One of the biggest Jeep festivals in the U.S., takes place in Butler, PA, the birthplace of the Bantam Jeep.
The granddaddy of all Jeeps, the Bantam was invented, developed, and produced by the American Bantam Car Company. This Jeep evolved into the Willys MB, used by the U.S. Army in the Second World War .
The Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival in Butler, which is about 55 km north of Pittsburgh, has grown significantly since its inception four years ago. 2014 marked a record year, with 1,911 Jeeps participating – an increase of 23 per cent over the previous year . Registered participants came from 28 states and two Canadian provinces,. with total attendance topping 20,700.
The festival kicked off with “Jeep Invasion.” The tiny city of Butler, PA transformed into a giant Jeep showroom in the heart of the downtown core. Every Jeep imaginable from Willys and Wagoneers to YJs and TJs filled Main Street, stretching more than a kilometre. Jeeps overflowed onto nearby side streets.
Mud Pits and Off-Roading
Getting into the main site at Cooper’s Lake Campground in Slippery Rock took time and patience - Jeeps of all vintages, sizes and modifications waited in long queues for the chance to let loose. But it was worth it – the numerous activities included a giant obstacle course with two big mud pits, on- and off-site trail rides, and how-to clinics.
This is serious business for Jeep lovers who aren’t afraid to get their wheels dirty. The popular playground offered drivers a chance to test out their skills and SUVs, climbing rocks and hills, balancing on logs, and gunning it through mud pits.
Trickier Than It Looks
Not all Jeeps tackled this massive rock pile with ease and confidence. When this Jeep driver got his wheel wedged between a rock and a hard place, only a bulldozer could get him out of the jam. “No comment” from the embarrassed driver – but in fairness, it was his first attempt at rock climbing.
For some Jeep drivers, a mystery road rally and scavenger hunt through Butler county brought out the competitive edge. Others waited patiently in long lines for trail rides to nearby Moraine State Park, a driving tour to see three geological formations made by glaciers, and a tour to explore the county’s historical roots.
Best In Class
Jeeps parked as far as the eye can see to participate in the “Show 'n Shine” and “Ruff 'n Tuff” competitions. “Show ‘n Shine” winners were picked from several categories such as Military Jeep MA/MB/GP/GPW, CJ-2A, CJ-7, CJ-8, J-Series, Cherokee, TJ and YJ Jeeps; while the “Ruff 'n Tuff” categories included Most Mud, Best Chick Jeep, and Best Beater Jeep.
Show 'n Shine
Proud Canadians Debbie and Gunnar Kloetzig took second place in the modified TJ Jeep category of the “Show 'n Shine” competition. Their 2003 TJ Wrangler is strictly for show – no off-roading allowed! It boasts a three-inch lift and a supercharged Chevy small block with 500 hp and roughly 398 lb-ft of torque. Gunnar has forked over a lot of cash for the upgrades. “I stopped counting at $130,000. Don't tell Deb,” he jests.
Brampton Area Jeep Fans
Other Ontario plates were spotted in the crowd. Mike Derksen and Al Yabsley, members of the Brampton Area Jeep Association, made the 4.5-hour trek."It’s unfortunate. It’s not something really well known," says Derksen."It’s a great event!" Derksen drove his modified 2011 Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 4x4 with 35-inch Mickey Thompson MTZ Tires; while Yabsley drove a modified 2009 JK Wrangler Unlimited 4x4.
2014 Jeep Wrangler Sport 4x4
My niece Danielle (left) and I drove a 2014 Jeep Wrangler Sport 4x4. It was bare bones, but a refreshing change - manual windows, manual doors, a convertible roof that took time to remove and replace, and a six-speed stick ($23,195 base; $29,970 as tested). Thankfully the Magellan Smart GPS ($249.99) and a HP dashboard camera ($299.99) from Canadian Tire guided our every move on and off the road.
Annual Event is Growing
The Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival is definitely worth the drive to Pennsylvania. Next year’s event promises to be even better, marking the Bantam Jeep’s 75th anniversary. Butler currently holds the Guinness World Record for the largest parade of Jeeps: 1,106, set at the festival on August 12, 2011. But they plan to crush that record at next year’s event, June 12-14, 2015. For more information visit www.bantamjeepfestival.com.