Keith Srakocic, Associated Press
PITTSBURGH — Thirty miles north of Pittsburgh, where industrial giants like U.S. Steel were just beginning to forge the metallic backbone of the nation's upcoming World War II machine, a tiny company that made even tinier cars developed the prototype for a vehicle that would revolutionize the way soldiers traveled: the Jeep.
The inaugural Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival, which runs Friday through Sunday, features a parade of more than 1,200 Jeeps; a "playground" where aficionados can drive over rocky obstacles, hills and bridges, and fair-like entertainment and eats. But, most importantly, it shines a spotlight on Butler and the defunct American Bantam Car Co., which has made the city of nearly 14,000 residents almost famous.
"It's not what you would call an invention like a light bulb. It's a design," said Bill Spear, an Alaska Jeep enthusiast and expert on American Bantam's history. "But, that being said, it's one of the most enduring and original designs in automotive history."
The thumbnail version of the story is that American Bantam was one of just two companies — out of 135 manufacturers solicited — to bid on a contract to produce a new lightweight, all-terrain vehicle as top federal and military officials quietly prepared in 1940 for the United States to go to war.
Willys-Overland is often credited with inventing the Jeep because it emerged from the war with the rights to the vehicle's design and trademarked the name soon afterward. Willys was also the only other manufacturer to submit a bid, but it couldn't meet the government's 49-day deadline to build a prototype. Only Bantam did that.
And yet — possibly due to favoritism, New Deal politics, or bureaucratic infighting — Bantam was pushed to the sidelines. A congressional inquiry into how that happened was trumped by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, as Willys and Ford won government contracts and made history, producing nearly all of the nearly 650,000 Jeeps used in the war. Bantam would survive by making military trailers, torpedo motors and aircraft landing gear, before the company was bought out by what was then Armco Steel in 1956.
"It was a whole convoluted year of infighting over who would produce the first Jeep," Spear said. "Some of the greatest names of the era were involved and they're all at cross-purposes and trying to take credit. It was like throwing a bunch of meat in a shark pool."
The locals bristle at the oft-repeated history that American Bantam was passed over in favor of the larger auto makers because the company was in financial trouble and thought not to be able to deliver a big order. Spear said the factory had the capacity to produce 150 to 300 vehicles a day — more than sufficient to meet military demands — but lost control of its design to the military, which then gave Willys and, eventually, Ford, extra time to come up with similar prototypes after Army experts realized their original hopes for a 1,200-pound vehicle (light enough for soldiers to pull out of the mud) wasn't practical.
Willys would merge with Kaiser Motors in the 1950s, and later be purchased by American Motors Corp. before Chrysler bought AMC in the 1980s, largely to get its hands on the Jeep line. Chrysler's official "Jeep History" credits Bantam with creating the earliest prototype in the three-way competition, but says a version known as the Willys Quad "with modifications and improvements" was the vehicle that became the Jeep.
"There is no more real dispute between any of the corporations," said Jay Margolies, the president and owner of Willys-Overland Motors, of Toledo, Ohio. "But there is a dispute among aficionados and they'll go on forever about it. They even argue about how to pronounce Willys," Margolies said, with some preferring something akin to "Willis."
Margolies, who owns the Willys name pronounces it WIL'-ees, specializes in Jeep replacement parts but his company is not otherwise in the lineage or affiliated with the original firm.