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classic cars: jeep's 70th anniversary

Bill Sandford in his 1970 Jeep M38A1.

Jeep enthusiasts are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the tough little four-wheel-drive workhorse that became the most famous vehicle of the Second World War and went on to become one of the most recognized brands in the world this year. Among those celebrating are ex-army-brat Bill Sandford.

Sandford grew up surrounded by army vehicles in the late 1940s and 1950s as the family followed his father, a Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps corporal, from postings to Camp Borden and the Hagersville and Cobourg Ordnance Depots.

"I had plenty of opportunity to play around with all the equipment stockpiled in these locations. Hagersville was the best, with row upon row of Jeeps, tanks, deuce-and-a-halfs and smaller trucks, like the M37," says Sandford.

He recalls his father once a month pulling a Cold War era duty that involved standing by, keys at the ready, to release arms and vehicles should hostilities break out. "He would bring a Jeep home whenever he was on duty, and one of my favourite photos is of me standing beside one in Hagersville in 1949. I was two years old at the time."

Jeeps, as they have for many who had contact with them, created an impression that stuck with Sandford – now living in London and "mostly" retired after a career that included 20 years as a photographer for the Toronto Sun – and a desire to one day own one. He realized that ambition a year ago when he found his Canadian army veteran 1970 Jeep M38A1.

Sandford's Jeep, which served in Cyprus with Canada's peacekeepers before being sold off through Crown Assets, was among the last of the breed to serve with the Canadian military, prior to the arrival of the Euro-design Bombardier-built Iltis in the mid-1980s.

After spending some time as a movie vehicle, the Jeep was purchased by an ex-member of the Queen's Own Rifles who returned it from mufti to military colours before it found its way into Sandford's hands.

It isn't much different from the original versions of 1941. America wasn't yet directly involved in the war in 1940 when the U.S. Army decided it needed a modern "scout car" to replace its modified Ford Model Ts and augment its use of motorcycles and sent out a list of specifications to 135 companies.

It was looking for a compact vehicle with a wheelbase of just 75 inches – a simple, boxy, low-profile open body with folding windshield and room for a crew of three, a top speed of 50 mph, four-wheel-drive, a weight of 1,300 pounds and a 600-pound load capacity.

Willys-Overland and American Bantam Car Manufacturing Co. initially responded with Ford joining in later. Bantam was the first to create a prototype, but the Willys Quad and Ford Pygmy soon followed. After trials, orders were placed in 1941 for 1,500 of each for further field evaluation, which resulted in the Willys Quad being chosen.

The first production Willys MA versions of the vehicles that would soon become universally known as "jeeps" were a little different than the original army ideas.

Their unofficial name is attributed to either the initials GP for General Purpose originally used by Ford on its prototype or Eugene the Jeep, a Popeye cartoon character. Jeep became an official trademark following the war.

The wheelbase grew to 80 inches (2,030 mm), overall length was 131 inches (3,330 mm), height 52 inches (1,320 mm) with the top down and weight had gone up to a more realistic 2,293 lbs (1,040 kg). It was powered by a 60-hp, 134-cubic-inch (2.2-litre) flathead four-cylinder Willys Go-Devil engine, with three-speed gearbox and two-speed, four-wheel-drive transfer case.

Once it was determined just how handy Jeeps were, demand for production exceeded Willys-Overland's capabilities and Ford was brought into play to build them under licence. By war's end, Willys-Overland had built 368,000 and Ford 277,000.

Following the war, Willys turned its newly branded Jeep – it was to battle with Ford and Bantam over the name – to domestic duty with the Civilian Jeep CJ-2A, and followed it with a Jeep pickup and wagon and the Jeepster, with open phaeton-style top in 1948. In 1953, Willys-Overland was sold to Kaiser Corp., which began to broaden its range of offerings.

The introduction of the Jeep Wagoneer in 1963 began the brand's "modern" era, which saw it become part of American Motors Corp. 1970 and Chrysler in 1987. The original 1941 Jeep MA's memory is kept alive today by the latest generation of Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited models and with a year-long display at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, Mich.

The centrepiece is a 1941 Willys MA, one of only 45 thought to exist in the world. The vehicle was delivered from Willys' Toledo plant in July, 1941, to the 15th Infantry Division in Fort Lewis, Wash., for evaluation and discovered near there rusting in a farmer's field by George and Bernadette Hollins of Illinois, who restored it and lent it to the museum.

Never having actually driven one before acquiring his, Sandford discovered what many military types have learned about Jeeps over the years, that they require a degree of caution in their operation.

"I never realized how unsafe they are. You're sitting there, exposed, with the steering wheel pointed at your chest. It has seatbelts, but there's no top."

Its first major outing under its new ownership was, suitably for this military veteran, the celebration of Canada Day this past summer.

Back in 1941

Cat and mouse characters Tom and Jerry make their second appearance, in a one-reel cartoon directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, and are named for the first time.

Walt Disney releases his cartoon move Dumbo.

The Japanese launch a sneak attack on Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7, which leads directly to the United States’ entry into the Second World War.

Lack of funds mean the last chips fall from the completed visages of U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln as workers down tools on Mount Rushmore. The original plan had involved waist-up sculptures.

It’s the last year for full auto production in the United States before the war – Canadian factories are already turning out vehicles for the war effort – and 3.8 million cars and more than a million trucks are built, including revised Fords, a new-look Chevy Suburban and Fireball engines for Buicks.