The story of the
BANTAM JEEP
(and how the standard WW2 jeep really came into being)


 
 

Despite over 50 years having passed, many people are still able to recognise a WW2 jeep, most referring to it simply as a 'Willys'. It is likely that they therefore also believe that the ubiquitous jeep with its unmistakable grille must have been conceived, designed and built by Willys Overland but the reality is somewhat different. It actually owes its existence to the American Bantam Car Company and the genius of Karl K Probst. The story goes like this:

In 1930 Austin of England founded the American Austin Car Company in the United States. Unfortunately, economical little cars never proved popular there and by 1934 the company was almost bankrupt. It was taken over by its Chairman, Roy Evans, who re-launched it as the American Bantam Car Company. He retained the small car concept based on the original Austin design but made improvements and increased the range of models available.

As early as 1938 Bantam had spotted the potential of a light reconnaissance vehicle for military use and lent the National Guard three of its Austin based Roadsters to evaluate. The company continued to press the case for such a vehicle until a meeting with the Military was finally arranged at the Bantam factory on June 19th 1940. Worried by the mobility and ease with which the German Army had taken France and intelligence reports that the Germans were about to convert the Volkswagen for military use, they at last showed a real interest in Bantam's proposal.

A series of meetings developed Bantam's original car based proposal into a military specification for a 4 x 4 hybrid car / truck type vehicle weighing not more than 590kg. Aware of Bantam's limited design and production facilities and the fact that the company was not financially sound it was decided to offer other manufacturers the opportunity to tender as well. The overall task was to design and submit 70 finished vehicles for evaluation (including 8 with 4 x 4 ). A prototype had to be delivered within 49 days, the rest within 75 days. The rather unrealistic weight limit resulted in no interest being shown by traditional truck manufacturers like Dodge or GMC and initially only Bantam and Willys responded to be joined later by Ford in submitting designs and prototype vehicles for evaluation.

Bantam GPV prototype delivered on time in September 1940

Bantam persuaded Karl Probst, a freelance engineer, to head their project and when the drawings for the tenders were examined by the Military on July 22, Probst's vehicle came closest to matching the specification though Bantam did conceal the fact that their vehicle was likely to be a little over the weight limit. An order was placed and by the end of September Probst had completed the drawings, sourced the parts and the Bantam prototype was delivered. Having tested it to destruction and being satisfied with its performance, the army commissioned 70 more to be built. Despite Willys failing to submit a prototype by the deadline and Ford showing little interest in the project at all at this time, both manufacturers were allowed access to the trials of the Bantam prototype and subsequently to Probst's drawings. Willys and Ford prototype models, the Quad and the Pygmy, were to follow in that order but clearly outside both the time and weight limits.

Trials continued into the Winter of 1940 and should have resulted in an outright winner. The Bantam GPV (General Purpose Vehicle) had been delivered on time and met the specification in most respects. It performed well bearing in mind the nature of prototypes and minor defects were soon corrected. It also had many recognisable features of the later standardised jeep. However, the Military identified strengths and weaknesses in each vehicle. The Bantam was considered too high off the ground and under powered. The Willys Quad had a more powerful engine but was far too heavy. The Ford Pygmy had the best steering (though linkages were easily damaged) but its tractor engine had insufficient power.

There was also concern about Bantam’s limited production capability and that even Willys Overland might not cope given the imminent need for a very large number of these vehicles. All of this resulted in a political decision in March 1941 that all three companies would receive an initial order for 1500 vehicles each, provided that they met the original specification though the permitted weight had now been increased.

1941 trials from left to right: Bantam, Willys MA and the Ford GP

Vehicles that looked remarkably similar during the trials became even more alike as each company adapted their design and copied the better ideas from each other or from Probst's plans ready for the first production runs. However, in July 1941 the military decided that standardisation was needed, it being impractical to operate and maintain three different designs. All three vehicles now performed well but it was decided that the Willys design represented the best overall value for money at $739 (compared with $1166 for a Bantam) and it was adopted as the standard army vehicle.Willys secured the contract to provide the next 16,000 vehicles.

In awarding Willys the contract, the army produced a list of improvements and alterations that were required. Apart from general improvements to the battery, generator, air filter and fuel tank, the standard jeep was now to have blackout lights, sealed beam headlights, pioneer tools (axe and shovel), double bow canvas tilt, trailer socket, centre dash handbrake control and radio suppression. The classic standard jeep design was about to emerge.

