The Real Winner in War? Automotive Design


When can a jeep be a Ford?

Answer: World War II. Not all “jeeps” were Fords, but a lot were. Today the “Jeep” marque is owned by Chrysler, but during the war, when the original design for the “jeep” was developed, the U.S. government needed “all hands on deck” to churn out enough for the war effort.

The overwhelming bulk of jeep production was split between the two biggest U.S. automakers of the day: Willys-Overland and Ford. Ironically, American Bantam, which came up with the original design, ended up not making very many jeeps at all.

Wars and Lasting Designs

LaCrosse Missile SystemIt’s painful to say, but it looks like war creates innovative and lasting designs. A country’s designers and engineers seem to do their best work with a “gun to their heads” – speaking figuratively, of course.

The evolutionary line between the jeeps of WWII and today’s Jeep runs through several corporations. While the names of the makers have changed over the years – Willys-Overland, Kaiser Jeep, AMC and now Chrysler – basic elements of the design have not. If you could drop a U.S. Army private assigned to the motor pool in 1942 in the middle of a car lot full of modern day Jeep Wranglers, he’d instantly recognize the vehicles as jeeps.

Maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, when a nation goes to war, it needs to have equipment that is reliable and does the job. Isn’t that really what consumers most desire as well? With the added pressure of war, manufacturers take those criteria very seriously.

On the Enemy Side

America and its allies weren’t the only WWII participants to benefit from excellent and lasting designs. Working for the German air force, BMW designers developed fantastic airplane engines. As anyone who has seen the movie Finding Forester would know, the BMW logo is emblematic of the airplane propellers that were powered by the company’s engines.

Powered by the BMW 801 engine, Germany’s Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter plane was able to dominate the European skies when pitted against the British Air Force’s Spitfire Mark V. Now BMW takes all that engineering expertise and focuses it on providing drivers with top performance cars that dominate highways around the world.

Gulf War Reprise

We saw a story similar to the WWII jeep saga occur during the first Gulf War – the Hummer story. Although the “Humvee” made its combat debut in Panama when our troops went down to grab Manuel Noriega in 1989, it was during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 that the vehicle really caught the eye of the American consumer and set the stage for sales to the general public.

By the way, the original military Humvee was designed by an arm of AMC, maker of the Jeep at the time. In 1992, after some arm twisting by Arnold Schwarzenegger who had become smitten with the ride, the company decided to make a civilian version available, and the Hummer marque was born.

Eventually, General Motors took over the brand and issued a couple of downsized versions of the vehicle. While the Hummer was able to withstand the rigors of war, it fell to rising fuel prices. GM buried the brand in 2010. Is it now tomorrow’s collectible?

What Comes Next?

The link between war and innovative design has always been strong. We have jet engines, rockets and atomic energy in large part due to research and development associated with major wars. Perhaps the most important question is what will the next major war bring, even more innovation or the final end of all innovation?


Photo credit: Daniel DeCristo via Flickr Creative Commons

Chris Turberville-Tully, who works with HR Owen in England, is a retired sailor in the British Royal Navy. Chris has traveled the world extensively, having visited over 80 countries. Follow Chris on Google+.

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One Response to The Real Winner in War? Automotive Design

  1. Kris N. Guzman December 4, 2013 at 6:00 am #

    including oil and water). He was thus able to use the powerful but comparatively heavy Willys ” Go Devil ” engine, and win the initial production contract. The Willys version of the car would become the standardized jeep design, designated the model MB and was built at their plant in Toledo, Ohio . The familiar pressed metal Jeep grille was actually a Ford design feature and incorporated into the final design by the Army.

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