As the Blitzkrieg blinded Allied troops in the summer of 1940, a devastated American military and three automobile manufacturers tackled a challenge from the U.S. Army. That challenge led to the birth one of the most iconic and versatile vehicles of the 20th Century: the Jeep. In his new book “The Original Jeeps” author Paul Bruno examines how Germany’s “Lightning War” sparked American ingenuity in a way that’s worth celebrating in these divided times.
A follow-up to Bruno’s 2014 debut book “Project Management in History: The First Jeep,” the new book chronicles an oft-overlooked chapter in American wartime history. Created in a moment of historic desperation, with a military demobilized after World War I and an economy crippled by The Great Depression, the era created a pressure-cooker climate for innovation.
The U.S. Army needed a combination light-weapons carrier and command and reconnaissance vehicle that could speed the US to victory. Three companies— Willys Overland-Motors, Inc., the American Bantam Car Company and the Ford Motor Company— rose to the occasion by creating a vehicle that focused on utility on the battlefield while also paving the way for the recreational vehicle craze.
The importance of resolve
The resolve displayed by Toledo automotive pioneer John Willys in his efforts to win the military contract to create such a vehicle offers a lesson in perseverance. “Willys didn’t get the first contract, and stayed in the running,” said Bruno. “Then they almost didn’t get the second contract and stayed in the running. Then they almost didn’t get the third contract, and stayed in the running! By doing that and then perfecting their vehicle, [Willys Overland-Motors, Inc.] eventually was chosen to build the vehicles for the war. It’s a miracle that they pulled it off, and a testament to their ability that Toledoans are particularly proud of.”
Part of Bruno’s extensive research involved a personal visit to the National Archives, in an attempt to unearth the documents that detail this historic effort. “Willys’ key decision was putting their engine— the Go Devil engine— into their pilot model and all of their subsequent models. That engine was used in all 330,000 Jeeps built for the war. I found detail in the files of how an engineer named Delmar Roos had taken that engine and made it even better.”
A change of plans
It was a pivotal moment in engineering history that Bruno had never seen properly documented in the past, and one that he wagered would be of interest to a wide range of history buffs.
Though Bruno’s initial attempt to adapt the story into a feature film didn’t pan out, he realized there was still a story worth telling, in a different form. “They had no resources and the deadline was considered impossible, but the fact that they delivered the vehicle with half-an-hour to spare on the 49th day felt like it would lend itself to be a great movie.” recalls Bruno.
As so often happens with creative projects, the screenplay ultimately morphed into a previously unplanned book project. “The First Jeep” helped to establish Bruno as a respected historian with talent for storytelling. “The Original Jeeps,” relates and follows an even bigger picture.
“It really was an exceptional, miraculous journey of, first Bantam, but now as I delve further into the story, Willys and Ford. That this vehicle is still around and I see them on the road, and the DNA from the first three are in every Jeep that was ever built, just blows me away everytime I talk about it.”
$9.99 Kindle edition, $19.99 paperback on Amazon.com