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Early Days: Belly Flopper To Civilian Jeep


Words Roger Gaisford

November 2016 marks the 75th year of Jeep production. US General Dwight Eisenhower regarded the Jeep, the C47 Dakota, the GMC 6×6 truck and the bulldozer as being the four most important pieces of equipment used during World War Two.

Built by Willys Overland Motors of Toledo, Ohio, the jeep was the progenitor of the classic light four-wheeldrive vehicles that roam our world today.

The Jeep had its genesis at the outbreak of the Second World War, when a highly mechanised German Army overran Poland, Holland, Belgium and France.

At the declaration of war by Britain and her Commonwealth and European Allies in early September 1939, the US President made an emergency proclamation increasing the size of the US Army.

The US Army Quartermaster subsequently issued specifications for vehicles to American motor-manufacturing concerns.

As part of this process, 135 companies were asked to submit tenders for the production of a prototype lightweight cross-country reconnaissance vehicle.

On 23 September 1940, Karl Probst of American Bantam delivered the first jeep type vehicle, the BRC-40, to the US Army military-vehicle-testing establishment at Camp Holabird in Maryland.

Willys Overland and Ford followed some months later. Their excellent engine saw Willys Overland securing the contract to produce the model MB for the US Army, and the first one was delivered to the US Army Quartermaster in mid-November 1941.

Much of the idea behind the jeep came from pioneering work by a Major Robert Howie and Sergeant Melvin Wiley, who developed a light cross-country vehicle that was said to perform like a “snake in the grass”.

This was a very low-profile rear wheel- drive vehicle, hardly more than a platform running on fat little tyres − which provided the only suspension.

Powered by a rear-mounted Austin Seven car engine, the Howie-Wiley Carrier was capable of about 45km/h.

The driver, and the gunner who operated a machine gun, lay prone on mattresses. There was no bodywork. Not surprisingly, the device became known as the Belly Flopper.