The origin of the “Jeep” name, how to buy a tank, and more

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Photo by WW2db.com

From VW Beetles to vintage dirt bikes, there’s a diverse array of automotive interests among the Hagerty staff. The faces of several of our dedicated video experts are likely familiar to you, thanks to our Redline Rebuild and Barn Find Hunter series, but recently we focused on two staff members who don’t typically appear on camera: Editor at Large Aaron Robinson and Director of Automotive Lifestyle Business Development Brad Phillips. Both possess a fascination for military vehicles, and in the livestream recorded below, they spend an entire hour sharing their knowledge and educating folks about this esoteric branch of the collector vehicle world.

The most recognizable military vehicle is probably the WWII-era jeep, so Phillips and Robinson start there. Robinson has attended D-day anniversary re-enactments in Normany multiple years running, including this past summer, when he drove a 75-year-old original Willys along the D-day trail. (The Willys currently resides in the Hagerty collection). Why are jeeps such popular military collectibles? Well, there’s an incredible range of size and weight among army vehicles, much more so than in the automotive world. “Jeeps are easy to garage and service, they’re wheeled, and they’re easy to drive on roads,” Robinson says. Parts are widely available, too: “If you have a checkbook and a catalog, you could build one from scratch.”

Jeeps proved so essential to the American WWII effort that it’s hard to imagine that, at first, the army had only a vague idea of what it needed for quarter-ton, fast battlefield transportation. The jeep concept was born when American observers in the mid-1930s saw pairs of German soldiers zooming around battlefields in motorcycle side cars. The observers realized the U.S. Army needed a vehicle with a flat bed and, crucially, no doors so that soldiers could scramble in and out quickly.

When the tiny American manufacturer Bantam produced the Blitz Buggy, the U.S. Army leaped on the idea. However, Bantam didn’t have the production capacity the Army needed. “So they gave Bantam a contract for trailers and put it out for a bid. Willys-Overland accepted the bid, but nobody build cars faster or cheaper than Ford, and by this time the Army needed volume,” Robinson says. “So the government took the Willys concept and gave it to Ford.”

Ironically, for having a hand in the earliest stages of Jeep history, Willys-Overland didn’t secure rights to the name until 1950. “The name actually comes from the Popeye cartoon strip—from Eugene the jeep, who was a magical dog,” Robinson says. “The [jeep] name was out in the world; people would name their dogs “Jeep”—or anything that had general do-anything usability. Even airplanes.” The name simply stuck to the trusty, go-anywhere military vehicle. After the war, Willys spent years coordinating with the Federal Trade Commission to secure rights to the name—but not after a strange stint in 1945 and ’46 when the FTC ruled that Willys could only use the “jeep” name if it appeared in quotes.

Smaller military vehicles like jeeps tend to be more expensive because of their accessibility and ease of maintenance. In contrast, monster-sized, tracked beasts tend to be cheaper because they present owners with all kinds challenges: “For some, the wrench to get the wheel off weighs 100 pounds,” Robinson says. However, the mechanical complexity and (literal) heavy-lifting is precisely what attracts some collectors.

Whether you’re looking for a jeep or a tank destroyer, Robinson suggests looking in Europe. The U.S. Army made a deal with automakers back home to leave most of the vehicles in Europe to avoid flooding the domestic market, so it’s far easier to find an authentic model where it actually saw combat.

Today, the truly big stuff—tanks, bulldozers, tow trucks, and troop carriers—are largely restricted to those blessed with very deep pockets. “A good Sherman tank is $350,000 now,” Robinson says. Those collectors aren’t the initial saviors of these massive vehicles, however. “Welders or those who worked with heavy equipment were the first to get into it in the early ’80s when the government started shedding all this stuff,” Robinson explains. “They weren’t afraid of it. They were the first ones to rescue these machines from the scrapper.”

Armored vehicles require many headache’s worth of paperwork in the states, but for those who are truly enthralled by them, it’s worth it. For those who are in the market, Robinson lists a few of his favorite sites in the video (eBay, he says, has a decent selection but naturally limits you to stateside vehicles). One armored vehicle that’s proving popular among collectors is the British Daimler Ferret, built between 1952 and ’71. Powered by a Rolls-Royce inline-six, the Ferret sports not just one, but two driveshafts. It’s not only mechanically fascinating; with its low turret and side-slung spare tire, it looks seriously cool. “It’s the Jaguar E-Type of the military world,” Robinson says, “but [driving one] makes a Lamborghini feel like a fishbowl.”

Robinson also discusses another post-WWII Atomic Age battlefield truck called the Alvis Stalwart. This gigantic British troop- and general-stuff-hauler has a water-cooled Rolls-Royce eight-cylinder engine and six wheels that are each driven independently. Oh, and it’s amphibious. “It has this submarine-meets-Star Trek: Enterprise setup for its propellers,” Robinson says. If you’re curious, put the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, on your post-pandemic road trip list; it has a Stalwart jammed into its parking structure. “It’s the only place they could fit it!” Phillips says with a laugh.

It’s all well and good to discuss multi-million-dollar Ferraris, as Robinson and Phillips agree. Military vehicles quite literally saved the world in WWII; they’re in a category of their own when it comes to vehicles truly worth saving and passing on to the next generation.

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