Eighty years ago, a new kind of vehicle drove into the world. Months before the U.S. entered into World War II, military leaders had a plan to build hundreds of thousands of light trucks that could go anywhere, serve a hundred purposes, and become known simply as “jeeps.” Within 17 months, during some of the darkest moments of the war, planners in Washington, D.C., were wondering how this same “jeep” could be used to feed a post-war world.
Several books have addressed both the development of the jeep and the post-war “Universal Jeep.” This article’s focus is on the story of jeeps on the farm, beginning in 1942 and ending in 1970.
As war raged, military jeeps were tested to determine suitability for farm work
In April 1942, the Department of Agriculture conducted exploratory tests on jeeps at the National Tillage Machinery Laboratory in Auburn, Alabama. In May, a press release was issued:
“Supplied by the War Department and a motor car manufacturer, two of these tough and nimble ‘battle buggies’ were tried out by engineers … who reported they did good work in plowing, harrowing and other farm operations (row-crops excepted).”
The “motor car manufacturer” was Willys-Overland, which had been building the military jeep (and which would always take exception to the idea that the jeep couldn’t be used for row-crop operations). An article describing these tests was published in the June 1942 issue of Country Gentleman magazine, under the title “Someday There Will Be Harnesses on the Jeep.” In its January 1943 issue, Popular Mechanics also reported on the Auburn tests in an article titled “Jeeps on the Farm.”
The State Department expressed an interest in the tests, believing the use of jeeps in farm work could help improve the agricultural productivity of liberated countries until such time as tractor production could meet those needs. That seems an extraordinarily forward-thinking view, given the grim outlook on the war in early 1942. Allied victory was far from assured, but the confidence level of senior Washington officials was apparently high.
Engineer predicts repurposed jeeps could pose a threat to the farm truck
A Feb. 14, 1943, article in the Washington Post jumped into the fray with an article titled “When War Is Over, Where Will Jeep Go? Here’s One Man with a Fair Answer.” The man was automotive engineer Barney Roos. Considered by many historians to be the father of the Willys military jeep, Roos’ insights are worth consideration.
As the article notes: “Listen to the man who knows more about the jeep than any other automotive engineer, Delmar G. (‘Barney’) Roos, vice president in charge of engineering for Willys-Overland Motor, Inc., whose design for the jeep was accepted by the Army after the offerings of a dozen or more vehicle manufacturers had been considered.
“It has great possibilities in agriculture where a small farm is involved, where you don’t have your money tied up in a truck and in a tractor or in a power plant,” Roos noted. “When the war ends, there will be many thousands of these jeeps that can be bought from the government at low prices by the farmers.
“Certainly, the jeep is not going to affect the passenger car because no one wants a 4-wheel drive passenger car that has big tires and is a hog on gasoline,” he added. “It would eat up tires and gasoline and would be expensive. But it may profoundly affect the agricultural truck.”
Willys eyes market for civilian Jeep
Roos’ description of the jeep’s potential use on the small farm became Willys’ post-war marketing strategy. The returning soldier/farmer who couldn’t afford a truck and a tractor could buy a jeep and have both. What Roos got wrong – at least partly wrong – was that the government would dump thousands of surplus jeeps on the market and make them available to farmers.
That was exactly what Willys feared. The company wanted to sell new Jeeps. Willys ads even went so far as to show the farmer why the surplus jeep was no match for the civilian version. We can only imagine what the Willys marketing execs were thinking when they saw Roos’ statement.
Of more interest is his prediction that no one would want a 4-wheel drive car with big tires that was also a gas hog (a near-perfect description of today’s SUV). Roos would be amazed. While a couple of very early ads show the Jeep as a recreational vehicle (towing a travel trailer and hauling fishermen to remote sites), decades would pass before the Jeep’s primary role would evolve from a work vehicle to a recreational vehicle.
In August 1943, Popular Science magazine sponsored a contest to identify possible uses of the post-war jeep. The contest winner of $100 was announced in the February 1944 article “1,001 Post-War Jobs for the Jeep.” More than a third of the 1,200 entries, including the winning entry, had the jeep working on the farm.
Targeting small farmers, Willys conceptualizes Jeep as a light tractor/truck
While busily engaged in production of the military jeep, Willys was also actively conducting its own research. The company concluded that there were 5.5 million farmers in the U.S. and 4 million of them owned neither a truck nor tractor. Farmers serving in the military, the company believed, would be a ready-made market.
Beginning in March 1942, Willys ads in Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post boasted of the Jeep’s exploits. In the summer of 1944, Willys published an ad with the caption “Will the Jeep Speed Up Farming?” and asked at the end “Are you Jeep Planning?” This was the first time a civilian use of the jeep had appeared in the ads.
In the fall of 1944, Willys produced a document that would become the definitive statement on the post-war jeep. Titled “Jeep Planning,” the brochure outlines the “Peace Jeep” as a “4-in-1 Farm Power unit: 1. The Jeep as a light tractor; 2. The Jeep as a mobile power unit; 3. The Jeep as a light truck; 4. The Jeep as a utility car.” It is important to note that Willys identified the Jeep as a light tractor and a light truck. The company never intended to replace the heavy-duty tractor or 1/2-ton pickup with a Jeep. Their primary market was to be the small farmer.
Willys attempted to trademark “Farm Jeep,” but the request was rejected as being too common. They countered with “Agrijeep” and that moniker was applied to the very earliest civilian Jeeps. But the company soon dropped that name in favor of “Jeep” or the more formal “Universal Jeep.”
Perhaps someone at Willys decided that “Agrijeep” was too restrictive. Although the farmer was the primary target, Willys was also targeting the industrial market. This fact is made clear on the dash plate of every post-war civilian Jeep, showing a farm scene on one side and an industrial scene on the other.
