The iconic World War II vehicle got its start on the punishing test course of Camp Holabird

During World War I, Holabird was the site of an Army quartermaster depot that shipped supplies to US forces. These included trucks. Soldiers had to be taught to drive and repair these vehicles, so Holabird also had a school. It had something else, too: a test track designed to introduce drivers to the conditions they might encounter. It also served to test the vehicles themselves.

Even before the United States entered World War II, Army brass knew there was a deficiency in the US motor pool: Our trucks were too big for quick, stealthy movement. We needed a small, multipurpose reconnaissance vehicle.

The specifications that went out to US manufacturers in May 1940 stipulated that this new vehicle weigh no more than 1,300 pounds, have a two-meter wheelbase and be four-wheel-drive. It should be able to carry 600 pounds — three men, basically — and a .30-caliber machine gun.

And the Army wanted a working prototype in 49 days.

Only two manufacturers—the American Bantam Co. and Willys-Overland—entered vehicles in the competition. They would be tested at Holabird’s infamous test track, a process one writer liked to “rolling [the truck] down the Grand Canyon.”

Another motor transport officer, quoted in Herbert R. Rifkin’s official Army history of the project, said the test course “tortures a truck like an inquisitional rack, and if a truck has anything to confess, it confesses.”

The process at Holabird started with a visual inspection, followed by a dynamometer test to check engine horsepower.

Then came 5,000 miles of normal highway driving with a full payload and towed loads. Next came the torture, beginning with a 1,000-mile cross-country test.

“This was a severe trial that included going through mud holes, up hills with grades of 65%, over large ditches, and around small twisting hills that frequently caused frame distortion,” Rifkin wrote.

Then the vehicle was driven 1,000 miles on a clay road, followed by 500 miles on a sand course. The last step was 10 hours of driving up a sand grade so steep that the vehicle had to travel in its lowest gear at no more than 2 mph.

Finally the model was disassembled and examined.

“Bantam was the only car company that met the requirements,” said Van Valkenburgh, who writes about World War II equipment on his website and Facebook page.

But the Army worried that the small Butler, Pa., company couldn’t manufacture the vehicles in sufficient quantities. Willys and Ford were chosen to build the quarter-ton, 4×4 command reconnaissance vehicle. Between 1941 and 1945, Willys built 300,000 at its Toledo plant. Ford built 250,000 at five different plants.

As for the name, in 1943 an Army spokesman told the Associated Press it derived from its role as a “general purpose” vehicle, or GP. Soon thereafter, he said, “the phonetic possibility of GP came to the forefront and the result was jeep.” Willys would eventually copyright the name, giving us Jeep.

Fort Holabird closed in 1973. A light industrial complex is on the site today. But in the center is a park. And in the park is the very hill where those prototypes were put through their arduous paces.

Steep concrete lanes run up the hill. You can’t drive on them — they’re in a pedestrian-only area — but Van Valkenburgh said Jeep owners should go to the site “and pay homage.” (He owns two: a Willys model and a Ford model.)

“The hill is where the Jeep itself was derived and the entire future of what is known today as the sport utility vehicle was born,” Van Valkenburgh said.

The soldiers who drove the jeep came to love it. In 1943, correspond Ernie Pyle wrote: “Good Lord, I don’t think we could continue the war without the jeep. It does everything. It goes everywhere. It’s as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It constantly carries twice what it was designed for, and still keeps going. It doesn’t even ride so badly after you get used to it. … The jeep is a divine instrument of wartime locomotion.”

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