1944 Willys MB Jeep Retro Review: This Is America’s Real Sports Car

To help celebrate the sacrifices made by America’s servicemen in their greatest of causes, join us as we revisit this MotorTrend Classic story on the piece of equipment that helped the Allies win the war, the Willys MB—the predecessor to today’s Jeep Wrangler.

Willie and Joe’s Jeep was a luxury car because they’d otherwise be marching into combat carrying gear and rifles on their backs without one. During World War II, the Jeep was as much a character as the two “dogface” Army grunts in Bill Mauldin’s editorial cartoons.

Enzo Ferrari, who probably saw more than a few rolling through Modena, Italy, in his day, was impressed.

“The Jeep is America’s only real sports car,” he said.

“It’s an American icon. It’s a symbol of America,” says Patrick Foster, auto historian and author of, among other books, The Story of Jeep and Standard Catalog of Jeep, 1940-2003.

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The American Austin Car Company of Butler, Pennsylvania, began selling a version of the tiny Austin 7 here in 1930, and in 1933 showed the U.S. Army its prototype for the Light Cross-Country Car, says World War II historian and author Ren Bernier in his article “Bantam’s jeep.” But the experimental Bantam was deemed too small for the Army’s needs.

American Austin filed for bankruptcy in 1934, reorganizing as American Bantam. In 1939, Bernier writes, Bantam sent a representative to Europe to survey light Army cars, and he reported on such vehicles as the German Army’s Kübelwagen, designed by Ferndinand Porsche.

Bantam lobbied War Secretary Harry Stimson for a contract to build a light Army reconnaissance vehicle. On June 6, 1940, Bantam lobbyist Harry Payne and Infantry Lieutenant Colonel William Lee outlined seven characteristics the vehicle should have, predictably matching a Bantam Roadster’s size and weight. When the Army’s Quartermaster Corps sketched a light recon car, Bantam figured it had a solid partnership with the government.

Not so fast. On July 11, 1940, the Quartermaster Corps mailed an invitation for bids to 134 manufacturers, calling for 70 units of a four-seat, quarter-ton vehicle with a 40-horsepower or more inline four-cylinder engine and four-wheel drive with two-speed transfer case. Maximum weight was 1270 pounds.

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American Bantam entered “because they were really desperate,” Foster says. In the year between Germany’s invasion of Poland and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, automakers were still making cars for sale to the public. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just recruited William S. Knudsen from General Motors to lead his war production initiative. Bantam received its invite via the U.S. mail five days before the design deadline. The next day, Bernier writes, Bantam president Frank Fenn hired independent engineer Karl Probst, known for his ability to draw automotive layouts quickly. He worked around the clock to finish a design by July 22.

“Willys was not as desperate,” Foster says. Engineering vice president Delmar “Barney” Roos prepared a GP prototype, but his entry lacked details, and he requested more time.

The government had more confidence in Toledo, Ohio-based Willys-Overland’s production resources than Bantam’s, though Willys had filed  for bankruptcy reorganization in 1936. Its compact four-cylinder cars undercut the price of Chevy and Plymouth sixes and Ford V-8s.

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“The Quartermaster Corps wanted from the get-go to have Ford build the Jeep” because of its strength and resources, Bernier continues from his office at Bowdoin College. Bantam was confident no competitor would come close to the specification’s weight limit. Its own four-cylinder engine made half the 40-horsepower minimum, so Bantam fitted its entry with a 46-horse Continental four. Bantam won a contract for 70 vehicles, with a prototype to be delivered to the Army’s Camp Holabird, Maryland, proving grounds by September 23.

Bantam Reconnaissance Car #1, BRC, looked like the World War II Jeep we know, except for its curved hood and rounded front clip, not the flat pieces that would make the Jeep so easy to build and repair. It weighed 1,840 pounds, 570 more than the prescribed limit. Bantam delivered the prototype to Camp Holabird on September 22, where it performed beautifully before the eyes of the Quartermaster Corps, with Ford and Willys representatives also in attendance.

“Much to the horror and surprise of the Bantam engineers,” Bernier writes in “Bantam’s jeep,” “Bob Brown, a civilian engineer for Holabird, provided the Willys and Ford representatives copies of Bantam’s blueprints and engineering data, as well as full access to the Bantam prototype car.” The Quartermaster, he writes, encouraged the two competitors to develop similar prototypes.

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After tweaking BRC #1, the Army ordered 500 reconnaissance cars each from Bantam, Willys, and Ford. Bantam protested, and the Quartermaster Corps explained that there was a shortage of constant velocity joints from its supplier. Spicer Manufacturing required orders for 1500 vehicles to justify mass-production tooling.

Willys began testing its prototype, the Quad, on November 13, 1940. It was much heavier than the BRC, though its big advantage was its 63-horsepower “Go-Devil.” Willys’ four was unreliable until the company hired Floyd Kishline from Packard in 1938 to redesign it, with aluminum pistons, a counterweighted crankshaft, a camshaft with increased valve lift, a new combustion chamber with a high compression ratio, a new timing chain with friction damping, larger intake valves, and full-length water jackets. Still, the Quad suffered a fractured frame, badly worn cylinders, and other failures after 5000 miles of testing.

