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Long before the term "sport-utility vehicle" was coined, Jeeps proved their off-road capabilities on the battlefield, scoring legendary achievements during World War II and turning into an icon. Jeeps became known far and wide as the strictly-business, go-anywhere vehicle. After World War II, military-style Jeeps came into civilian use, but so did a series of more civilized wagons.
According to Chrysler's corporate history, in July 1940 the U.S. military solicited bids for building a "light reconnaissance vehicle." Specifications included a rectangular-shaped body, 600-pound load capacity, wheelbase less than 75 inches, height under 36 inches, fold-down windshield-and gross weight under 1,300 pounds.
Only three manufacturers responded: Willys-Overland and American Bantam, joined later by Ford Motor Company. Each company produced prototypes for testing, including the Willys Quad and Ford GP (General Purpose, but known as Pygmy). Each then built 70 sample vehicles, though none could meet the specification for weight. Next, each was asked to deliver 1,500 vehicles.
Willys was selected as the primary manufacturer, and the Quad turned into the MA, and later the MB. To the Army and most of the world, however, that Willys model was dubbed the "Jeep." No one is certain where the name came from. Could be a slurring of the GP designation. Or, it may have reflected a cartoon character called "Eugene the Jeep."
Willys' MA had a steering-column gearshift and low side body cutouts, but it barely made the new 2,160-pound weight limit. Willys-Overland made more than 368,000 Jeep vehicles, painted olive-drab. Ford produced 277,000, under license.
Rather than abandon Jeeps after the war, Willys-Overland developed a civilian CJ-2A, with a side-mounted spare tire and a tailgate. In addition to military-style Jeeps, the company created the Jeepster-the last phaeton-style, open-bodied vehicle made by a U.S. automaker. A cross between starkness and refinement, the Jeepster had a convertible top, with side curtains rather than roll-down windows.
A CJ-3A with a one-piece windshield replaced the CJ-2A in 1949. In 1953, when the CJ-3B came along with a new F-head engine, Willys-Overland was sold to independent automaker Henry J. Kaiser. Production continued after Kaiser dropped out of the passenger-car business. Then, in 1970, American Motors Corp. acquired the Jeep brand.
A CJ-5 appeared in 1955, with rounded front fenders. A year later, the CJ-6 rode a wheelbase 20 inches longer. Jeep pickups were produced from 1947-65, and station wagons from 1946-65.
Wagoneers, introduced in 1963, were the predecessors of the later Cherokee and offered the first automatic transmission in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Jeep Commandos (1967-73) had a shorter wheelbase and a V-6 engine. When AMC introduced the CJ-7 in 1976, it was the first major change in Jeep design in two decades. For the first time, a molded plastic top and steel doors were available.
Built on a unibody platform, the 1984 Cherokee was smaller than its Wagoneer predecessor. Not until 2002 was it replaced by a new Liberty. A bigger Grand Cherokee debuted for 1993 as the first SUV with a driver's airbag. Biggest of the lot was the Commander of 2006-10, with three-row seating. In 2007, Jeep unveiled a pair of smaller, carlike compact SUVs: the Compass and Patriot. Grand Cherokees went through three generations before their 2011 redesign, again offered with V-6 or Hemi V-8 power.
Meanwhile, the old CJ series gave way to the first-generation Wrangler in 1987. In that year, Jeep became part of Chrysler Corporation, when that company took over what remained of American Motors.
Second-generation Wranglers reverted closer to the look of the CJ-7, retaining a fold-down windshield and removable doors. A luxurious Wrangler Rubicon debuted in 2003, followed by a Wrangler Unlimited on a longer wheelbase. Latest Wranglers are available with a four-door, open-air design. When Chrysler merged with Daimler-Benz, and later with Fiat, the Jeep division remained a particularly popular part of the overall company picture, enhancing the value of the Chrysler organization.