What the world learned from the invention of the Jeep

The spring and summer of 1940 witnessed the resounding defeats of the French army and British Expeditionary Force at the hands of modernized German troops, designed to take advantage of the latest advances in technology. These included mobile vehicles and tanks used in formation to blast through enemy lines, as well as combined ground and air tactics. The evacuation of the British from Dunkirk and the final defeat of their French allies in June 1940 left only a thin line of English fighter planes between that island nation and total defeat.

Meanwhile, leaders of the United States Army, decimated by demobilization after World War I and budget cuts during the Great Depression, knew they were completely unprepared for this new type of mobile warfare called “blitzkrieg,” a German term meaning “lightning war.”

Though experts in the U.S. Army had worked from the end of World War I to develop a combination light weapons carrier and command and reconnaissance vehicle, no perfect model had yet been developed by 1940. In June of that same year, the Army compiled a list of requirements for a revolutionary new truck to replace the mule as the Army’s primary method of moving troops and small payloads. The resulting vehicle from those requirements became known as the Jeep.

While three firms — the American Bantam Car Co. of Butler, Pennsylvania; Willys-Overland Motors Inc. located in Toledo, Ohio; and the Ford Motor Co, headquartered in Dearborn, Michigan — , would build prototypes for this vehicle, they all employed approximately the same approach to create an astonishingly innovative vehicle within very short time frames. This paradigm for innovation included the following principles:

1) Establish impossible visionary goal(s).

2) Form a small exceptionally talented team set apart from bureaucracy to pursue the visionary goal(s).

3) Allow the team unlimited flexibility to create but limit the time frame.

American Bantam had gone bankrupt in early 1940, so they were challenged to achieve a nearly impossible accomplishment with limited resources in only forty-nine 49 days. On the other hand, however, it meant the Bantam team had no bureaucracy to worry about. They fielded a core team of four exceedingly skilled individuals, each an expert in a specific area, to hand-build their pilot model in an impossible time frame. On the deadline day of Sept. 23, 1940, the Butler firm delivered their vehicle to Camp Holabird, Maryland, at that time the Army’s main depot for motor vehicles—. They had just a half hour to spare!

To Bantam the Army’s project represented an all-or-nothing gamble. Since they had nothing to lose, they used maximum flexibility to create, yet still had to deliver in the unheard-of time frame of 49 days. The combination of an impossible visionary goal, small incredibly talented team set apart from bureaucracy, with unlimited flexibility to create, resulted in an immortal product, the first Jeep. The builders named their vehicle the Bantam Reconnaissance Car.

Willys-Overland, conveniently not bankrupt, also used a primary group of four individuals. Like Bantam, each came to the project as very skilled in their respective core competencies. They followed the same process as Bantam, but being larger, they could pursue a more structured approach. Their team-lead held the title of vice president in charge of engineering, which meant he had the clout to overcome bureaucratic issues.

Willys had a stronger balance sheet than Bantam, admittedly a low bar. However, they had struggled during the Depression of the 1930s. The new Army-mandated vehicle represented a potential path back to profitability. That opportunity aided in keeping bureaucracy at bay and creativity at the maximum. The Willys team completed their work in a respectable 2½ months, or approximately 75 days. On Nov. 13, 1940, they delivered their prototype — the Willys Quad — to the Army.

The third actor in the drama, Ford Motor Co. utilized a core team of just two. However, being a much larger organization than either Bantam or Willys, these individuals called upon numerous departments to complete their prototype. Beginning in early October 1940, in about a 45-day build that followed the same innovation paradigm as their competitors, the Ford product, dubbed the Pygmy, rolled into Holabird on Nov. 23, 1940. Ford benefited greatly from Bantam’s and Willys’ data, which the Army Quartermaster Corp. had shared with them, thus significantly shortened their learning curve and build time.

Each team had some variance from the core innovation principles exposed here.

However, the short time frame each had to build their prototype to the Army’s visionary requirements necessitated using a small exceptionally talented team, unencumbered by bureaucracy with unlimited flexibility to create, in order to get the job done. The paradigm used to build the original Jeeps represents a methodology that organizations can use today to foster innovation that gets enduring results.

Paul Bruno, a Henderson resident, is the author of the book, “The Original Jeeps,” and has more than 30 years of experience in the fields of project management and information technology. He holds bachelor’s degrees in management and computer software, as well as master’s degrees in business administration and history. He can be contacted at

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