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Butler base of little car that could

Key players in the creation of the Jeep gather with American Bantam Car Co. employees around the first model in 1940. In the driver's seat is Harold Crist with Frank Fenn, Bantam president, beside him. Engineer Karl Probst is at the far left.
Military sold on vehicle's versatility

In Butler's West End, behind the gates of AK Steel, stands a yellowish-brown brick building that is the birthplace of one of the world's most popular vehicles.

Amazingly in the early 1900s, Butler was home to several car manufacturers including the American Austin Car Co., which opened in 1930.

In 1932, the U.S. Army, looking for vehicles to replace the role of horses in the military, bought two American Austin Convertible pickup trucks. Those trucks are considered by jeep historians to be the ancestor to the original Jeep.

The American Austin Car Co., closed, re-organized and re-opened as the American Bantam Car Co. in 1935, making roadsters, coups and trucks that were so small they were often manually lifted and put on people's porches as a joke.

Retired Naval Commander Charles “Harry” Payne, who worked as a Bantam lobbiest and liaison with the U.S. military, began discussions with the U.S. Infantry about using the small cars as the base for a new combat car, specifically a reconnaissance vehicle.

By October 1940, Bantam had a contract to build 70 of these new vehicles for the Army's Quartermaster Technical Committee, on which the Bantam delivered in 12 weeks.

After extensive testing, American Bantam made some changes to the vehicle, such as squaring off rounded edges and removing the fenders, and delivered the new cars in a month's time.

A month later, the quartermaster and the National Advisory Commission had contacted both Willys-Overland and Ford car companies, as well as Bantam, asking them to produce 1,500 vehicles based on the Bantam design.

Bantam completed its 1,500 cars by May 1941, but the Army awarded future jeep contracts to Willys-Overland and Ford, a controversial move. Some claim it was because of Bantam's financial straits, others say it was because the company's bid was too high, even though Ford's bid as almost the same. While Willys underbid the other two, it didn't produce those first 1,500 vehicles for the Army, and it had design problems, specifically, its cars were too heavy.

Regardless of the reason, Bantam never had another contract to build the vehicle it had designed.

But Bantam wasn't about to give up, and began making trailers for military vehicles, and by the end of World War II, the company had made more than 2,500 jeeps, but more than 70,000 trailers, which were later made for civilian vehicles until Armco Steel bought the company in 1956.

The designing and building of the original jeep was a joint effort, including these people:• Harold Crist, an engineer who worked in developing the specifications for the Jeep and was the first to test drive the prototype vehicle. He's one of the best known of the Jeep inventors;• Frank Fenn, president of the American Bantam Car Co., who sought out a military contract to help put the company on solid financial footing, as well has helping to bring the Jeep from concept to an actual vehicle;• Chet Hempfling, a Butler native and chief mechanic, helped to create the gas pedal, throttle, sheet metal parts and wiring for the vehicle. He also helped to service some of the Jeeps during Army testing;• Karl Probst, an engineer who came to Butler from Toledo and made the initial Jeep design drawings in 18 hours, according to historical accounts;• Ralph Turner, a Butler native who concentrated on the Jeep's transmission and suspension.

As the war wound down to victor for the Allies, Willys-Overland received permission from the government to start civilian production of the Jeep in 1945, said Brandt Rosenbusch, the head of Chrysler Historical Services. Chrysler now serves as Jeep's parent company.The original price for the CJ-2A was $1,241. There were 1,823 built in 1945 and a total of 214,202 in its five years of production, Rosenbusch said.In 1947, Willys-Overland began production of Jeep pickup trucks and later built the first all-steel body station wagon.“Until that time, station wagons all had some parts of the bodies made out of wood,” Rosenbusch said.Kaiser Motors, formerly Kaiser-Frazer, Corp., made automobiles at Willow Run, Mich., from 1945 to 1953, merging with Willys-Overland to form Willys Motors Inc., and moving its production operations to the Willys plant at Toledo, Ohio. The company changed its name to Kaiser Jeep Corp., in 1963.In 1970s, Kaiser got out of the car business, selling that division to American Motor Co., which continued to manufacture the Jeep brand vehicles.Then in 1980s, in an effort to stay afloat, AMC partnered with France's Renault car company, which ended up with the majority stock in AMC, and sold out to Chrysler in 1987.Chrysler continues to produce Jeeps today under its Jeep Division.Sources: Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau, Butler County Historical Society, authors Ralph Goldinger and Audrey Fetters, “Butler County, the Second Hundred Years,” and Chrysler Historical Services.

American Bantam Car Co. workers built 70 prototypes in 12 weeks. They also produced 1,500 vehicles by May 1941. But the contract to build more Jeeps went to Willys-Overland Ford.

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