Let's Learn From the Past: The Jeep

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In 1940, the small Bantam Car Co. of Butler developed an automobile prototype that changed the highways forever. The jeep, a true American icon and the forerunner of today's popular SUVs, was invented and first produced in Western Pennsylvania.

In preparation for World War II, the U.S. Army requested bids for a motorized vehicle that would take the place of the horse and provide a go-anywhere gun platform.

The desired prototype vehicle needed to weigh less than 2,000 pounds, climb a 30 degree grade, and pull a cannon.

More than 135 American carmakers were invited to submit prototypes, including big producers such as Ford and Willys-Overland, but most automakers found the Army's strict requirements impossible to meet in the 49-day deadline.

However, Butler's tiny American Bantam Car Co. could do the job. After five days of frantic brainstorming, Bantam developed the design that would help win World War II and revolutionize the auto industry.

Bantam's jeep prototype was thoroughly tested and delivered to the Army at Camp Holabird, Md., on Sept. 23, 1940.

Bantam produced 2,675 jeeps during World War II, but the small company was unable to manufacture the vehicles in the huge volume needed by the Army. Production contracts for nearly 700,000 jeeps eventually were given to Ford and Willys-Overland, and Bantam closed its doors in 1956.

Visitors to the Heinz History Center on Saturday can discover the behind-the-scene stories of America's most iconic objects as part of a special discussion with Smithsonian expert Dr. Richard Kurin, author of the best-selling book, "The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects." A prototype 1940 Bantam jeep, on loan from the Smithsonian, is on long-term display in the History Center's first floor Great Hall.

For more information, please visit www.heinzhistorycenter.org.

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