Military Jeep Helped Spawn Civilian Four-Wheel Drive

Early four-wheel drive military jeeps delivered mobility in remote areas.

Jeep Sideview

Note the lack of doors. Jeep heaters were never able to adequately warm the vehicles when equipped with full canvas tops, so there was no point in trying.

Photo Courtesy Clell Ballard

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It seems like almost everyone today has a four-wheel drive vehicle. Regular sedans and even some high performance cars have four-wheel drive. Yet the current 4x4 mania is a recent phenomenon. In fact, for the first four decades of the 20th century, four-wheel drive vehicles were almost unknown. Until then, only the large Jeffrey/Nash Quads and some World War I military trucks had four-wheel drive. In America, a few rare automobiles had front-wheel drive; all others had rear-wheel drive.

Since travel in bad road conditions was common in the earlier years, tire chains were a common automotive accessory. It is easy to find print advertisements for chains in old magazines. Motorists were well familiar with Weed brand tire chains. Photos show all kinds of vehicles “chained up” in both snow and mud conditions.

When the American military needed four-wheel drive vehicles for mobility in combat conditions, those vehicles became more common in civilian markets. The large 4x4 trucks that proved so successful in World War I were the starting point for further experimentation with smaller 4x4 vehicles and six-wheel drive trucks. Development continued in spite of the poor economic climate of the 1930s.

Debut of the military jeep

For individuals who dreamed of a chance to own a four-wheel drive vehicle, the breakthrough was the creation of the military 1/4-ton truck known today as the jeep. The history of that outstanding vehicle is well known. Willys and Ford built more than 600,000 during World War II. A significant number of American servicemen drove them in the conflict that stretched from 1941-’45. The jeep received praise from every quarter.

Because they were “soft-skinned” (military parlance for any vehicle without armor) the jeep’s attrition rate was high. Many battlefield photos show mangled jeeps scattered in the background. In spite of that, when the war ended thousands of those hardy little vehicles were declared surplus and were available to civilian buyers.

Jeeps were snapped up by all kinds of people but probably the most enthusiastic were rural residents. Mobility in poor conditions far from well-maintained roads almost miraculously doubled.

Surplus vehicles from the somewhat larger 1/2- and 3/4-ton size up to large multi-drive trucks were also enthusiastically pressed into service in rural areas. Isolation on the farm or ranch, especially during the winter, was decreased significantly. If needed, it was now possible “to get out.”

At war’s end, Willys (the largest manufacturer of military jeeps) brought out civilian models. (The word jeep was not capitalized until it became a product brand name.) The Jeep was advertised as a farmer’s ideal vehicle: With four-wheel drive and a myriad of accessories, it could do pretty much what a small tractor could do. Jeeps were shown plowing and doing other field work, sawing wood, drilling post holes and running generators. A Jeep also could be used like a car for basic transportation. The flat-hood Jeep that closely resembled the original military model was produced through 1953.

In deep snow areas such as ours, before snowmobiles came on the scene, Army surplus jeeps and civilian Jeeps were invaluable because rural roads were impossible to keep open. A limited amount of snow removal equipment was used around the clock but storms often accompanied by high winds meant farm folk were basically “snowed in” a good share of the time. Rural people always “laid in” supplies for themselves and their livestock so essentials were rarely lacking. However, medical emergencies and other unexpected crises demanded some way to get help. A four-wheel drive vehicle could save the day.

No creature comforts

Jeeps and many other Army surplus vehicles had one major drawback. They lacked adequate passenger protection. Surplus military canvas enclosures for jeeps really didn’t exist, so in the late 1940s a small industry grew up to produce various cabs for them. Many private sector companies designed and made soft tops that had the advantage of being easily folded away or removed in the summer. Other companies created metal tops in two styles: the half-cab, which covered just the driver and passenger, and a full cab that covered everything behind the windshield. The most elaborate ones even had roll-up door windows.

No military jeep ever had a personnel heater. Although Willys civilian models had a small optional heater available, driving a Jeep with a cab in the winter was reminiscent of traveling by open sleigh or sled. A trip of any distance required bundling up from head to toe. Passengers were protected from the wind, but just breathing caused the windshield to fog and eventually ice over. Before a trip, an ice scraper might be needed to clear the outside of the glass; during the trip it was in regular use scraping ice off the inside. This author once began a winter trip in a Jeep with a half-cab at 25 degrees below zero. The little heater was going full blast for 30 miles before the temperature at eye level where I had a small thermometer affixed reached 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Was anyone unhappy about that? Not really. It was just the way things were. The fact that travel in bad conditions was possible made it all worthwhile. For the first time it was possible to “go over the meadow and through the woods to Grandmother’s house” fairly rapidly in spite of heavy snowfall.

Those early 4x4 vehicles of the 1940s and 1950s have now pretty much been retired. Their slow road speeds mean one doesn’t see them much any more. However, if you go out to the countryside and stop at a farm or ranch, there is a good chance of finding an old jeep in a shed or a homeowner who knows where one is. They almost always come out during hunting season and occasionally still help out on the farm. The jeep was extremely important at one time in our history and still has value today. FC 

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dry-land hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.