The 40 BRC (the production version of the Bantam) was now no longer required by the US Army as it was 'non-standard'. The Bantams already in service with the army together with the continued output from the factory were passed to the British and Russian armies under the terms of the Lend-Lease Act. Interestingly, having observed the trials, the Russian Purchasing Commission wanted the Bantam by choice.

The photograph (opposite) shows a typical British marked Bantam 40 BRC in the colours of the 6th Armoured Division complete with .303 Bren gun mount on the passenger side. The vehicle's light weight also made it particularly suited for use by British airborne units in North Africa.

By the end of October 1941 the army were keen to find a second source of supply for two reasons;Willys could no longer keep up with the growing demand for jeeps and there was the need to safeguard the supply of jeeps against the Willys plant being bombed or sabotaged.

In early November Ford were awarded their first contract to build 15,000 jeeps to the Willys design specification from Willys drawings. The Willys MB and Ford GPW varied in minor detail only as the Military insisted that the parts be interchangeable. With the increased supply it was now possible to supply the standard MB/GPW vehicles under Lend-Lease arrangements and production of the Bantam 40 BRC was phased out. Interestingly, it was Ford who designed the pressed radiator grille to replace the heavier and more costly slat grille of the early Willys MA design. Willys then incorporated this into their definitive MB model.

 

In all, 2675 Bantam 40 BRC vehicles were built, 62 of which had four-wheel steer as requested by the US Cavalry (photo right). Sadly, the company never again produced vehicles. Having been first to suggest and build a 'jeep', Bantam was made to share Probst's plans with competitors then lost out in securing any work under contracts for the universal jeep and spent the rest of the war building trailers, aircraft parts and torpedo motors.

The following additional information on four-wheel steer Bantams was provided by Kevin T. Graham of Elkhorn, WI:

Several years ago I went to Grand Rapids, MI to visit a former Design Engineer from the Checker Car Co. He told my father & me how Checker almost collaborated with Bantam to make jeeps for the gov't. Checker actually produced three jeeps to the BRC40 design with 4-wheel steer & Checker logo on the dash instrument panel. Only one complete Checker jeep remains and was observed & photographed by me at the Hickory Corners Auto Museum in Michigan. As luck would have it the photos turned out poorly. The old designer, Jim Stout, said he still had remnants of a Checker in an outbuilding on his property but did not want to show us. The Checker jeep also had a spotlight mounted on the side of the windshield assembly.

This resulted in the following response from Bill Spear in the U.S. who believes that these vehicles were not built by Checker but were shipped to Kalamazoo by Bantam or possibly by some other non QM corps Army unit in an attempt to find some production capacity and to try to head off the railroad job going on at the Quartermasters Corps.

The Checker story which is now just unfolding with this car I am beginning to believe (but am not willing to be quoted on as yet) is still another attempt by a larger company to try to take credit for Bantam's accomplishments. Until now it has been loudly proclaimed that Checker Motors (they built Checker cabs and had very substantial production capacity, badly needed by Bantam to head off the Quartermaster Corps, Ford and Willys from stealing their product). In fact these three "Checker" cars are Bantams built in Butler PA as far as I can tell, or anyone else...however I am willing to stand corrected if someone can show me anything at all done by Checker to these cars before they were sent to the Army for testing. (They may have disassembled and assembled them to try to figure out a bid price...)

Bill also wrote the following which I have decided to use as an epilogue on this page:

The thing we are all fighting is the constant disregard for the fact that Bantam and in particular Karl Probst did indeed develop the "jeep" and were delivering actual product to the Army almost before Willys had even developed an approved prototype. Moreover, the Army made the Bantam plans available to both Willys and Ford almost as soon as they were drawn, and in addition gave them complete access to the actual car once a prototype was delivered (in an incredible 49 days)...I am still researching it but I think it could possibly be shown that Bantams may be said to be the first jeeps to actually be employed in hostile action in that many were sent to Russia and England as part of the lend lease program (of the three versions the Russians, who were actually fighting the Wehrmacht chose the Bantam over the Willys and Ford!...).

Bill has an excellent site where you can find out more about the Bantam Car Company, Bantam jeeps and the Checker jeep saga. If you have any information to offer regarding the Bantam / Checker connection Bill would also like to hear from you. His e-mail address is: bill@wmspear.com

Links

Photos of a restored Bantam in the U.K

Bill Spear's Bantam Site (U.S)

Checker jeep page (on the above site)

On the trail of jeep history - Bantam

Pacific Restoration of a Bantam Jeep

 

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