Military Jeeps were on display during the fourth annual Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival last weekend at Cooper’s Lake Campground in Worth Township.
WORTH TWP — While Jeeps of many shapes and colors converged on Butler County for the just-concluded Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival, the pedigree for those vehicles stems back many decades to a Butler company. With the name of the event including the word “heritage,” historical presentations also made up a portion of the festival. Lee Bortmas, a Bantam historian speaking at the festival, gave a presentation on how Bantam came to design the original Jeep. In 1938-39, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was taking over European countries left and right. “They were knocking on France’s front door,” Bortmas said. France was a U.S. ally, and the country also was extremely geographically close to the United Kingdom, also a close ally. U.S. officials realized it would soon be dragged into World War II, and they had concerns about the type of vehicles the Army had available. Military officials were interested in developing some sort of scout car that would take the place of motorcycles and the cavalry on the front lines. In the middle of 1940, American Bantam, based in Butler, was going broke. “At the end of June, they would have no money,” Bortmas said. Bantam already made some vehicles for the Army, so Army officials traveled to Butler to see what could be done. Around that time, two officials named Wylie and Howie developed a vehicle known as the Howie machine gun carrier, also known as a “belly flopper” because drivers laid on their stomachs. The Army wanted to see if it could improve and modify the belly flopper using Bantam parts. However, that could not be done. “An entirely different vehicle would have to be made,” Bortmas said. The Army drew up a list of specifications for the new vehicle. It would have to carry three or four men and their equipment, have four-wheel drive, be easy to enter and exit and its weight could not exceed 1,300 pounds. The Army sent out the specs to 135 manufacturers around the country. Bantam officials felt, with the company already supplying some military vehicles, it had its foot in the door, so it felt it could build the vehicle. The company found the only parts it already had that could be used were the horn buttons and parts of the dashboard. It would need to design an entirely new vehicle. Bantam President Frank Fenn knew an engineer from Detroit named Carl Probst, and asked for his help. Probst said he could not help, saying he was too busy. However, Probst changed his mind after the Germans bombed London. Probst traveled to Butler and came up with a design in a few days. Bantam officials went to Washington, D.C., with the design and spoke to an official. The official noted the design would weigh 1,850 pounds, significantly more than the bid called for. “He said, ‘You don’t have a chance,’” Bortmas said. However, realizing the difficulty of the design and specifications, the official agreed to fudge the bid. Military officials said that Bantam was the only official bidder so far, and told the company to start work on a prototype immediately. Bantam had a prototype in 48 days. Officials drove the vehicle to an Army base in Maryland to test it. A major, who was the chief vehicle testing official, took the Jeep out for a spin and was extremely impressed. “This is absolutely the most significant vehicle I have ever driven,” Bortmas quoted the official as saying. The major asked how heavy the vehicle was, and Probst answered honestly. The major said he would like the vehicles to be light enough that a couple of soldiers could pick one up. The second in command testing official, who Bortmas said was a very large man, went to the vehicle, lifted it off the ground and said it felt to be around 1,400 pounds. The Army accepted Bantam’s Jeep. The company went on to build 2,675 Jeeps, and 42 still exist today.