jeeps it used in the war. So, all Jeeps were left overseas and were getting facetime with international citizens.

This doesn’t mean that Willys was an instant success with consumers. In fact, most of what Willys produced were military vehicles. Civilian vehicles were certainly an important aspect of their business, but they were not the source of Willys’ profits.

Things really didn’t start picking up steam until Kaiser Manufacturing purchased Willys-Overland in 1953. Then, in 1963, Kaiser changed its name to Kaiser-Jeep Corp.

Jeep Cars Changing Hands

Jeep, while an iconic brand, has not been so good to anyone who has owned the company. The company has changed hands enough times to make your head spin.

It was only six short years after Willys merged with Kaiser and became Kaiser-Jeep that the company was sold. In 1969, American Motors purchased Kaiser-Jeep, which was probably not the best decision based on their weak finances at the time. Thankfully, French automaker Renault came forward and purchased 25 percent of AMC in 1978, allowing the Jeep to continue to flourish.

While under AMC, many of today’s well-known Jeeps were born. The XJ Cherokee came in 1984, and it was the first unibody SUV on the market. It was a beautifully designed SUV with superior off-road capability, and thus it stayed in production for 18 years.

In 1987, however, AMC was purchased by Chrysler Corp. in an effort to beef up the company’s offerings. Chrysler also purchased Renault’s 25 percent interest in the company. It was a great move for Chrysler as Jeep’s popularity was beginning to soar.

Then, in 1998, Chrysler merged with Daimler AG and became DaimlerChrysler. During this time, Jeep made some incredible design decisions about its iconic Wrangler, including the creation of the four-door Wrangler Unlimited.

Unfortunately, Chrysler also made some bad decisions when they created the Compass and Patriot models. Many consider these not to be true Jeep vehicles and they can be tremendous money pits with all the repairs they require.

Lastly, during the mid-2000s recession, Daimler paid $675 million to have Chrysler and Jeep removed from the company. Chrysler then filed bankruptcy in 2009 and relied on government bailouts to survive.

Jeep Today

Today, Jeep is owned in part by Fiat, and they are selling more and more vehicles each production year. Jeep is not just popular in America, but in the global market as well. 

There are many people so dedicated to Jeeps that they have meetup groups and spend a significant amount of time and money modifying their Jeeps. As a result, many specialty parts businesses have sprung up. Click here for more about Jeep specialty parts.

It is clear that Jeeps will continue to be one America (and the world’s) most revered auto manufacturers for a long time to come.

Ready to Cruise With the Top Off?

“Beep beep, who got the keys to the Jeep?” Even Missy Elliott knows that Jeeps are what’s up. Jeep cars are a huge part of American history. 

If you’re not already a Jeep owner, you’re probably wanting one right about now. There’s nothing like off-roading in a Jeep Wrangler with the top off. Or, if you prefer something more sophisticated, cruising around in the elegant and sporty Jeep Grand Cherokee.

If you’re a Jeep owner, know that every time you get in your Jeep, you are getting in an American classic.

Need help fixing up your current Jeep? We’ve got you covered. Check out our Jeep service repair manuals and you’ll be back on the road in no time!