The Jeep Edition

On brand origins, cute Army nicknames, and teleporting dogs

Steve Bryant (SB) is a content strategy and ops consultant, co-founder of the midnight costumed adventure Rental Car Rally, founding editor of InsideHook, triangle enthusiast, and a longtime friend of WITI (he wrote our very first guest edition on Maslow and recent editions on Pythagoras and meditation). He wrote this while waiting in line at Graceland. 

Steve here. The auto brand Jeep is named after a teleporting, interdimensional dog. It’s also the 4th most popular auto brand in the United States, selling almost 800,000 vehicles per year. All of these are true facts.

We know these are true facts because market research tells us so. Though for the teleporting dog bit, you can trust the testimony of warrior poet R. Lee Ermey.

A few years back on the History Channel, Ermey suggested that the name Jeep came from the comic strip Thimble Theater (later simply Popeye). He related how, in 1936, a full five years before the vehicles that would become Jeeps rolled off the assembly line, the strip introduced a character named Eugene the Jeep—a mysterious fourth-dimensional being that had somehow merged with an African hooey hound (very much not a thing). 

Popeye, being a dutiful suitor, presented Eugene to Olive Oyl as a gift, saying simply: "The Jeep's a magical dog and can disappear and things". 

That, said Ermey, is a likely theory as to how Jeep got its name.

Yet despite this precedent-setting appearance in comic literature—which is the source of all truly good things—and despite Gunny’s say so (may he rest in peace), the origin of the word Jeep remains an enduring controversy, and a diverting topic to argue with Jeep owners whenever the opportunity may arise. 

Why is this interesting?

Here’s another true fact: Jeeps arrived onto European battlefields in 1941 without any name at all.

Back then, it was simply known as the 1/4 ton truck 4x4, sometimes amplified by its standard nomenclature list (SNL) group number used for ordering parts, which was G-503.

Didn’t really roll off the tongue. 

The term “jeep”, though, had been around for many years in the service. Enlisted men used it to refer to anything that was insignificant or small or awkward, and mechanics used the term “jeepy” to refer to any new vehicle. Soldiers also used the term to refer to any new enlisted men, replacing the WWI term “cooky”.

For a time, the term “jeep” became the word used for the Army’s 1/2 ton truck. That led some to refer to the 1/4 ton truck as “son of jeep” or “baby jeep”. The guys in tanks referred to the 1/4 ton as “peep”, for its scouting abilities (the vehicle’s original intended purpose), and amphibious versions went by “seep.” Soldiers also called the Army’s 3/4 ton command truck the “beep.” 

So by way of summation, our soldiers drove jeeps, baby jeeps, peeps, seeps, and beeps. It was a very charming war.

Meanwhile, there were actually three different 1/4 ton 4x4s tooling around the hedges and bocages of Europe, each made by a different company: Bantam, the folks who developed the concept for the things; Willys-Overland, the folks who actually designed the things; and Ford, the folks who could produce the things in the quantities and with the speed the Army desired.

left to right: The 1941 Willys-Overland MA, Bantam BRC, and Ford GP.

The internal designation for the Ford model was GPW, where the G stood for Government, P for 80in wheelbase, and W stood for Willys.1 That name has led some to argue that the word jeep comes from G.I.s slurring the initials G.P. This is a pleasing and intuitive argument, at least partly because it complements the manner in which the brand Humvee is derived from its military acronym (The High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle).

But that theory, too, is wrong. For “jeep” to become Jeep, you can look to a man named Irving “Red” Hausmann, and to the power of advertising.

Red was a test driver. His job was to evaluate vehicles at Willys-Overland. As the story goes, Red started referring to the 1/4 ton 4x4 as a jeep. The name spread to the Willys factory workers in Toledo. And then one day, for a media stunt, Red demonstrated the 1/4 ton 4x4 by literally driving it up the Capitol steps in Washington DC. A bystander asked what he was driving. 

Said Red: “It’s a jeep.”

Shortly thereafter Willys began advertising its contribution to the war effort using the Jeep name. So did Ford. And so did Bantam, which sued Willys, arguing that they, Bantam, developed the concept. The courts ruled in favor of Willys, which was acquired by Kaiser Manufacturing Co., which became Kaiser-Jeep Corp., which was acquired by AMC, which was acquired by Chrysler, which was acquired by Stellantis, which today sells about 800,000 Jeeps every year. The new Willys model, with its throwback styling, is one of them.

Given this variety of possible etymologies, it is perhaps the case that Jeep, the vehicle, wasn’t named directly after Jeep, the teleporting, extra dimensional dog. But I have a Jeep. I’m driving it across Mississippi at the moment, then Louisiana, then Texas, then straight to California. I’ve gotten to know this Jeep pretty well. I choose to believe it is a magical hound. (SB

Chart of the Day:

Speaking of cars, this chart of changing car colors in Poland over the last thirty years was fascinating. (NRB)

Quick Links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Steve (SB)

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Why “P” for wheelbase? I’m not rightly sure. The designation was internal to Ford, but I couldn’t find a precise reason for the letter. One possibility is that “P” referred to all “passenger” reconnaissance vehicles with an 80in wheelbase. If you know the correct reasoning, please drop a line.