About the Colony

Dispelling myths about the American jeep

Lon Allan drives his 1946 Willys jeep at the Estrella Warbirds Museum car show on Saturday in Paso Robles.
Lon Allan drives his 1946 Willys jeep at the Estrella Warbirds Museum car show on Saturday in Paso Robles.

Last weekend, I sat with my 1946 Willys jeep at the eighth annual car show sponsored by the Estrella Warbird Museum in Paso Robles.

To say the least, the jeep is an American icon.

As I talked to people throughout the day, two recurring “myths” kept being brought up.

Many folks asked whether it was still true you can find jeeps in crates all greased up and protected with Cosmoline, which Wikipedia describes as a rust preventative product that can be mostly removed with the swipe of a rag. I remember it had an awful smell that hit you when you walked into a genuine war surplus store in the ’50s.

Even when I was looking to buy an old “flat fender” jeep, people said, “Oh, those are still tucked away in barns everywhere. You won’t have any trouble finding one.” There is a jeep collector who had a standing offer for many years of $25,000 to anyone who found a jeep in a crate.

I found my jeep in a garage in Atascadero.

The second belief is that Willys Overland Motors invented the jeep.

The very first “4-wheel drive truck” (as it was officially called) was actually built in compliance with standards provided by the government in 1940 by the American Bantam Car Co. The military wanted something to replace the motorcycle. Bids were sent out to more than 100 car firms, and the only response came from Bantam. The company built the prototype vehicle and delivered it to the federal proving grounds in 49 days.

Unfortunately (for Bantam), the feds invited Willys and Ford to come and see the little car. Willys then submitted its own version. Ford also wanted in on the act. Eventually, all three were invited to build 1,200 models. The government feared Bantam couldn’t build enough of the vehicles to meet demand. Willys ended up with the major contract, and Ford was allowed to build the jeep, but to the Willys design standards. You can’t tell a Ford jeep from a Willys. Bantam was relegated to building the jeep trailers and nothing more.

The Willys jeep has been owned by a number of car companies. I believe it has been a cash cow for all of them.

Early on, Willys tried to convince the public it invented the jeep. In 1948, a government commission ordered Willys to stop all claims that it created the jeep. Willys was, however, able to register the name “Jeep” as a trademark in 1950. So a Willys before 1950 is a “jeep,” but after that year, it became a “Jeep.”

So many people had jeep stories. I can’t believe how many of them learned to drive on a farm in a jeep.

And I must confess: Two months ago, I let my 11-year-old granddaughter drive my jeep around an empty parking lot while I walked beside her. It was in its lowest granny gear, and I could easily keep an eye on her. On her next visit, we’ll learn to shift from first to second.

I love tradition.

Lon Allan’s column is special to The Tribune. Reach Allan at leallan@tcsn.net.