The man who was the father of what became universally known as the "jeep" (now a capitalized Chrysler Corp. trade mark) -- and so, by extrapolation, the father of all utility vehicles that have become Jeep offshoots worldwide -- was an engineer with a capacity for intensive work and a reluctance to be tied to anyone's organization or schedules.
I knew Karl Probst well. He was something of an engineering drifter who liked to be on his own, and his record proves it. He worked for company after company, but none of them could hold onto his considerable and admitted talent for very long.
Born in West Virginia in 1883, he took engineering courses and graduated in 1906 from Ohio State University. He had always been fascinated by autos. Even at age 12 he and an uncle, excited at what they had read about the first horseless carriages, tried to build one themselves. It failed to work. Then, in 1901, as a high school student, he helped build another. So it was nearly inevitable that he went from the campus at Columbus to fledgling automakers such as Chalmers, Lozier, Peerless and Reo.
For some time Mr. Probst had been a consultant to American Bantam Car Co. of Butler, PA-- another tribute to this reputation as a light-car expert. Out of this relationship came a telephone call from Butler to Detroit on July 17, 1939. It was a cry for help. Bantam was trying to develop an all-purpose vehicle for Army Ordnance. It was not succeeding, and time had run out. The prototype was due for testing at Camp Holabird, VA, the following Monday, July 22.
Mr. Probst foresaw great difficulties ahead, both in time and design. He said he was too busy to undertake the assignment. Thereupon Bantam, at wit's end, went through various contacts that reached up to General W.S. Knudsen, lately recruited from the presidency of General Motors Corp. to take charge of Army procurement. Told of the need for the kind of a vehicle Ordnance wanted, Gen. Knudsen readily reacted to Bantam's situation. He telephoned Mr. Probst and -- using the strongest possible pressure -- urged him to come to Bantam's aid.
Mr. Probst had little choice. He got into his car behind what was then a midtown office building at Woodward Ave. and Grand Blvd. in Detroit at 2 p.m. the afternoon of July 17, having made some phone calls beforehand and took a trip. He stopped at Spicer Manufacturing Co. in Toledo and picked up a small transmission "off the shelf," a standard design. Another stop came at the nearby Electric Auto-Lite Co. for a generally applicable wiring hamess.
Mr. Probst arrived at Butler in the early evening. A team of Bantam engineers joined him for the start of two continuous night-long efforts, reworking the unsatisfactory, unfinished vehicle on the engineering floor into a finished operating design.
Mr. Probst and Bantam's chief engineer drove their squarish vehicle over the weekend to Camp Holabird, near Washington, in time for the testing Monday morning. The vehicle performed just as it was supposed to. "What does it weigh?" an officer asked.
Bantam's Washington representative, who had secured the invitation for his company to submit a prototype, spoke up: "It weighs a bit more than the 1,200 lbs. (544 kg) in the spec, but we'll get that down in production."
Mr. Probst, fearing that inevitable checking would ruin Bantam's efforts and chances, broke in and said: "That's not quite right. The fact is that the vehicle weighs about 1,850 lbs., and we don't see a way to take much off it."
Unhappy silence enveloped the Ordnance people who, only moments before, had been so pleased at what they had tested. Then a captain on the team walked to the back of the vehicle, squatted and tugged at it, and was able to lift the back wheels a few inches off the ground.
"Feels like 1,200 lbs. to me!" he declared.
"That's good enough," the colonel in charge said swiftly.
And that is how the vehicle was approved. Its designation "gp" for "general purpose," was soon metamorphosed into "jeep," and that's the identification of Mr. Probst's creative landmark in automotive history.
Although American Bantam built the first successful "jeep" prototype, Willys-Overland Motor Corp. in Toledo, OH, became the largest World War II producer, followed by Ford. Chrysler acquired the Jeep line and name in 1987 when it took control of American Motors Corp.