The American Bantam Car Company

Willys Jeep

Carroll Gantz
The American Bantam Car Company
Willys Jeep

Many know that today's ubiquitous Jeep can trace its design to a famous World War II military vehicle. But few know that its earlier predecessor was the first US compact car, designed in 1930 by a Russian Count. The American Bantam Car Company of Butler, PA developed a design of a general purpose (GP) army vehicle with consulting engineer Karl K, Probst, based on their Willys Overland Americar, the lightest full-sized car then on the road. The design was perfected by Willys engineer Delmar G. "Barney" Roos, and in 1941 was standardized by the US Army. Military contracts were awarded to Bantam (Bantam BRC), Willys (Willys MA) and Ford (GP), but Bantam capacity was relatively low. The GP designation led servicemen to call it the "Jeep", but they also called it the Peep, Blitzbuggy, Jitterbug, Bettlebug, Iron Pony, Leaping Lena, and Panzer Killer. The American Bantam Car Company originated in 1929, when Sir Henry Austin of England formed the American Austin Car Company and began development of a tiny car for the American market derived from a previous 1922 English Austin 7 model. It became the first US "compact" car, designed by Alexis de Sakhnoffsky (1901-1964), then of the Hayes Body Company of Grand Rapids, MI, who was born in Russia to the financial advisor of Czar Nicholas II and who became a US citizen in 1939. Production began in Butler, PA in 1930 and the mini-car became a popular US photo event and Hollywood movie comedy prop. After bankruptcy in 1934, American Austin was reorganized as the Bantam Automobile Company in 1936, with Thomas L. Hibbard as designing engineer. In 1920, Hibbard had been the co-founder. along with Raymond Dietrich, of Le Baron Carrossiers in Manhattan, an early custom car design firm which established the process for modern automotive design, as later formalized by Harley Earl at General Motors in 1927.

100 Years of Design consists of excerpts from a book by Carroll M. Gantz, FIDSA, entitled, Design Chronicles: Significant Mass-produced Designs of the 20th Century, published August 2005 by Schiffer Publications, Ltd.
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