Ford built its last four-cylinder car engine in 1934, so its prototype, called the Pygmy, used a Ford 9N tractor engine.

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The Army reset the weight limit to 2,160 pounds, and each automaker built another 1500 pilot units. Willys’ proposal tipped the scales at 2,420 pounds, according to Foster. Sounding like the legend (since disputed) of Mercedes-Benz’s W25 Silver Arrows car with white paint scraped off to meet a 1,654 pound limit, Willys chief engineer Roos shortened the length of bolts and cotter pins, redid some of the body panels in higher-strength steel and gave his entry just one coat of olive drab.

The Willys MA (military, first model) “met the 2,160 pound target with seven ounces to spare,” Foster’s book says. “Tests by various Army units and the Infantry Board determined that the Willys was the best performer by far.”

While partisans argue for either the BRC 40 (1940 model year) or the Ford GP (G for government contract, P meant 80-inch wheelbase), the Mark II model, as the “true” first Universal Jeep, was really an amalgam of all three. Bantam could claim credit for the basic roadster body. Ford contributed the flat hood and nine-slat grille. Willys had the right engine.

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It was not named for a “Popeye” cartoon character. Soldiers and military mechanics applied the “jeep” nickname to virtually any new conveyance, land, sea, or air, by World War I. In February 1941, Willys demonstrated its MA driving up U.S. Capitol steps. Washington Daily News syndicated columnist Katherine Hillyer asked what it was. Willys test driver Irving “Red” Haussman replied, “It’s a jeep.”

World War II government documents show Bantam bid $788.32 per Jeep, Foster says, with Ford undercutting it at $782.59. The government couldn’t ignore Willys’ bid of $748.74. This was enough to buy Willie or Joe a 1941 Chevy Master Deluxe town sedan, at $754.

On a subsequent 16,000-unit order, Bernier writes, Willys got access to Spicer’s complete CV joint supply while Ford built its own. Bantam was pushed out and spent the rest of its war production building quarter-ton Jeep trailers and torpedo motors.

For the bulk of the war effort, Universal Jeep production consisted of the Willys MB, which had adapted Ford’s nine-slat grille, and the Ford GPW (W for Willys), with the Go-Devil four, which Ford also built in its own factory. Next to the Willys MB and Ford GPW, Britain’s MG TC roadster is a luxury GT.

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“There isn’t a single decorative item on it at all,” Bernier says. “And yet, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Top up doesn’t feel much different from top down, though the lid comes off more easily than it does on 1990s or early 2000s Wranglers. There are no seatbelts, but rather “doorbelts” to attach across the front-seat cutouts to help you feel more confident around fast corners on the flat canvas seat. Those seats are small and uncomfortable, and the driver’s seat covers the gas tank. The rear seat is meant to accommodate two soldiers and their gear, though it looks barely wide enough to handle one well-fed general. The Go-Devil whine and grinding of the three gears would sound familiar to any Sam Fuller devotee. It’s easy and intuitive to drive and the engine is smooth, with an idle more docile than many modern fours. The 1944 Willys MB here, recently restored for Chrysler LLC, starts without a key. Flick a switch on the lower left of the flat steel “dashboard,” pull the choke lever—”it likes a lot of choke,” a handler says—and use your right foot to push the ignition button to the right of the throttle pedal. It starts quickly. The three-speed gearbox uses the H pattern, though there’s enough vagueness in the non-synchro transmission that you might think you’re between gears when you’ve actually engaged first. The clutch is as light and progressive as a modern Honda’s, even while you’re grinding gears.

The bus-like steering wheel is practically in your gut. The steering is light and quick, perhaps too quick for the Jeep’s small, tall stance. With lots of low-end torque, the Willys feels quicker and faster than it is. You’re zipping along and the engine warns you to shift out of first at an indicated 20 mph and out of second around 40. Throws feel short for such a long, spindly shifter. The manufacturer’s plate on the dash lists top speed at 65 mph, though “55 is downright frightening,” Bernier says. His Jeep will run 40 to 45 mph “all day long.”

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The turning circle is tight and the “handling” isn’t bad for a 67-year-old, 130-inch-long 4×4 on a narrow track and skinny off-road tires. Its ride is not unpleasant, and the beefy leaf springs manage rough terrain quite capably. The dimensions suggest you should keep the speeds down over bumps that could challenge its stability, and yet its stiff suspension and directional stability restore confidence. The 1944 MB ran like a top most of the day, until the fuel pump gave out while on a muddy off-road gully. On the combat field, you could cannibalize another Willys or Ford.

By VE-Day, Willys had built 360,000 MBs, 1,555 of its earlier MAs and two Quad prototypes. Ford built 277,896 GPWs, 4,458 GP Pygmys, and two Pygmy prototypes. American-Bantam built 2675 Universal jeeps. Soldiers pushed many of them off ships returning after VE-Day. One WWII Jeep was recently discovered buried in the mud at Normandy, Foster says.

General George C. Marshall called the Jeep “America’s greatest contribution to modern warfare.” Washington Daily News war correspondent Ernie Pyle said,

“Good Lord, I don’t think we could continue without the Jeep.”

