How the indominable GI workhorse of World War II helped the nation to recover on the farm and worksite
(This is the first in a series of stories from Motor Authority about the iconic Jeep from its origins as a World War II workhorse to its history as a robust off-road vehicle for work and play. Today’s piece by Ronan Glon in Normandy, France, during the remembrance of D-Day, highlights how leftover Jeeps played an important role in France’s recovery after the war.)
Bernard Grassin’s Jeep sits a stone’s throw away from the English
Channel as the chatter from nearby soldiers grows; first a whisper, then a
murmur, then a frantic semi-din as they unload another, nearly
identical-looking Jeep from the back of a GMC truck, trying to locate precisely
where to place the ramps before easing it down. An older man in full war
regalia asks himself out loud if it will even start, once its four tires are on
Even if it didn’t start, which it does with a whirlwind of blue smoke that smells like oil and blankets the entire camp, there would be no need to panic. There is no immediate danger. The dozens of soldiers that chatter and mill about are only dressed the part. Die-hard military vehicle enthusiasts have traveled from all over Europe to bivouac in a public park in Normandy to celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
“My Jeep was half-destroyed by
a shell,” Grassin tells me over the bellow of a Dodge WC carefully backing up,
his ear-to-ear smile pitched in battle with a brush-cut mustache. “The previous
owner cut out the damaged rear end, welded a home-made metal platform onto the
undamaged front part of the body, and used the Jeep to take fodder out to the
animals on his farm.”
Grassin runs Conservateurs de
Véhicules Militaires et Historiques, a war-machine fan club. When he tells the
story of his Normandy-survivor Jeep, his soft voice underscores his slight,
“I had to find and fit a new-old-stock body to get it back on the road.” His eyes light up wide and round like the Jeep’s own headlights. “I spent four years restoring this car!”
The story of Grassin’s Jeep
isn’t as unusual as it sounds. Many of the thousands of Jeeps parachuted onto
the beaches of Normandy by the American, British, and Canadian armies during
World War II followed a convoluted path to the world of classic cars as they
helped rebuild France and its neighboring countries.
Willys designed the Jeep – to which
the modern-day, fourth-generation Wrangler traces its roots – with a short
shelf life. As far as the United States Army was concerned, the open-top 4×4’s
only mission was to help its troops liberate Europe by fending off the
belligerent German forces. It was as disposable as the leather combat boots
given to young soldiers before they shipped out.
When a Jeep became unusable, whether because it was shot by a Panzer tank or embedded in a damp forest with a blown engine, it was left on location and forgotten as if it had never existed.
Most of the examples that
survived the war relatively unscathed stayed in Europe because the cost of
shipping the materiel brought across the Atlantic back to the U.S. would have
been blisteringly high. Besides, Americans had little need for war-blemished
vehicles at home.
Europeans did, though. One by
one, the Jeeps marooned deep in the intestines of the Old Continent returned to
Ordinary motorists found the Jeep far too rudimentary to tolerably drive on a daily basis; it defied modern beliefs, even by post-World War II standards. It was inefficient in an era when the French government still meticulously rationed fuel, and wood gas was consequently hailed as a promising alternative to gasoline.
It offered no protection from
the cold, the wind or the rain, and it was uncomfortable at best, even on the
sporadic stretches of smooth asphalt. To the average driver, a used Jeep was
worth almost nothing.
However, its long-lasting
mechanical components and its fabled all-terrain capacity made it the ideal
do-it-all farm vehicle. There weren’t many tractors in France before the war.
Horses and oxen normally pulled farm equipment, and the few used by bigger,
wealthier farms were seized or destroyed by German forces.
Farm animals eaten as food
became alarmingly scarce during the conflict, so they couldn’t be counted on to
work the fields at the end of the war. Necessity alchemized the Jeep into the
driving force that rebuilt France’s agriculture, restored its infrastructure,
and helped its citizens gradually return to their normal, though forever
altered, civilian lives.
Some Jeeps were taken right from the field, forest or street where they were abandoned; unwanted examples were more common than grape vines in the French countryside after the war. Jeeps had no ignition keys, so anyone could hop in, turn the ignition lever located on the left side of the dashboard, and – with a bit of luck – limp it home.
At least a few business-savvy
individuals anticipated a growing demand for Jeep-like vehicles and built up significant
stocks by cleaning up after the Americans. These vehicles were repaired with a
varying degree of ingenuity and sold, often for a handsome profit.
Local authorities sometimes
put Jeeps and
other leftover military vehicles in the hands of the citizens they knew would
play key roles in rebuilding communities and their economies. I spoke to a
collector whose father, a miller in a village near Paris, received a Jeep and a
Bedford truck from the town hall in late 1945 so he could resume his work as
quickly as possible.