Sorensen puts his mark on the Farm Jeep
No individual had a greater impact on the post-war Jeep than Charles E. Sorensen. Henry Ford’s right-hand man for 40 years, Sorensen may be best known for his design of the Ford Willow Run B-24 bomber plant. The B-24 was composed of 488,193 parts. Under Sorensen’s direction, that plant went from a production rate of one airplane per day to one airplane per hour.
He also oversaw Ford’s version of the military jeep production and, most importantly, was directly involved with development of Ford’s 9N tractor. After being named president of Willys in 1944, Sorensen immediately began testing civilian versions of the jeep at his 2,000-acre CESOR Farm, the same farm where he had earlier tested the Ford 9N.
Although Sorensen never wrote about his time at Willys, it is easy to assume that he would have seen the Ford 9N as a major competitor and that the Jeep would need a hydraulic implement lift. The lift wouldn’t be ready when the first civilian Jeep (CJ) rolled off the assembly line, but it was a key component of what would become known as the Farm Jeep. The Farm Jeep, as a light tractor, would have similar horsepower ratings at the drawbar and pulley as the Ford 9N and could use the same 3-point implements.
Sorensen-Love collaboration shines in groundbreaking 3-point hitch
Shortly after his arrival at Willys, Sorensen hired a consulting engineer to design and build a 3-point implement hitch for the new Jeep. His pick was Jabez Love, the builder of the Love tractor. Love owned a Ford tractor dealership and sold Ford 9N tractors. He also manufactured a line of 3-point implements he sold to other Ford tractor dealers. Love would be able to supply both a working hydraulic lift and 3-point implements that matched those used by the Ford 9N.
A “reveal” day for the CJ was scheduled for July 18, 1945, only two months after Germany’s surrender. Production of the CJ had begun in June to provide enough units for “Jeep Day” at CESOR Farm. More than 700 people were invited to tour the Toledo plant on July 17, before heading to the farm the next day. By July 19, newspapers across the country carried the story of the “Universal Jeep” working on the farm.
One year later, in September 1946, Sorensen and Love introduced the Love hydraulic implement lift for the Jeep. With that announcement, the journey from battlefield to barnyard was complete and the Farm Jeep was born. Every CJ model from 1946 to 1970 could be equipped with a governor, a PTO and a hydraulic implement lift capable of using Ford-Ferguson-style 3-point implements to make it a light tractor.
These parts could be added without modification to the Jeep and were available from the factory or the dealer, or could be field-installed by the farmer. A lift made in 1946 would fit a 1966 CJ5 and a lift built in 1960 would fit a 1950 CJ3a. The hydraulic 3-point lifts designed for the Jeep were engineering marvels. Although Willys formally introduced a Farm Jeep model in the early 1950s, the name continues to be applied to any post-war Jeep with a hydraulic lift.
Competition and big farms left Farm Jeep in the dust
A common question heard when our Willys Farm Jeep is displayed at antique machinery shows is “Why weren’t more Farm Jeeps sold?” The answer is simple. While the Ford 8N (introduced in 1947) was the primary competition, a farmer in 1951 could choose from dozens of tractors. U.S. tractor production reached 564,000 units in 1951. The big tractor producers held 98.8 percent of market share from 1950-’55. Willys would need to fight several small, specialty tractor manufacturers to gain even that 0.2 share.
At the same time, farms were getting larger. The era of “40 acres and a mule” had ended; a 2-bottom plow tractor was no longer big enough for most farmers. Even production of the 8N lasted only a couple of years, replaced by larger and larger tractors. Although three new Jeep models (models CJ3a, CJ3b, and CJ5) were produced in the decade following the introduction of the CJ2a, the Farm Jeep size and capabilities remained the same.
But a market for “light” tractors such as the Jeep existed throughout the 1950s and ’60s, as evidenced by the fact that lifts were being sold, if in ever-decreasing numbers. A Farm Jeep “tractor” was in production for more than three decades, which must be a record for any tractor manufacturer.
Jeep paves the way for compact utility tractors
In 1948, a new hydraulic lift was introduced by Monroe Auto Equipment Co. (makers of the Monroe shock absorber) and sold through Jeep dealers until about 1960. A final hydraulic lift for the Jeep was made by Stratton Equipment Co., Cleveland, Ohio, and was in production from 1960 until the mid-1970s.
The Farm Jeep era ended in 1970, when Jeep moved the gas tank from under the driver’s seat (where it had been located since the introduction of the military jeep) to under the bed of the CJ5 model. This move prevented the routing of the PTO shaft to the rear and the mounting of the hydraulic lift under the bed.
While sales of the Farm Jeep might have been small, the Farm Jeep was the inspiration for a new generation of compact 4-wheel drive utility tractors (CUTs). In 1980, Kubota published an ad declaring “An unfair comparison to the Jeep.” The ad pointed out the advantages of having Jeep’s 4-wheel drive traction combined with a tractor.
Today we see more and more “side-by-side” utility vehicles (UTVs) that provide off-road capabilities combined with the ability to haul passengers and small loads. The Farm Jeep combined the CUT and UTV plus provided on-road capabilities. Perhaps it was simply ahead of its time. FC
Farm Jeeps can still be seen in action, at least once a year, at the Midwest Willys Rally held the first weekend in June. Barry Thomas covered this event in an April 2020 article in Farm Collector. “Sadly, my friend John Ittel, who is featured in that article, passed away in November 2020,” Barry notes. “He is greatly missed by the entire Willys Jeep community.”
For more information: References and source materials used for this article, period ads and movies, and more information on the history of the Farm Jeep can be found at www.farmjeep.com. Email Barry Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.