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Last of the prototype jeeps built in Butler goes on display at Heinz History Center

WWII hero makes comeback

Monday, April 21, 2003

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's the mother of all jeeps, as well as all those Humvees prowling the sands of Iraq.

The last jeep from the original batch of 70, made in 1940, is going to be parked in Pittsburgh for a while, not far from its birthplace.

This Jeep on display at the John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center is believed to be the only remaining one of the first 70 produced at the American Bantam Car Co. in Butler in 1940. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

For about two years, the car will be in the Great Hall of the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, where it is on loan from the Smithsonian Institution.

"That happens to be the only one that's left. There are no other of the 70 prototypes that were built between October of 1940 and December of 1940 that are known to exist," said Leeland Bortmas, director of the Butler County Heritage Center and an expert on jeeps.

Jeep is now a trademark of Chrysler, but GIs coined the term in 1940 for the general-purpose vehicles created for World War II. The car also was known as a "peep" or "blitz buggy," but jeep was what stuck.

The vehicles quickly attained hallowed status.

Gen. George Marshall once said if it hadn't been for the square-bodied jeep, the United States would not have won World War II, and said it was America's greatest contribution to the war.

The prototype of the vehicle that became known as the jeep was designed and made in Butler after Karl Probst, a brilliant engineer, roughed out a sketch of "the little car that could" in about 18 hours.

The jeep to be exhibited in Pittsburgh was made Nov. 29, 1940, at the American Bantam Car Co. in Butler, and tested at Fort Knox, Ky.

The round-nosed car, with a round grill and squared, angular fenders, was retired to the Smithsonian in 1944 after 100,000 miles of service.

The jeep, Bortmas said, "could pull a 52-car train with railroad wheels attached to the jeep axles. Service chaplains used them as a chapel. They laid their sacraments out on the hood. Also, stretchers were used on the hood for wounded personnel. They put reels of telephone wire on the back of the body. It was just a universally adaptable vehicle."

How the jeep was designed and produced for an anxious U.S. Army is a story of ingenuity and military victory.

There is a bittersweet element, too, because the four-wheel drive vehicle did not, as its makers hoped, save the American Bantam Car Co., which closed in 1956.

Since 1930, Bantam had designed small cars like the American Austin and the American Bantam. So, when the U.S. Army sent out a list of specifications for a general purpose vehicle, Bantam took up the challenge, then tried to persuade Probst to leave his business in Detroit and design a prototype.

Probst said no until Brig. Gen. Bill Knudsen urged him to do the job for God and country. Probst drove across the Midwest in his '38 Buick, stopping at parts houses and at Studebaker in South Bend, Ind. Probst had a Studebaker rear end redesigned to be used as the components for a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Once in Butler, Bortmas said, "he sat down at the drawing board. In 18 hours, he drew up the rough plans for the first jeep."

Workers who built the first prototype ate and slept at the factory and "did everything in their power that was humanly possible to get that thing built and then they got shafted," Bortmas said.

When the prototype arrived at Camp Holabird in Baltimore on the afternoon of Sept. 23, 1940, about 200 Army soldiers, officers and executives from car companies like General Motors, Ford and Willys-Overland were waiting.

The car company executives, Bortmas said, "had all placed a bet among themselves that Bantam couldn't do it. They were very anxious to see what they [Bantam] had developed."

The verdict came quickly from the Army's chief testing officer.

"After [he] tested the vehicle, he climbed out of the mud-spattered, grass-stained vehicle and said, 'You know, gentlemen, I've been testing Army vehicles for the last 20 years. This is the most significant vehicle I have ever driven. If the Army accepts this vehicle, it will go down in history,"' Bortmas said.

The other car manufacturers copied Bantam's prototype immediately. While Bantam's representatives complained, "All these other car makers were taking photos and making notes and taking measurements and crawling under the thing," Bortmas said.

After initial testing, the Army ordered 70 cars.

In January 1941, the U.S. Army ordered 1,500 general purpose vehicles each from Bantam, Willys-Overland and Ford and set the delivery deadline for May 1, 1941.

"Willys-Overland and Ford got into the picture because the Army just didn't believe that little Bantam could produce the numbers required by the Army. They turned to Willys and Ford and allowed [them] to have the design plans produced by Bantam. And Bantam was not compensated for that. The Army said we've got a war upcoming and we need these things right away," Bortmas said.

Unlike Bantam, Ford and Willys-Overland had fast production lines that turned out a car about every two minutes, while Bantam turned out 30 cars per shift, or about 90 per day. Eventually, the Army decided Bantam couldn't produce them fast enough, and Willys-Overland and Ford became the suppliers.

The 70 jeeps built between October and December of 1940 each cost $2,399.40. Later, the Army got a bargain, because the last 2,500 jeeps Bantam built were sold for $955.59 each, less 1 percent for payment in 10 days. They were known as Bantam Reconaissance Cars and about 40 of them are left.

David F. Halaas, museum division director at the Heinz History Center, said the men who drove "Old No. 1" to Baltimore never forgot that trip.

Probst was in the driver's seat and beside him sat Harold Crist, Bantam's plant manager.

In an interview afterward, Probst said, "We drove slowly at first, telling ourselves it was important to break the vehicle in. But as we wound through the hills of Pennsylvania, the 5 o'clock deadline we had worked toward for those seven weeks seemed to come closer. To make Holabird come closer, we were soon pushing the car to the limit and it really was fun."

"That poor little vehicle was pushed and prodded and banged and bumped. It went up 60 percent grades in streams, muds and sand and passed every test they could devise to defeat this little engine. The Army said well, you did it. And then they turn around and don't give them the contract," Halaas said.

Bantam was foundering financially and had not produced new car models for 1941.

"The only way they would stay afloat was if they could get this contract. They were one of only 135 car companies that could meet the Army's specifications in the time allowed. They had 49 days. That's unbelievable. It makes you want to cry for these guys," Halaas said.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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