Why it's a 'Jeep' and not a 'Leaping Lena'

Name's mysterious origins may trace back to Ford

It's one of the eternal mysteries surrounding Jeep: Where does the name come from?

There is no shortage of theories.

Was the name in homage to a character in the "Popeye" comic strip from the 1930s or perhaps the pronunciation of the acronym for General Purpose? Some suggest it was a soldier's acronym for Just Enough Essential Parts.

In his book Jeep: The History of America's Greatest Vehicle, Patrick R. Foster says the name came from veteran Willys test driver Red Hausmann. In February 1941, Hausmann was driving journalist Katharine Hillyer in one of the early prototypes of the Willys Quad across some extremely steep hills when she asked the name of the vehicle. In her story, Hillyer quoted Hausmann saying, "It's a Jeep."

But one explanation that would seem to have a lot of credibility is that the name originated at Ford Motor Co., which built about 277,000 Jeeps during World War II.

Ford's nomenclature for its vehicles used GP as the two-letter code for the Ford Pygmy, its entrant in the Army's request for bids to build a reconnaissance vehicle. When Ford was awarded a contract in October 1941 to build the approved Willys-Overland versions, it stamped those vehicles as GPW (GP-Willys).

The magazine Scientific American published a full review of the military's new wonder buggy in its January 1942 issue. The author of that review, journalist Jo Chamberlin, had visited an Army base in Louisiana in September 1941 to try out the military's new "midget combat car" and came away duly impressed.

Chamberlin made two mentions of the origin of the name, writing:

"Our Army's youngest, smallest toughest baby has a dozen pet names such as jeep, peep, blitz-buggy, leaping Lena, panzer-killer. The names are all affectionate, for the jeep has made good. Only a year old, it stole the show in Louisiana. Now the Army plans to have 75,000 of them."

In a prescient footnote, Chamberlin wrote: "Some army men call the bantam a "peep,' reserving "jeep' for the larger command car in which the brass hats ride. However, the term "jeep' (born of GP, an auto manufacturing classification) is used by newspapers and most soldiers, and apparently will stick."

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com -- Follow Larry P. on Twitter: @LarryVellequett

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