[The April 2016 issue] is a very special issue. It marks the beginning of our 75 Years of Jeep series, a multi-chapter historical examination of the origin, trial by fire, and growth of the Jeep into the cultural icon it is today. No author we know but Jim Allen could do it justice, and as part of the series kick-off, we invited Allen to do something never done in the (20?) years Jp has existed, write a guest editorial. But then, this is no ordinary year. This is the 75th anniversary of the Jeep. – Rick Pewe.
The origins of the Jeep have been called “obscure,” but a good deal of that has been clarified through diligent research. The primary legend has the name coming from a slurring of “GP,” but it didn’t mean “General Purpose.” The “G” signified a government contract vehicle and “P” indicating the 80-inch wheelbase. Even though the Ford GP was the first jeep to reach GIs in large numbers in 1941, the General Purpose name wasn’t Army nomenclature in WWII and only seen on obscure documents.
The word “jeep” already existed in military parlance. It dates back as far as WWI and described an unproven human recruit or an unproven new vehicle. There is evidence it was used this way in the build-up of forces prior to the war and the conception of the 1/4-ton jeep.
This page from a January 17, 1942, issue of the long-defunct Saturday Evening Post shows the ’40 Dodge VC-1 Command Car often known as “jeep” on the left. The early 1/4-ton is on the right. When first issued, it was called the “peep,” a name that persisted until late in the WWII.
Eugene-the-Jeep, a character in the Popeye the Sailor comic strip by E.C. Segar debuted in 1936, was magical in his abilities and became a beloved character. The term “jeep” became known in the civilian world as describing something extraordinary. How Segar found the word and why he used it for the comic strip is still a mystery.
So it’s not hard to see how a bunch of grizzled GIs, many of them retreads from WWI, might end up calling the unproven vehicle a “jeep.” Civilians ignorant of Army talk hear the Eugene reference. Then something called a “Gee Pee” shows up!
“Jeep Creeps Up Capitol Steps” is the February 20, 1941, headline reporter Kathryn Hillyer used for her syndicated story about an odd new military vehicle in a publicity stunt. Senator Meade of New York was behind the wheel, with Representative Thomas of New Jersey riding shotgun.
However, the best-documented reference came out of a February 1941 publicity stunt. A Willys Quad was driven up the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Irving “Red” Housman, a Willys test driver was asked, “What is that thing?” “It’s a jeep,” he said. His answer was overheard by a syndicated newspaper columnist and seen all over the U.S. the next day. Even though many in the Army knew them as “peeps” and other names, the quarter-ton 4×4 became “jeep” from that day forward.
Willys-Overland applied for the “Jeep” trademark in 1943, but it was not granted until 1950 because there was conflict over the origins of the name and to what vehicle it was applied first. Eventually, the “jeep” became “Jeep,” but you still see both in the dictionary. The lower case jeep has long been a generic term for any compact 4×4, and historians tend to use the lower case when referring to WWII jeeps built by Willys, Bantam, or Ford. The upper-case Jeep is the trademark and is commonly used for anything from ’45 and up.
Eugene-the-Jeep was one of the ’30s most popular comic strip characters. Described by another character in the strip, Professor Brainstine, as being an African Hooey Hound enhanced with “Jeep Cells” from the Fourth Dimension, Eugene was loyal, trustworthy, and capable of extraordinary feats. The word “Jeep” was as a term for extraordinary in the time before the Army’s 1/4-ton 4×4 appeared.