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The history of the Jeep and Volkswagen

The history of the Jeep and Volkswagen

22 04 15

World War II began an unprecedented spike in the production and overall usage of military vehicles. The Jeep and the Volkswagen or Kübelwagen, and to a lesser extent the Schwimmwagen, were created with military and political goals in mind by both the Americans and the Nazis. The war created a need for these primarily military vehicles that led to their manufacture on a vast scale. To see the role that WWII played in the development of the modern vehicle, let’s look at two of the most iconic military vehicles of that period.

The 'Bucket Car'

Kübelwagen is an abbreviation of ‘Kübelsitzwagen’, meaning ‘bucket-seat car’, because all German light military vehicles that had no doors were fitted with bucket seats to prevent passengers from falling out!

The Kübelwagen was a light military vehicle designed by Ferdinand Porsche and built by Volkswagen during World War II for use by the German military, both by the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS. The Kübelwagen was Volkswagen’s most common wartime model. It was based heavily on the Volkswagen Beetle, which had been first produced in 1938. Post war, this model evolved into the Volkswagen Beetle we know and love today.

Volkswagen Beetle

Prior to the outbreak of war, Adolf Hitler had wanted German citizens to have the same access to a car as the Americans, and Volkswagen (meaning ‘people’s car’ in German) was originally founded in 1937 by the German Labour Front. Meanwhile, Ferdinand Porsche, a well-known designer for high-end vehicles and race cars, had been trying for years to get a manufacturer interested in a small car suitable for a family. He came up with a car design he called the ‘Volksauto’, the first to feature the now iconic ‘beetle’ shape.

The Volkswagen Beetle, officially the Volkswagen Type 1, or informally the Volkswagen ‘Bug’, was first manufactured and marketed by German automaker Volkswagen in 1938. With more than 21 million cars manufactured, the Beetle is the longest-running and most-manufactured car of a single design platform. From the Beetle evolved the ubiquitous Volkswagen cars we know and love today.

The Willys Jeep

By the eve of World War II the United States Department of War had determined it needed a light, cross-country reconnaissance vehicle and the original Jeep was the prototype Bantam BRC. Willys MB Jeeps went into production in 1941 specifically for the military, arguably making them the oldest four-wheel drive, production vehicles, now known as SUVs. The Willys Jeep became the primary light 4-wheel drive vehicle of the United States Army and all of the Allies during World War II, as well as the post-war period.

There are several accounts as to how the Jeep got its name. The most likely story is that the acronym ‘GP’ (General Purpose), used to designate the vehicle, became shortened and evolved into slang or ‘Jeep’. 

Another story also describes the origins of the Jeep’s name. Apparently the vehicle made such an impression on troops at the time that they informally named it after Eugene the Jeep, a character in the Popeye comic strip. Eugene the Jeep was Popeye’s jungle pet and was “small, able to move between dimensions and could solve seemingly impossible problems”.

The term Jeep became well-known all over the world in the wake of the war and, as Wikipedia expert Doug Stewart notes, “the spartan, cramped and unstintingly functional Jeep became the ubiquitous World War II 4-wheeled personification of Yankee ingenuity and cocky, can-do determination”.

The first civilian models were produced in 1945, inspiring a number of other light utility vehicles such as the Land Rover. Many Jeep variants serving similar military and civilian roles have since been designed in other nations. The World War II Jeep inspired many imitations and creations from competing manufacturers such as Land Rover, Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, and a few others who all owe their place in the 4x4 world to the inspirational vision of the Willys Jeep.

Produced from 1941 to 1945, the Jeep evolved post-war into the civilian Jeep CJ, and inspired both an entire category of recreational 4WDs and several generations of military light utility vehicles. Its de facto descendent is today's Jeep Wrangler.

Both the Volkswagen and the Jeep’s evolution into the modern vehicles we know today could be regarded as one of the more positive results of World War II. Of far more significance this week is the continuation through 100 years of the ANZAC spirit.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, which inspired the formation of the ANZACs, or the acronym for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

We are all proud of the ‘can do’ collegial ANZAC spirit which we feel symbolises the "national character" we share. The Gallipoli Campaign is often described as the moment of birth of the nationhood both of Australia and of New Zealand.

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