Military Jeep Helped Spawn Civilian Four-Wheel Drive

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

| March 2013

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.

5/5/2013 3:54:11 AM

I grew up in the late 40's, early 50's on a 180 acres in Michigan. We had a Ford 8N and a John Deere D. One neighbor had a Farmall F-12 or F-14, and another had a John Deere 60. One other neighbor with a small acreage had a Jeep. I would watch him plow his field, disk and otherwise work it up. Mow and rake hay, and haul it. It seemed to do all they asked of it, but I was more enamored with tractors (still am).

5/1/2013 3:58:25 AM

Dad bought a new Jeep in 1947! First one in the neighborhood, wound up with 6 within 3 miles. Yes, they were cold, but so was everything else we had back then! No heaters to speak of, no air conditioning, no power anything, but they got the job done. Made a good tractor too, hauled a lot of grain to the crib and brought the cows in at milking time.