After transporting troops and
their equipment, Jeeps tirelessly worked the land they helped liberate. They
plowed, they spread pesticide, they harvested grain, and they moved bales of
hay. They were cut up, welded, cut up again, painted, fitted with home-made
power take-off units, dented, scratched, and fitted with Peugeot-sourced diesel
engines from newer Hotchkiss-built models when the original 2.2-liter
4-cylinder was too tired to burn another drop of leaded gasoline.
The Jeep morphed into a disposable piece of equipment for the second time in its life. It was a tractor, literally and legally. Some French farmers registered Jeeps as tractors rather than as cars. Attempting to categorize the Jeep was brave but senseless, however. It fell into an unclassified species of vehicle capable of doing nearly anything that was asked of it.
Farmers weren’t the only ones
who needed a Jeep-like machine after the war. Four-wheel-drive vehicles were a
rare sight on French roads in the 1940s and ’50s, so many Jeeps were painted
red, fitted with blue sirens, and used as fire-fighting vehicles in France’s
mountainous regions. Others cleared roads in the Alps or the Pyrenees after being
fitted with plows, later spending the remainder of their days towing boats into
and out of the water in a coastal city.
Mechanics turned them into tow
trucks, and France’s gendarmerie happily added ex-Army Jeeps to its fleet of police vehicles. They
were common through the 1960s on worksites, where they often reunited with
bigger military vehicles made by Dodge and GMC. Phone company France Telecom
often used American trucks to put up the utility poles that brought telephone service
to thousands of households for the first time.
Rural life suited the Jeep well. Meanwhile, some of the examples that stormed Normandy’s beaches led more eventful lives after reenlisting in the armed forces.
Immediately after World War II,
before the 1948 Marshall Plan was approved to financially prop up European
economies and prevent heads of states from defecting behind the Iron Curtain,
the White House gave France about 22,000 Jeeps to help it rebuild its army as
quickly as possible in case it needed to report for duty sooner than expected.
The salvageable ones were sent to Algeria during the 1950s, where a bloody war
for independence was brewing, while the ones considered too far gone to fix
were used as parts cars.
Willys-built Jeeps served
alongside examples manufactured under license in France by Hotchkiss, and parts
were often interchanged, so no two examples were exactly identical.
Some fought again while others
patiently sat waiting for their next assignment. NATO saved, stored and
maintained about 250 Jeeps in an underground bunker located in a remote region
of Norway as part of a sizeable stockpile of vehicles, weapons and equipment
saved for emergencies.
While a \handful of collectors turned their attention to ex-Army Jeeps during the 1950s, it generally looked like the model’s fate was to be mercilessly driven into the ground by such end users as soldiers and farmers. Its future began looking brighter when enthusiasts started restoring the better examples during the 1970s. As values rose, even damaged ones received were brought back to life.
Collectors dragged them out of
barns, towed them out of fields and purchased them from junkyards to restore
them to their former glory, which sometimes meant buying parts cars and making
one out of two, three, or more. The less courageous ones settled for buying
cars discharged from the Army; this was an easy, worry-free way into classic Jeep
ownership because the government sold perfectly maintained, turn-key examples
that required no wrenching or welding.
In 2019, a vast majority of
World War II-era Jeeps left in France are in the hands of collectors. Most have
lived many lives beyond their intended use, but their days as dauntingly
experimental tractors are over for good.
From the battlefield to the
farm, they’ve been torn down and rebuilt so many times, and by so many
different people, that an original example is almost impossible to find.
Grassin lucked out. He
patiently sanded through the layers of paint – each one telling a different
story – applied to his Jeep’s hood to find its original serial number:
20517882. He’s still trying to track down precisely where it landed.
Enthusiasts who weren’t as fortunate as Grassin made up registration numbers as the finishing touch after lengthy restorations. It always starts with 20, which indicated a reconnaissance car in army-speak, but several owners told me the six remaining digits correspond to their birthday, to the day they purchased the car, or to the day of the Normandy landings. Documented originality is highly valued but never expected in the kingdom of classic Jeeps.
Jeeps played a tremendous part
in the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies. That much is made vivid again as
the swarm of latter-day soldiers man their Jeeps in this field in Normandy, 75
years after they retook it. What’s also made vividly clear is that the Jeep’s
second act, after war became peace, was as critical as its first. Stories about
the meritorious Jeep bravely zig-zagging through wheat fields while dodging bullets
are considerably more gratifying than tales of a Franken-Jeep plowing a field.
But without the grit and
inventiveness of the men and women who put the ex-military Jeeps to work day
and night, France would have carried the millstone of war around its neck for
several more decades.
Grassin gets up and walks
toward his car and draws me close, then points out the original serial number
stamped into the frame.
“The Jeeps did everything,” he