Jeep: Design by Committee
A camel is a horse designed by a committee, the saying goes. But a camel is a pretty good design and for the desert a better design than a horse.
Created in 1940 in the fervor of war preparation emergency, the Jeep is a kind of automotive camel, a functional design with endurance and toughness rather than the speed and grace of a horse. It became an icon of functionalist design. Rectilinear and basic, it was a machine with personality---its slot grill face and bug eyed headlights suggested a touch of Mickey Mouse—and its name came from a cartoon character. The original Jeep was a playful figure in the Sunday newspaper comic Popeye whose name apparently echoed in “GP” for general purpose, the U.S. Army’s designation for the small vehicle.
It a design that has been acclaimed by high and low alike. It was hailed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which included it along with the Rolls Royce and MG in a show of great car designs in 1951 and placed it in the permanent collection. But it was also celebrated by foot soldiers and generals— Dwight Eisenhower praised it as the single most important piece of equipment of World War II—by cowboys and prospectors, explorers and adventurers.
The jeep is minimal design, a cartoon of a car, engineering reduced to its lowest common denominator and an ideal example of the modernist dream of beauty discovered in the most rigorous constraints of function.
(The great cartoonist Bill Mauldin got to the essence of the Jeep’s appeal by showing an unshaven U.S. soldier averting his eyes as he puts a wrecked Jeep out of its misery, like a downed horse, with his sidearm.)
The lesson of the Jeep is that despite all proof to the contrary, committees can sometimes produce great designs. Bureaucrats can produce masterpieces, such as the U.S. Constitution, say, or the USB computer port.
With all committees, the post mortem assignment of credit or blame is both inevitable and impossible. “Blamestorming,” it is called in the case of failure—but is there an equivalent term for assigning praise?
Was the most important person in creating the Jeep the man who wrote the original specs, Maj. William F. Beasley, Chief Engineer of the Quartermaster Corps?
Was the key figure the chief engineer at Bantam, Harold Crist who personally picked out the materials and off the shelf pieces for the first prototype? Or was it the brilliant consulting engineer, brought in by Bantam to draw up plans, Karl Propst? Perhaps instead it was Delmar G. “Barney” Roos, who stole away the contract from Bantam for his company Willys and in the process gave it the heart of his strong beating Go-Devil engine? Or was it the forgotten Ford production engineer, who gave the vehicle its characteristic stamped out seven slotted face?
The Jeep was created by an army committee and contractors in the summer of 1940, when a rearming U.S. military was reeling from the example of Hitler’s blitzkrieg sweeping across Europe. Automobility for the infantry would be as important as tanks, it seemed. As with all military equipment the Jeep began as a request for proposals from contractors. That request was issued by an army organization called the Ordnance Technical Committee, at Camp Holabird on the edge of Baltimore. The request included specifications: Weight: 2160 pounds. Payload 800 pounds. Four-wheel drive and climbing ability, high ground clearance and a low silhouette for safety on the battlefield.
The man in charge of the committee and often credited with the Jeep’s physical appearance was Maj. Beasley, the army engineer who laid out specifications for the vehicle and even supplied a rough sketch in June of 1940. The resulting document was a request for proposals, as the government phrase goes, that was distributed to some 135 automobile and truck manufacturers. But recovery from the Great Depression and rearmament meant that most of the companies had plenty of business already. They were asked by the proposal to produce a design within a month and a finished, working prototype in three months, by September.
But one firm looked greedily at the chance to produce such a vehicle. It was Bantam, a languishing auto company in Butler, Pennsylvania, which had enjoyed a flurry of success building for the American market the small British Austin car --a vehicle better known for its cuteness than its utility---before falling on hard times.
Bantam was so short staffed that it hired Detroit engineer Karl Probst, who in just three days in July created blueprints for the Bantam vehicle. Probst claimed he only took interest in the rush job after reading about “Winston Churchill's bulldog determination after the debacle at Dunkirk—'…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the streets.'" True or not, it provided a good story for the war effort. He drove straight from Detroit to Bantam’s office in Pennsylvania and threw himself in to the job.
Competition came from Willys-Overland, in Toledo, Ohio. In truth, Willys should have been disqualified. Its entry was late. Bantam built a prototype by September, meeting the deadline, while Willys sample was not ready until November. True, the Willys unit had a much stronger engine. But the new engine also pushed the vehicle above the weight limits.
The third competitor was Ford, whose entry was called the Pygmy.
Buying weapons is a monosophy, as economists call a market with only one customer, as a monopoly is market with only one seller. The weird effects of such a market are visible in many famous Pentagon stories of $500 hammers and the like. During the design of the Jeep, the army kept changing the rules. They increased the allowable weight of the vehicle. This is typical for the military. Often planes, tanks, trucks, radios or any military equipment grow during development in weight and complexity as contractors plead their special cases and services add features they desire.
So it happened with the Jeep. Willys managed to persuade the army that its engine offered so many advantages that it should increase the allowable weight of the vehicle. The top weight was lifted from 2160 to 2175.
This was arguably unfair to Bantam. The rules were changed in mid competition---and unfair practice and yet one that turned out for the best and improved the final product.
And even the 2,175 pound target was unrealistic—as Willys might have known it would be. Outfitted with the Go Devil engine, the finished Willys's vehicle weighed a full 2,423 pounds--nearly 250 pounds too much.
So famously, the chief Willys engineer Delmar G. “Barney” Roos cut out weight.
