America’s favorite motoring child, the Jeep, is widely recognizable, having been in production in one form or the other for over 70 years. First for military use, then transitioning to civilian life after World War II, Jeeps have touched millions of lives, cementing its position as a part of American culture. Despite this, the origin of the name ‘Jeep’ is somewhat disputed, with no answer accepted enough so as to be definitive. Many in the car world have been the unfortunate recipient of an Old Hat and his tale of “how the Jeep got its name”. Then—hat perched on head, beard a bustle—they usually proceed to explain how the Jeep was referenced by its designation GP in the military in World War II. From GP, soldiers transformed the phrase to Jeep. And voila, that’s how the Jeep was born, or so some say.
Sorry every old guy who ever told me that story, I think your wrong. More famously—and more authoritatively than me—Mr. R. Lee Ermey also disagrees with you, as he helped spark the modern-day debate with an episode of his show Mail Call. Known as Gunny, Ermey believes that the name Jeep comes from the Popeye comics and cartoons, and the character Eugene the Jeep therein. While I will get to Eugene quickly, it is important to note that even such an authority as the Gunny can’t settle the issue once and for all, as this explanation is only one possible one. Detractors of this theory are quick to point out that the term Jeep pre-dates Popeye by at least two decades.
All of these theories, and more besides, add up to complete the actual genesis story for the name Jeep. This story behind the name of the famous World War II workhorse begins in World War I. During the first Great War, Allied Army mechanics faced dramatic technological growth and development in the long, five years of the war. Not only did this ensure that the mechanics faced a huge number of differently named vehicles, the quality of these often-untested vehicles was always a matter of question. Because of this, it became common for mechanics to label new vehicles with the term ‘jeep’. Any new plain, tractor, or tank could be labeled a jeep, and more often than not, it was not a term of endearment.
This was due to the large specter of ‘unknown-ness’ surrounding these new vehicles. After the war, and the break-up of the large Army vehicle depots in Europe, the term Jeep faded into obscurity, until picked up by the Popeye comic strip/cartoon. In 1936, readers of Popeye were introduced to a lovable new creature/character named Eugene. Eugene was supposedly a space-time creation; the result of a fourth-dimensional resident merging with a type of African dog. Not only did this give Eugene his appearance, it allowed him human-levels of intelligence, and mild control over time. This meant that Eugene was able to help Popeye and pals out in times of need—even if he sometimes was the cause of that trouble.
Servicemen and prospective servicemen spent the years leading up to the War reading about Eugene, bringing it with them into the service. When the Willys MA and MB, and the Ford-built GPW—what would become known as the Jeep—arrived in soldier’s hands, the theory is they were so besot with it, and its ability to go anywhere and get out of any trouble, that they named it the Jeep.
While never officially named the Jeep, a Willys test driver supposedly overheard two soldiers gossiping about the “new jeep”, and so when asked by a reporter what it was called—after driving up the stairs of Congress in a publicity stunt—what the vehicle was called, he said, “It’s a Jeep!”. This theory—that soldiers endearingly nicknamed it after Eugene, and the Willys test driver sparked the flame—is prescribed to by R. Lee Ermey, as well as Willys president Joe Frazer.
**On a brief side-note, Frazer is often credited with coining the name jeep by slurring the General-Purpose designation of GP into Jeep. Considering that Willys referred to them as MA’s and MB’s (Military model A and B respectively), and GP was a Ford designation, this merely serves as a demonstration of the wildly different origin stories for the term Jeep.**
Having two strong proponents behind it like the Gunny and Mr. Frazer, this theory is one of the most popular. I believe that the truth has been warped by rose-colored spectacles, and is actually a mix of the above truths. The story of the Willys test driver is no doubt true, and serves as the media’s genesis of the name Jeep. However, the soldiers he overheard, were more than likely not referring to the lovable Popeye character Eugene, but had instead picked up on the previous wars use of the term: that is, a term for an untested piece of machinery.
In support of this, is the fact that the term jeep was in use in such a manner well into the early years of World War II. As proof, early Boeing B-17 bombers were nicknamed ‘jeeps’, as were other planes. This carried over to the navy, where Navy escort carriers were nicknamed ‘jeep carriers’. While many sources claim this nickname came from transporting jeeps across the Atlantic on the open-top of the carriers, the valuable ships were never used in such a manner—being busy protecting such ships—and instead carried the nickname both for the planes they carried and their rushed nature.
This genesis—GI’s nicknaming an untested piece of machinery what they always do—is where I believe the source of the Jeep name can be traced to. While rose-colored glasses, copy-righting, and clever marketing has ensured that we look back fondly at the Jeep (Willys MA, MB Ford GPA, etc. etc.), and would like to associate the origin with a cuddly animal, the truth is much less glamorous, and much less inventive then that story. Despite that, Eugene the Jeep and the Willys Jeep family tree are inexorably linked, as many a rear-wheel cover will continue to display to the world. Much more unfortunately, there will be many more people faced with the ‘GP’ origin story and all of its nonsense.
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I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.