The United States did not join World War II until after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew that U.S. involvement was inevitable. After France fell into German control in June of 1940, FDR pushed the U.S. Army towards a military build-up of new weapons innovation. In a December 1940 speech, FDR called for America to become the “great arsenal of democracy,” which meant we had to stock the armory. This led the Army to look into a new type of vehicle for ease of transportation.
Butler’s American Bantam Company (known for making smaller vehicles), Willys-Overland (of Toledo, Ohio), and Ford were the only three companies invited by the War Department to place bids on its request for an all-terrain vehicle. The American Bantam Company won the bid from the Army because they promised a prototype within 45 days when the Army wanted one in 49 days. The prototype was delivered on September 21st, 1940 and was named the Bantam Reconnaissance Car, or BRC. The Bantam vehicle superseded all the field testing requirements put in place by the Army, but still needed some improvement before it could be introduced to active combat.
The Army tested the BRC for 30 days at Camp Holabird in Baltimore, Maryland. The BRC was tested in various types of training exercises, such as; hill climbing, weapon mounting and operation, troop mobilization, speed and heat testing, and load testing to board the vehicle on a plane or boat. Bantam was then asked to complete 70 BRC models within 12 weeks. One month later, Bantam, Willy’s, and Ford were all asked to build 1,500 vehicles. Bantam met the deadline for completion but was not awarded another substantial vehicle contract since the mechanical achievements of the Willy’s Quad were greater than those of the BRC. Since the Bantam vehicle did not have a patent, the Army gave the BRC blueprints to Ford and Willys-Overland for improvements.
Willys-Overland was the company to receive the contract to build from the Army, who called for 16,000 units to be used by the U.S. and the Allied Forces through the Lend-Lease Act. After some more innovation in a more powerful engine and lighter body, the Willy’s MA, nicknamed Quad due to its 4x4 achievements, was submitted to the Army. The Quad had the much needed 4x4 capabilities, the ability to mount machine guns, but still weighed much more than the Army wanted. After refinements to the Quad, including; aluminum engine pieces, thinner steel bodies, less paint, and shorter bolts, the weight of the vehicle had been reduced by more than 400 pounds, which meant the new and improved Willy’s MB was ready for combat.
The MB could be outfitted with mounted machine guns capable of firing off 1,000 rounds. MBs were also able to cross roadless areas, and in one recorded mission they drove 1,300 miles without pavement. Upon introduction to the Army in 1941, the Willy’s MB was soon called the G.I.’s best friend due to its reliability to cross all types of terrain. The MB was lighter, more powerful, and offered more seating to transport troops across the war zone. The vehicles had many nicknames, including Bantam (meaning a small chicken), Pygmy (meaning small in stature), and Quad (in reference to its 4x4 capabilities), but the G.I.s chose the ultimate name, Jeep. The most common and reliably cited explanation for the name stems from the initials G.P., which stood for General Purpose and led to the name Jeep.
In the end, after failing to gain a significant vehicle contract, the American Bantam Company produced military trailers and other military supplies to keep the company alive. Before closing down, the American Bantam Car Company manufactured some 2,500 BRC’s and 73,000 military trailers. The BRC is credited as the Grandfather to the Jeep and as a result, has left its mark on Butler County history. The Bantam has also been honored in various types of pop culture, including comic books at the time of the war, like Batman. Today, the Bantam Jeep is honored every year at the Butler County Bantam Jeep Festival. The festival was started to honor the birthplace of the Jeep and celebrate its long history in American culture.