The Jeep brand carries a special mystique. Rugged, individual, quirky and fun, these off-road pioneers began to transform our relationship with cars decades before “SUV” was ever named. The origin of Jeep is unique, because these vehicles were born out of necessity. Jeep history began with a light-weight military vehicle, and evolved into a leading off-road vehicle.
Jeep History: From Military Vehicle to Off-Roading Legend
Similar to the CB radio, Jeep has its roots in the U.S. military. They were forged during a time of war.
The term “jeep” was slang for brand new, green recruits. When the U.S. Army decided to produce its own vehicle in 1941, after it became clear America would get dragged into World War II, they opted to use the slang term as the name of the new light, military style, 4×4 vehicle. The Jeep was born.
The first companies to bid on the Jeep contract for the U.S. Army aren’t even in existence today. They included the American Bantam Car Company and Willys-Overland. Bantam managed to complete blueprints in less than a month, but the army eventually chose Willys-Overland allow with Ford Motor Company to produce its first Jeeps due to larger factory capacity. Ford solidified the Jeep brand when they designed the iconic single-piece, stamped slotted grille with round headlights — which Jeep uses for their logo to this day.
Jeeps in Their Civvies
Jeep history is also the story of the first SUV. In 1945, a civilian Jeep, better known as the CJ, emerged from the Willys factory in Toledo, OH.
Because Jeeps appeared around the globe during WWII, they became strongly associated with Americans. The vehicle itself – sturdy, functional, and bare-bones – introduced an American ethos of rugged individualism into automobile styling.
In 1953, Willys merged with the Kaiser Motor Company who decided – based on their most popular vehicle – to rename itself “Kaiser-Jeep” in 1963. The American Motor Company (AMC) purchased Kaiser-Jeep in 1970.
Jeep was fated to continue under AMC, who placed Jeeps with their subsidiary, American Motors (AM) General. Then in 1979, the French company Renault began heavily investing in AM General, resulting in production of the first Jeep Cherokee. In 1985, the Cherokee went global and reached 200,000 sales. It is considered by many to be the first of its kind: a unibody, sport utility vehicle (SUV).
The Cherokee made Jeep history and carried the company into the modern auto manufacturing era. Jeep became the first successful owner of what has become arguably the most popular style of vehicle ever – the SUV – in the US.
Coveting the Jeep brand, “big three” US automaker, Chrysler, finally got its hands on the Jeep brand. Chrysler acquired AMC in 1987, shortly after the first Wrangler had hit the streets. The had more resources, money, and capacity to sink into perfecting early SUVs.
Jeep history includes more variety than most consumers are aware of, but its most popular vehicles are still the Wrangler and Cherokee.
Jeeps Become America’s Favorite 4×4
Jeep has a history of being the original go-anywhere, do-anything off road vehicle. These vehicles were so appealing to the military because they were quick and nimble, and if they got stuck they were light enough for soldiers to lift. Even from early days, jeeps were known for being reliable, easy to fix, and nearly impossible to break. In fact, Digital Trends referred to the Jeep as “the quintessential off-roader.”
The off-roading community seemed to agree. Jeep won 4×4 Manufacturer of the Year and the Off-Road Award from 4×4 Magazine’s annual 4×4 of the Year Awards. They also recently won the Four Wheeler magazine’s 2019 SUV of the Year Award.
The history of Jeep is a story of enduring: the brand has survived multiple restructurings and buy-outs but remained profitable.