The American Bantam Car Company invented, developed and produced one of the most famous vehicles in the world – the jeep. It all happened here in Butler, Pa.
In 1940, the U S Army asked 135 tractor and auto manufacturers to design a four-wheel drive, 40 horsepower, 1,300 pound reconnaissance car that could haul soldiers as well as heavy artillery. The challenge? The designer was expected to have a working prototype available for a test run within 49 days.
Only two companies responded to the request, The American Bantam Car Company of Butler, Pa. and Willys-Overland Motors of Toledo, Ohio. Because Bantam promised to deliver the prototype in 45 days, they won contract.
Bantam’s Factory Manager Frank Fenn, former General Motors Executive Arthur Brandt and a skeleton work crew were feverishly working on the project when Fenn called freelance designer Karl Probst in Detroit and offered him the design job. Probst agreed to design the car in five days and forgo payment for his services if Bantam did not win the Army contract.
The Bantam prototype was called the Bantam Reconnaissance Car, or BRC. After maintaining a frantic schedule for nearly seven weeks, the Bantam group managed to bring the layouts and spec sheets to life.
Ralph Turner of Butler drove the vehicle to Camp Holabird, Maryland on September 23. The Army tested it for 30 days. Unfortunately, Bantam could not meet the Army’s production demands of 75 vehicles per day. The Army gave Ford and Willys the Bantam’s blueprints and they produced the vehicles the Army required. Ford and Willys fulfilled the Army’s contracts for 600,000 Jeeps for World War II.
Bantam produced a total of 2,675 jeeps and never produced another vehicle after that. They then produced ‘jeep’ cargo trailers, torpedo motors and other items until they closed in 1956.
The Bantam jeep was the first of what would eventually evolve into the World War II US Army Jeeps, the Willys MB and the Ford GPW.