History should be a compulsory subject at school, but unfortunately it isn’t. Instead of learning about how the forces of the free world defeated one of the most evil men to walk the earth, teenagers are learning about the life-cycle of the earthworm.
With no disrespect to the humble earthworm, this doesn’t seem like the best use of critical teaching time. It would be better to have some idea of what happened in the world over the last century. After all, it was only 75 years ago that World War II came to an end and Hitler’s reign of terror was brought to its bloody conclusion.
It was also 75 years ago that this spectacularly cool vehicle came into the world. After letting the other Willys MBs do all the work, this one sauntered in during 1945 at the end of the war and looked forward to life as a restored piece of history.
So, just how important was this vehicle in the war?
President Eisenhower referred to these war machines as “one of three decisive weapons the U.S. had during WWII” – high praise indeed. The other two, in case you’re wondering, were the Dakota C47 and the bazooka. It’s interesting that the atomic bomb wasn’t mentioned, because that brought the war outside of Europe to an abrupt end as Japan realised that it had no answer to the military power of the U.S.
Willys and Fords vs. Beetles
Ford vs. Ferrari might have been the motorsport battle of the 60s, but a far more important battle was fought just two decades earlier.
The ¼ ton U.S. Army Truck was built to a standard design by Willys and Ford. It was the world’s first mass-produced four-wheel drive car and there were plenty of them. Willys built nearly 360,000 of these vehicles and Ford built nearly 278,000. The car was genuinely designed by committee; one of the few successful products in the world to carry that label.
The unverifiable but accepted origin of the word “Jeep” is the shortening of the term “General Purpose” to GP. GP was slurred into Jeep and an icon was born.
Such was the need to defeat the Nazis that the U.S. and Russia were allies in the war. Many of these Jeeps were shipped off for a life of vodka and cold weather combat. Others ended up in the desert in North Africa, fighting in harsh and dusty conditions.
The Nazis were using Volkswagens designed by Ferdinand Porsche. Based on the Beetle, the Kubelwagen certainly wasn’t as pretty, but did have bucket seats to prevent passengers falling out. It’s a typically German engineering improvement, which we would’ve appreciated in the Jeep after one half of Carbs and Coffee nearly fell to his untimely death around the first corner.
The German machine didn’t have four-wheel drive, but was 300kg lighter, which made it a competent go-anywhere vehicle when combined with a self-locking differential.
It’s worth touching on the Schwimmwagen. If that sounds like “swimming wagon” to you, you’re on the right track. The car could do up to 10km/h in water by lowering a screw propeller from the rear engine cover. Again, German engineering shining through here.
The year is 2020, not 1945. What’s it like to drive?
Honestly, this is the most fun we’ve had in ages. Once you get over the initial shock of seeing three gear levers and nothing but a flimsy piece of material to stop you falling out the side, you settle in to immerse yourself in a historically significant experience.
One of the first things you notice is the super skinny tyres that look like they belong on a tractor. The Jeep has the smallest turning circle of anything we’ve driven. One can easily imagine the manoeuvrability of the car in tight spaces across tough terrain.
Getting in and out is easy. Getting out by accident while moving is also very easy. If you ever get the chance to go for a ride in one of these, it’s best to hang on tight. It’s also handy to wear a hoodie with a pocket in front because there is a high probability of losing things out your side pockets.
The gearbox takes some getting used to (reverse is where you would expect 1st gear to be) and there are 3 forward gears. We were far too nervous to even attempt to use the other two gear sticks before this car heads off to its new owner. Doing 40km/h (our guess – there’s no speedo) was more than enough for us.
It goes without saying that you get endless attention on the road in one of these. The styling has been carried forward with vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler, so the shape is immediately recognisable as a Jeep.
An old Jeep with plenty of history…
Would we buy one?
Without hesitation, yes.
As an addition to any collection, it’s uber-cool motoring with incredible history. This beautifully restored example is on its way to a new owner overseas, but we are extremely grateful to have experienced this wonderful machine.
Oh yes, the new owner is the War Heritage Museum in the UK. What an utterly amazing piece of kit this is.