Roos was a legend among engineers in Detroit. He had worked at several companies in the motor city and since taking over at Willys, in Toledo, Ohio, he had improved the company’s basic engine in every detail, increasing its horsepower from forty five to sixty by these gradual improvement. The result was the “Go Devil” engine .
Now he had to reduce weight by the same thorough going process of incremental and detail attention that he applied to the engine.
Roos set his engineers and mechanics to work to remove every possible fraction of an ounce from the vehicle, a purgative editing that made it better. They reduced the sizes of nuts and bolts and washers and cotter pins, reduced the thickness of the steel and finally used lighter alloys. In the end, they reduced paint to a single coat.
Decades later, Jeep became a trademark owned by first Willys then American Motors and then Chrysler. Jeep used the slotted grille in its graphics and threatened legal action against companies which imitated it. But the original Jeep grille was series of rods; it was clever Ford manufacturing engineer, looking for ways to simplify production, who came up with a single stamped piece with slots. During World War II, Ford ultimately built nearly as many Jeeps as Willys.. Ford built 277,896 and Willys 335,531. The last Willys unit rolled out of its Toledo factory on August 20, 1945.
Bantam got no contract to produce vehicles, only trailers for them. The army judged it was too small to reliably turn out the jeep, but it claimed the design. Bantam proponents argued that the army had gotten most of its ideas for the first specifications by testing two British vehicles Bantam had lent it.
After the war, Willys produced civilian models. Ralph Lauren famously bought a blue civilian model, a 1951, from a passing farmer spotted near his ranch in Colorado, the story goes. He displayed it as one of the stars of his auto collection, but also drove it around the Hamptons. The Jeep quickly became known and adopted around the world. The Italian police in the film Roman Holiday (1953) patrol the Eternal City in leftover Jeeps.
The civilianized, post war jeep was appreciated as an artifact and design. Arthur Drexler of the Museum of Modern Art included it along with a Bugatti in a 1951 show and said it possessed the "combined appeal of an intelligent dog and a perfect gadget. . . looks like a sturdy sardine can on wheels . . . one of the few genuine expressions of machine art." Implicitly recalling the ball bearings and propellers of Philip Johnson’s 1934 landmark show Machine Art, Drexler called the Jeep “one of the few genuine examples of machine art.” “The Jeep is an automobile we Americans can be proud out,” The Jeep, now, that’s an automobile America should be proud of.”declared Charles Eames
The Jeep became an icon of functionalist design. Rectilinear and basic, but with personality---its slot grill face and bug eyed headlights suggested Mickey Mouse. Its name came from a cartoon character; Eugene the Jeep was a playful figure in the Sunday newspaper comic Popeye whose name apparently echoed in “GP” for general purpose, the U.S. Army’s designation for the small vehicle. Popeye’s Jeep, who came on the scene in 1936, was a rounded creature with a bulbous nose—a long, curious, vaguely obscene nose like the that of Kilroy, the cartoon graffito of the American soldier, chalked on wooden fences and stone walls around the world.
Historians and buffs battle over details and key personalities of the Jeep’s creation. There were partisans of Bantam and of Willys, of the Army and of individual engineers. They fight it out in such publications as Rooster Tails, the Journal of the Austin Bantam Society. Historian William Spear surveyed the literature: he cites the claims of an article from 1942 called "The Story Behind the Army Jeep" by John W. Chapman that credits Col. Bill Lee, Chief of Infantry with the key role. There is detail of the testing in "One Summer in Butler" published in 1974 in Automobile Quarterly (Vol 14 #4, p. 430) Paul Hackenberg in the 1953 "True's Automobile Yearbook" produced an article called "It Doesn't Pay to Invent a Jeep" which focuses on Harold Crist. In the mid 60's a detailed article by John Underwood supported Bantam’s claims. Karl Propst staked his claim to the jeep’s paternity by spreading out the drawings he had made for Bantam in 1940 the day he died—at his own hands as he faced incurable cancer.
The theme of most of the claims and the many tales is the unfair neglect of the true creator.
Many folk heroes---Lincoln, Moses--and indeed works of folk art—blues songs, quilt patterns--- have mysterious origins, the better to illustrate that they spring “from the people.” The stories give the jeep uncertain and even magical paternity.
The stories that emerged over the decades about the creation of the Jeep mostly focused on some unsung inventor or another. This was apt given that the Jeep was seen as the vehicle of the unseen ordinary soldier. Like folk heroes and folk art, rival creation tales competed.
Specifications as well as rough sketches from June 1940 support Beasley’s claim, argues designer Bill Porter. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1991, with the perspective of time, credited Bantam, Willys and Ford. Each company added key features to the product.. But it did not mention the Quartermaster Corps of the Army Porter complained.
William F. Beasley. Porter argued that “from the outset, the Army’s relentless and absolutely merciless testing of prototypes s and resulting feedback to the industry engineers undoubtedly played a crucial role in identifying design issues and r validating their resolutions”
Several key figures and two companies—Bantam and Willy’s--competed over the rights to claim the Jeep’s paternity. In 1941 Senator Harry Truman’s committee investigating defense spending examined charges that Bantam had been unfairly deprived of production contracts for the vehicle. In April 1942 with the nation taking up arms with post Pearl Harbor fury, Willys began an advertising campaign that proclaimed it had created and perfected the jeep. After complaints by Bantam and others the Federal Trade Commission ordered the company to cease claiming that it invented the jeep, although allowing it to claim it had improved it.
There is a convincing case to be made that no company should own the term Jeep, since it was supplied by the American G.I. or the American people.