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.
Jeep fanatics even debate the origin of the name. Chrysler doesn't take sides, noting only that some believe it resulted from the slurred pronunciation of the letters "GP," the government's designation for "general purpose" vehicle, while others insist enamored GIs named it after a character in the Popeye comic strip. Eugene the Jeep, the sailor's jungle pet, was known for its ability to maneuver out of tough situations.
Whatever the case, generations of drivers still love Jeeps — especially those from the 1940s — and have come to Butler to profess it.
Bill Ringeisen, 55, of Evans City, owns five Jeeps, including a 1942 Ford GPW that he's restored to WWII specs since rescuing it 15 years ago from a Pittsburgh chicken coop where it was rusting away.
"When you re-do a World War II vehicle, you don't want it perfect like a (restored) Corvette or a Camaro," Ringeisen said. Imperfections were common as the vehicles were hastily manufactured and, often, cannibalized and rebuilt during the war with parts swapped between Willys and Ford models.
That doesn't mean details don't matter: Ringeisen belongs to a group called the Flat Fender Club, so-named for those who prefer models before Willys began rounding the fenders in the 1950s.
The organizers of the Jeep Festival are content as long as people include Butler's role in any conversation about Jeep history.
Jack Cohen, president of Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau, came up with the festival idea after he bought a Jeep and noticed Jeep owners have a kinship similar to that of Harley Davidson motorcycle owners.
"Everywhere I go there's kind of a Harley following. And everybody that I know who are Jeepers are the same way, and I thought, 'My gosh, we're missing an opportunity to talk about this history in Butler," Cohen said.
Cohen's group and the city are currently in negotiations with AK Steel Co. (Armco Steel's successor) to obtain the vacant American Bantam plant. Eventually, they'd like to convert part of it to a Bantam Jeep history center, while perhaps using the rest as an incubator for innovative businesses.
The drama of the Jeep story doesn't hurt, said Patti Jo Lambert, the festival's spokeswoman.
"For somebody who really wants to learn about the history of how the Jeep began, there's a lot of twists and turns," Lambert said.