On March 7 of this year an article entitled “9 Critical Items Invented by The Military” appeared in this space.
It focused on how military inventions have led to some everyday things like canned food and penicillin and microwave ovens that we enjoy today.
But where the proverbial rubber literally meets the road is the introduction of four military vehicles – the Suburban, the Dodge Power Wagon, the Humvee and the Willys Jeep – variants of which are on the roads today.
So climb in and buckle up — we’re going to take a ride down this lane of American automotive history.
Rolling off the assembly line in 1934, the Chevrolet Suburban was first produced exclusively for the National Guard and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The eight passenger vehicle featured a station wagon-type body on a truck frame with a high towing capacity.
The second generation of the Suburban saw service in World War II as a passenger and cargo carrier. After the war it became a favorite among ranchers. In diminishing numbers, it is still a hulking presence on roads today.
Dodge Power Wagon
The original Dodge Power Wagon is a direct descendant of the four-wheel drive half, three quarter, and one ton military vehicles that Dodge began producing in 1934.
A forerunner of the high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles to come, the Dodge WC Series featured a prolific range of light four and six wheel drive military utility trucks used during the Second World War.
After the war, the “power wagon” became available to the public. It featured a cab dating to 1939, a wood-plank bed and open fenders that resisted mud clogging, making it more of an agricultural tool than anything else. The truck’s reliability and toughness helped in making Dodge’s mark in the pickup truck market, and the Ram 2500 Power Wagon pays homage to this classic military vehicle.
By 1979 the Army had reached the conclusion that it needed to replace all the tactical military vehicles in the one-quarter to one-and-a-quarter ton range. Familiarity with the Dodge Power Wagon and its abilities led the service branch to AM General, a subsidiary of American Motors Corporation, to design the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV), or Humvee.
The military vehicle saw combat in Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. From its first introduction on the battlefield to the present, it has evolved to keep pace with the threats it faced; however, the Army and Marines have begun to phase it out of their inventories.
But the public noticed and liked the vehicle, and in 1992 AM General began marketing and selling a civilian version of the Humvee to the public under the brand name HUMMER.
An early hit with Hollywood celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hummer line did not last as it was hard during the 2008 recession. When General Motors filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009, the Hummer brand was sold to a Chinese machinery company.
But they are still on the road today.
Peeps, Bantams and Then Jeeps
Then there is the Jeep.
This legendary military vehicle began its drive into American history on the eve of World War II.
In 1941, Willys-Overland began to manufacture a general purpose military vehicle. When one of the new trucks was tested by driving it up the steps of the United States Capitol, the driver called it a “Jeep.”
During the war, however, some soldiers referred to the Willys-Overlands as “Peeps,” and others referred to them as “Bantams.” By 1942, the name “Jeep” had become common.
From 1941 through 1945, Willys produced over 350,000 Model MB Jeeps that proved to be the original go-everywhere, do-everything utility vehicle.
As I sat behind the wheel of a 1944 Willys MB 4×4 Army Jeep, Renee’ Crist, the curator of collections at America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington, smiled and asked, “It’s a magnificent vehicle, isn’t it?”
Oh yes. This 4 cylinder, 134 cubic inch, 60 horse-powered bantam-sized giant could haul 600 to 1000 pounds, serve as an ambulance, tow airplanes, plow snow, conduct reconnaissance missions, bulldoze dirt, climb 40 percent grades, and after a change of tires could serve as a train engine to pull freight cars.
Its versatility and indestructibility led famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle to call the Jeep one of “the two most important pieces of non-combat equipment ever developed.”
“Riding on rail wheels instead of tires, the Jeep could pull up to ten tons,” explained Crist.
At war’s end, the most iconic of military vehicles made a successful lane change into the civilian automobile market; returning service members bought the surplus vehicles for off-roading, camping, hunting or fishing.
“It did not take long for the brand to grow,” concluded Crist, “and there is no doubt that the military’s Jeep has had the largest impact on the civilian market.”
And with that thought in mind, our ride down the highway of military vehicles – and their influence on four of today’s cars – rolls to an end.
Special thanks are owed to Renee’ Crist, the curator of collections, at America’s Car Museum. Her knowledge of all things automotive is surpassed only by her courtesy and professionalism.