Perhaps no other vehicle of the US Army war effort concerning World War 2 was as iconic as the wartime "Jeep" (save perhaps the M3 Half Track and M4 Sherman). The vehicle was produced in the hundreds of thousands and proved one of the most multi-faceted and reliable platforms of the war. The vehicle was utilized wherever it was needed and along multiple fronts across varying climates. The system proved utterly popular all over the world and post-war usage was strong making it one of the most successful military vehicles ever produced. Many American allies procured the series and many are still in circulation today in private hands. While the comfortable civilian street Jeeps of today live on for younger generations (in brand name only), the "jeep" of World War 2 was an entirely different beast of rugged, robust and reliable qualities that many-a-service-member may have lived or died by.
The worsening situation in Europe during the 1930s finally culminated with the invasion of Poland by the German Army on September 1st, 1939 - officially marking the start of World War 2. Up to this point, the United States military was content on its neutrality and military budgets remained contained. It was believed that, should Germany attempt to invade France once again (as it did in World War 1), it would be soundly beaten by one of the largest and most modern European powers. However, this belief turned to horror when France fell to Germany in a short few weeks from May to June of 1940. The situation in Europe has formally reached a crisis point and the French "buffer" once counted upon across the Atlantic was lost for both the United States and Britain. For the former, thought was no given to modernizing the military in all ways imaginable and budgets soon expanded to follow suit.
The US Army's Quartermaster's Corps (a logistically-minded branch of the Army) was in need of an all-wheel drive 4x4 Command & Reconnaissance (C&R) light vehicle. The desire for such a vehicle stemmed as far back as the 1920s when large, hulking and cumbersome armored cars were still en vogue. The formal requirement was written up in June of 1940 for an all-terrain system of 1,300lbs in the quarter ton hauling range. Dimensions were to follow military-minded specifications for good ground clearance, overall compactness for transportability and a multirole design. The major caveat in the requirement was the requirement of a completed pilot (prototype) vehicle to be completed within 50 days of the contract signing. In turn, there lay the promise of a riches through a potentially lucrative and long term US Army contract. This requirement went out to some 135 possible suitors with only three responding - American-Bantam (Bantam), Willys-Overland (Willys) and Ford Motor Company (Ford).
Bantam, having fallen on hard times in the civilian automotive field, had the most to gain while Ford was already being committed to civilian and military projects, affording to lose out on the C&R contract. Willys held an automotive shake in the world already and limited production capabilities made it something of a long-shot to succeed. Since Bantam was the only concern to reach the "under-50 days" challenge with their proposal it was rightfully awarded the US Army contract to produce a pilot vehicle.
Bantam responded with a design envisioned by consultant engineer Karl Probst. The product became an overweight 2,000lb offering with strong performance qualities through its Continental gasoline engine of 45 horsepower. The US Army overlooked the weight issue and concentrated on the strong automotive system of the design, eventually granting a contract for 69 vehicles based on the pilot. Deliveries of these examples were slated for the early part of 1941. Unsure of Bantam's mass production capabilities, the US Army saw fit to pass along the Bantam design work to both Willys and Ford which, naturally, responded with their own working prototypes all based on Bantam's design. The Willys submission ("Model A" or "MA") was powered by the in-house "Go Devil" gasoline engine of 60 horsepower and weighed 2,500lbs. The Ford submission ("Government Pygmy" or "GP") was powered by an in-house Fordson gasoline engine of 40 horsepower and topped the scales at 2,200lbs. With access to the Bantam design, both the Willys and Ford pilot vehicles appeared very similar to the original.
With the three designs now finalized and all meeting the US Army criteria, 1,500 examples were requested from all three players for active evaluations by in-the-field units. Deliveries occurred from April of 1941 onwards and, after extensive testing, it was the Willys design that struck the loudest chord with personnel. In July of 1941, a divided Army eventually settled on and formally selected the Willys design and ordered 16,000 of the type as the "Model B" (or "MB"). Its long form designation was to become "Truck, Quarter Ton, 4x4" and the nickname of "Jeep", while having been associated with many vehicles types up to this point, eventually stuck with the design in time.
The finalized Willys MB was outfitted with the Willy-Overland "Go Devil" 4-cylinder engine of 60 horsepower. The engine was based on a Willys-Overland original automobile design that outputted at only 48 horsepower - though a turn at the engineer's table soon squeezed much more power from the little arrangement. Construction of the chassis, frame and automotive parts proved solid, making a noticeable impression on US Army representatives. The entire vehicle also came in under cost when compared to its competitors in trials so long term procurement in the tens of thousands was almost assured. Overall, the MB was a rather conventional system with unassisted steering through a traditional wheel-and-column approach, driver placement at the front right, and seating for one side passenger and three additional rear passengers across a bench running the width of the vehicle. The manual transmission was managed through a floor-mounted control stick. The engine was fitted to a forward compartment accessed through a hinged hood (which was made flat for additional onboard stowage options as opposed to the prototype's rounded covering) while the windscreen could fold down for a lower traveling/transport profile. Wheels were set at each extreme corner of the chassis across two axles and fully suspended. An optional tarp could be affixed atop a structural assembly for protection from the elements. The general "jeep" image was born through the vertical grill slats and high-mounted rounded headlamps. Operational speeds reached up to 65 miles per hour on ideal surfaces and operational ranges were approximately 300 miles.