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Willys went on to produce the postwar Universal Jeep, beginning with the CJ-2A, a civilian version of the MB with a three-on-the-tree. With the headlamps moved from atop the fenders to within the front stamping, Willys cut the number of grille slats from nine down to seven.

Bill Mauldin returned from the war to draw political editorial cartoons. Willys, through a number of owners, expanded the Jeep line while the MB’s basic look and body configuration has carried on right up to the current Wrangler. Ford got into financial trouble after World War II, but saved itself with the all-new 1949 models. In 1948, Bantam filed suit with the Federal Trade Commission. It lost, and in 1950, filed for bankruptcy liquidation. Bantam hadn’t built a motor vehicle in nine years.

Special thanks to Patrick Foster and Ren Bernier for their help uncovering the Universal Jeep’s history. Photo location courtesy Hunters Creek Club, Metamora, Michigan. hunterscreekclub.com

SPECIFICATIONS

Engine: 134.2-cu-in/2199cc L-Head I-4, 1×1-bbl Carter W0-539 carburetor

Power and torque: 60 hp @ 4000 rpm, 105 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm

Drivetrain: 3-speed manual, 4WD with low range

Suspension: front, live axle and leaf springs; rear, live axle and leaf springs

Brakes: front, drum; rear, drum

Dimensions (L X W x H): 129.9 x 59.0 in x 67.3 in

Price When New: $748.74

ASK THE MAN WHO OWNS ONE

Ren Bernier is a lab instructor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, a World War II historian, and author of WWII Jeep Guidebook: Buying, Owning and Enjoying Your WWII Jeep. He currently has a 1942 Ford GPW that served duty overseas in the war, and a Bantam trailer.

WHY I LIKE IT: “It’s about the most recognizable vehicle in the world. You don’t even have to speak English to know it’s a Jeep.”

WHY IT’S COLLECTIBLE: “Because of the significant history and contribution to the Allied effort in World War II.”

RESTORING/MAINTAINING: “Flat olive drab paint is very forgiving. Plus it’s mostly flat panels. It’s a great entry-level restoration.” You’ll find them in every possible condition, he says.

BEWARE: Rust, of course, and post-war modifications like snowplows, which wear and damage front suspensions. Look for pop-rivets and bondo. Willys and Ford built them quickly and cheaply, so uneven welds aren’t uncommon. MD Juan in the Philippines builds most every reproduction part for the original Universal Jeep, so you can build yourself a “new” one.

EXPECT TO PAY: Concours, with a history: $35,000 Parade/Reenactment ready: $8500-$15,000 Restoration prospect: $3500

JOIN THE CLUB: Military Vehicle Preservation Association, mvpa.org

OUR TAKE

THEN: “Those accustomed to Detroit’s plusher products might be a little shocked at the Jeep’s interior. Perhaps the most revealing thing is that so much of the interior is also the exterior. Everything about the Jeep is picked not for décor, but for durability. “—Bob Ames, “Driving Willys’ CJ-5 Universal Jeep,” Motor Trend, September 1961

NOW: Even after 70 years, the Universal Jeep/CJ/Wrangler is the same no-nonsense off-roader it always has been. It’s America’s Porsche 911.

Bastard Child

In 70 years, Jeep has survived eight owners from four countries. Here’s the synopsis.
1946-49: Brooks Stevens designs the Jeep pickup, box truck, station wagon, delivery sedan, and Jeepster ragtop.
1952: Willys revives its passenger car business with its new Aero compacts.
1953: Kaiser Motors buys Willys-Overland for $60.8 million, forming Willys Motors Inc.
1955-56: Kaiser Motors Corporation ends Kaiser and Aero Willys production in late ’55, then reorganizes into a holding company that includes Willys in ’56.
1963: Willys Jeep is renamed Kaiser Jeep.
1969: Kaiser buys 22 percent of American Motors Corporation.
1970: AMC buys Jeep from Kaiser for $70 million, renames Kaiser Jeep the Jeep Corporation.
1971: AMC establishes wholly owned subsidiary AM General, separate from Jeep.
1979: AM General designs the M988 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV, or Hum-Vee).
1980-83: Renault buys 46.4 percent of AMC.
1983: LTV Corporation buys AM General from AMC. AMC buys 31.6 percent of China’s Beijing Jeep.
1987: Renault sells AMC to Chrysler Corporation for $1.1 billion. Chrysler phases out AMC, but not Jeep.
1992: AM General begins civilian Hummer production.
1998: Daimler-Benz buys Chrysler Corporation for $37 billion.
2002-09: General Motors markets Hummers. DaimlerChrysler sues GM over the seven-slot grille. It’s dismissed because of the history between Jeep and Hummer.
2007: Cerberus Capitol Management pays Daimler $7.4 billion for Chrysler.
2009: Chrysler undergoes bankruptcy reorganization, with Fiat granted management control and minority ownership in Chrysler, forming Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
2020: FCA agrees to merge with France’s PSA, purveyor of Peugeots and Citröens, among other makes. The merged company takes the name Stellantis.

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