Iconic WWII vehicle debuted on grueling Camp Holabird proving ground
During World War I, Holabird was the site of an Army Quartermaster Depot that shipped supplies to American forces. These included trucks. Soldiers had to be taught to drive and repair these vehicles, so Holabird also had a school. It also had something else: a test track designed to introduce drivers to the conditions they might encounter. It was also used to test the vehicles themselves.
Even before the United States entered World War II, army leaders knew there was a gap in the American fleet: our trucks were too big for quick, stealthy movement. We needed a small, versatile reconnaissance vehicle.
The specifications sent to American manufacturers in May 1940 stipulated that this new vehicle weighed no more than 1,300 pounds, had a wheelbase of two meters and was four-wheel drive. It should be able to carry 600 pounds – three men, basically – and a .30 caliber machine gun.
And the army wanted a working prototype in 49 days.
Only two manufacturers – the American Bantam Co. and Willys-Overland – entered vehicles in the competition. They would be tested on the infamous Holabird test track, a process one author compared to “rolling [the truck] in the Grand Canyon.
Another motor transport agent, quoted in Herbert R. Rifkin the Army’s official project history, said the trial course “tortures a truck like an inquisition rack, and if a truck has anything to confess, it confesses”.
The process at Holabird began with a visual inspection, followed by a dyno test to verify engine power.
Then came 5,000 miles of normal highway driving with full payload and towed loads. Next comes the torture, starting with a 1,000-mile cross-country test.
“This was a severe test that included traversing mud holes, climbing hills with 65% gradients, large ditches and around small winding hills which frequently caused frame distortion,” wrote Rifkin.
Then the vehicle drove 1,000 miles on a dirt road, followed by 500 miles on a sand course. The last stage was 10 hours of driving on a sandy slope so steep that the vehicle had to roll in its lowest gear at no more than 2 mph.
Finally, the model was disassembled and examined.
“Bantam was the only automaker to meet the requirements,” said Van Valkenburgh, who writes about World War II equipment on his questmasters.us website and Facebook page.
But the army feared that the small company Butler, in Pennsylvania, could not manufacture the vehicles in sufficient quantities. Willys and Ford were chosen to build the ¼ ton 4×4 command reconnaissance vehicle. Between 1941 and 1945, Willys built 300,000 at its Toledo factory. Ford built 250,000 at five different plants.
As for the name, in 1943 an Army spokesman told The Associated Press that it stemmed from its role as a “general purpose” vehicle, or GP. Soon after, he says, “the phonetic possibility of GP came to the fore and the result was a jeep.” Willys would eventually protect the name from the name, giving us Jeep.
Fort Holabird closed in 1973. A light industrial complex now stands on the site. But in the center is a park. And in the park is the very hill where these prototypes were put to the test.
Steep concrete pathways ascend the hill. You can’t drive on them – they’re in a pedestrian-only zone – but Van Valkenburgh said Jeep owners should come to the site “and pay their respects”. (He owns two: a Willys model and a Ford model.)
“The hill is where the Jeep itself was derived and the whole future of what today is called the sport utility vehicle was born,” Van Valkenburgh said.
The soldiers who drove the jeep came to like it. In 1943, corresponding Ernie Pyle wrote: “God, I don’t think we could continue the war without the jeep. He does everything. He goes everywhere. He is as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule and as agile as a goat. It consistently carries double what it was designed to do and keeps performing. It doesn’t even ride that bad once you get used to it. … The jeep is a divine instrument of locomotion in time of war.