The groundwork for the Jeep brand was laid in 1940 when the United States government asked companies to provide a fully-functional four-wheel drive vehicle. The government had tight guidelines in mind for the offer so American Bantam and Willys-Overland were the only companies that responded to the offer.
Freelance engineer Karl Probst designed a compact four-wheel drive vehicle for American Bantam but the company was in dire financial straits so the...
task of fine-tuning and producing what would become the first Jeep was given to Willys and, on a much smaller scale, Ford. Called Willys MB, the first Jeep performed admirable during the Second World War.
When peace returned, Willys' management believed there was a niche to fill by selling the compact off-roader that had proven itself on the beaches of Normandy to farmers and residents of rural areas. After toying around with several prototypes, the company launched the CJ-2A across the United States in 1945. CJ was an acronym that stood for Civilian Jeep and 2A indicated it was an evolution of the CJ-2.
The Jeep lineup grew quickly with the addition of a station wagon and a pickup truck a year later, and again in 1948 with a bold and eccentric sports car called Jeepster. Aimed largely at World War II veterans, the Jeepster was a flop and production ended in 1950 but the wagon and the pickup proved immensely popular and stuck around until the 1960s.
Kaiser purchased Willys in 1953 and launched the CJ-5, the longest-running CJ model, in 1954. Over the course of the 1950s, Jeep focused on expanding its commercial vehicle lineup with models like the DJ delivery van and the Forward Control utility vehicles.
Jeep made international headlines in 1963 when it launched the Wagoneer, a tall off-roader that borrowed its body-on-frame architecture from the year-old Gladiator pickup. The Wagoneer was initially available with either four or, oddly, three doors, two- or four-wheel drive and a 230-cubic-inch straight-six engine. Customers were quick to speak: By the time the 1960s drew to a close, the Wagoneer was only offered as a four-door with four-wheel drive, and most examples were powered by a V8 engine.
American Motors Corporation (AMC) purchased Kaiser in 1970 and the decade came and went without any major changes made to the Jeep lineup. The Jeepster was briefly brought back under the name Commando and a two-door variant of the Wagoneer called Cherokee was introduced in 1974.
AMC formed a partnership with France's Renault in 1979. In exchange for producing the Renault Alliance and Encore in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the Renault distributed select jeep models in Europe and sometimes fitted with diesel engines. Jeep's European endeavor and a joint-venture signed with China's Beijing Automotive Industry Corporation (BAIC) in 1984 marked the firm's first serious attempts at expanding outside of the United States.
The boxy Cherokee was introduced in 1984 and became one of Jeep's most popular and iconic models. The Wrangler replaced the decades-old CJ in 1987 and helped boost Jeep sales in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Crippled by debt and an outdated lineup, AMC was purchased by Chrysler and euthanized but the Jeep brand survived. The Grand Wagoneer was replaced with the AMC-designed Grand Cherokee in 1993 and the lineup was gradually modernized with an all-new Wrangler and a facelifted Cherokee. The 1990s and 2000s were tumultuous decades as Chrysler went through the hands of Daimler, a private equity firm called Cerebus and Italy's Fiat.
Today, Jeep offers a full lineup of off-roaders ranging from the compact Patriot to the full-size Grand Cherokee, while the spirit of the original Willys MB lives on in the Wrangler.