The Willys MB Army jeep is celebrating its 70th
birthday as the original ancestor of the Jeep that later made a
career in civilian life and became synonymous for "roughing" it in
the wilds with a 4x4.
Just prior to the United States entering World War II, the Army realised it needed an all-purpose vehicle, sending out a tender to 130 car manufacturers.
According to the Chrysler archives, the military was looking for a light, universal and all-terrain vehicle. In the end three manufacturers competed for the contract.
Finally, the small company Willys won it because of the low price, robust construction and the engine. The prototype was fitted with a four-cylinder power unit dubbed "Go Devil" and the awesome power at the time of 44 kW/60 hp.
In 1941 it went into production as the MB, also under license to Ford. The top speed of 105 km/h may seem laughable by today's standards but speed was not called for in the bombed-out streets of Germany or Italy.
But who would seriously want to go any faster in a vehicle offering just the basics -- a rattling seat, a thin steering wheel and just a chain in place of a door?
On the other hand the Willys could be driven in almost any terrain. In the unlikely event that it still got stuck in the mud there was a pick and shovel to help. The wiper blade was activated by hand and it took just about as much time to put up the roof as it would to erect a tent.
Officially the MB's career ended at the end of World War II but after 1945 work began on a civilian version.
As from 1953 the Willys was sold under the name Kaiser-Jeep. Through AMC and Renault, the Jeep label eventually passed on in 1987 to Chrysler, which now belongs to Fiat.
For the anniversary this year, Fiat has brought out an Anniversary-Edition which bears close resemblance to the MB relative, the original Jeep Wrangler.
By the end of World War II some 600,000 Willys MBs had been manufactured. For collectors there are still a fair number to be bought on the market.
But it is important to know that between 1956-68 almost 30,000 units were produced under license by Hotchkiss in France with sellers not always pointing out where the vehicle was produced. Some sellers even invent war stories around the vehicle to drive up the price.
In 1941, the Willys MB cost $739 dollars ( but fetch significantly higher prices today.
"A vehicle in good condition with all the extras can easily cost 20,000 euros and more," says collector Franz-Gerd Haas. Although spare parts are expensive it is not a big deal to have a Willys restored. "Their construction was so simple that it is easy to work on them," he says.
According to Haas, a large number of original Willys can still be found in France, Belgium, Holland and England "because this is the car that won the war."
But apart from the collector, many a mountain farmer, forester and hunter still appreciates the qualities of the Willys, which can take you almost anywhere.
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