Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Jeep And Automobile Design At The MOMA- 1951

I’m sure that you’ve heard of the phrase that “form follows function” before. I’m a firm believer in it. The jeep is a perfect example of it. The form of the jeep was derived from the functions that it was necessary to provide for the US Army Quartermaster Corps. When the call went out for the vehicle that was to become the jeep in 1940 it was heeded by very few companies. Very few companies either had the engineering talent necessary to create something from scratch and/or they just didn’t need the contract. American Bantam Motor Car had both. They had Karl Probst, a freelance automotive engineer, who reportedly drafted the design in two days in June of 1940, along with Harold Crist, Chet Hemphling and Ralph Turner. But they also had the need. 
There has been alot written about Bantam’s solvency versus Willys-Overland and the overall strong points of both companies and frankly I don’t know what to believe. But the important point was that Bantam responded to the Army’s unrealistic 49 day time frame for a working and running prototype to be delivered to Camp Holabird, Maryland by September 1940. So while some say that the Army contract saved Bantam for a short while, it was more likely the other way around. Bantam saved the Army’s bacon and helped in a very key way to create a very necessary piece of war equipment. Bantam’s design was aped and copied by the final two manufacturers, Willys and Ford and it was this design that has influenced every jeep made since. From these beginning requirements that the military set down, the form was derived.

- The weight was not to exceed 1200 pounds (increased to 1275 lbs 1 July and then to 1308 lbs).
Carry six hundred pounds of payload in cross country operations.
- Wheelbase not to exceed 75 inches (increased to 80 inches 1 July).
- Height not to exceed 36 inches (increased to 40 inches 1 July).
  1. -Ground clearance of 6.25 inches at a minimum.
- Approach angle of 45° and departure angle of 40°.
- Four wheel drive with a two speed transfer case, geared for up to 50 mph on-road and down to 3 mph off-road.
- A mount for a .30 cal. machine gun.
- A rectangular body and folding windshield.
- Seating for three.
- Blackout lights.
From this humble beginning the jeep was born. And if you’re like me as I’m sure that you are, you appreciate the jeep’s relatively simple boxy design. But it turns out that not only the jeep’s normal fans that were impressed by the little jeep. In 1951, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC decided to hold a series of exhibits that showcased examples of what they considered timeless examples of automotive design. It was the first real example of a new thought along the lines of what constitutes not just auto beauty, but overall auto design. It wasn’t a new idea for the museum actually. Since the early post-war ideas through the mid 1950’s they had begun asking the question of ‘what is good design?’ as regards everyday things from home goods, appliances, furnishings and sporting goods. The shows ranged from coffee makers and cheese graters to Tupperware. And like these humble daily objects the jeep was chosen in its fall show of 1951 for its practicality and purposeful design. 
The jeep chosen was loaned from Kaiser Willys, an M38 and it sat in the museum. I wish that I had been able to find the whole catalogue for it, but instead I have only sections, but at least the page for the jeep is able to be found online. You can see the image at the top of the page and the catalogue entry reads as follows:

“1951 (model first produced in 1941). Manufactured by Willys-Overland Motors, Inc., Toledo, Ohio. Overall length 10 feet 3 inches.
The admirable Jeep seems to have the combined appeal of an intelligent dog and a perfect gadget. It is an appeal so vast that this wonderful tool for transportation has won approval for much more that its practicality, though the engineers who perfected it worked without the concern for style with which other automobiles are designed.
The Jeep looks like a tray, or perhaps a sturdy sardine can, on wheels. Part of the top appears to have been cut open and folded up, to serve as a windshield. From it a canvas canopy can be stretched over some metal struts to the back of the car, thus affording temporary shelter from rain. large wheels dominate the design, and insist rather than suggest that the Jeep’s primary purpose is transportation.
One of the most striking illustrations of its direct design is the front fender. It is composed of two rectangular platforms placed at the best angle for preventing mud splash. The two sections are connected by an overlap, left plainly visible, and the lower section is joined to a small step. The side walls are low enough for passengers to step in, thus eliminating mechanically troublesome doors. Even refinements of contour grow out of practical considerations: the fenders have rounded corners to avoid cutting passengers as they get in.
With its wheels removed and the windshield folded flat the jeep fits into a shipping case. Uncrated and on the road it can maneuver its way through spaces blocked to larger vehicles. It can be stood on end and pushed through narrow passages; it has on occasion been dismantled and carried, piece by piece, over unmanageable terrain, and with suitable equipment it can be driven underwater. Bolts visible on the wheels and the body facilitate either the removal of parts or periodic tightening.
Those who have used the Jeep will recall certain limitations of comfort. Yet there are few automobiles that give their drivers so exhilarating a sense of speed and control. The Jeep substitutes for a deliberate esthetic program the formative principles of construction; its design is unified by the economy, (disdaining the merely decorative with which each part is fitted for its purpose. It is one of the few genuine expressions of machine art.”

Well said, the only part that I disagree with is calling it a ‘car.’ I just wish that Jeep still designed at least one of their vehicles this way today.
As recently as last year the jeep has found its way into a museum space with the last MOMA exhibit, Born Out Of Necessity, which is as good a way of any of describing the genesis of the jeep. Though this time the jeep featured was a 1952 M38A1. The jeep rubbed shoulders with a 1959 VW Bug and a 1961 Jaguar E-Type and made its way into the MOMA’s permanent collection in 2002.
 Here are a couple of good write-ups on the series of exhibits (though not specifically jeep related...) here and here and for more on the last exhibit, Born Out Of Necessity see here and here. I also found a magazine article from an undated copy of ‘Auto Sport Review.’ It talks about the various vehicles in the exhibit with no mention of the show at the MOMA itself. I think that I can forgive the article writer for misdating the M38 as a 1941 as he/she hits the mark by identifying the jeep as having an “appearance and its purpose” that are the same. Again, its very true and what endears the jeep to millions. There’s nothing frilly or unnecessary about it.
 You can download and read a PDF of the magazine article here- Auto Sport Review-WIGD.pdf, the MOMA’s press releases may also interest you here- 1951 MOMA Press Announcements.pdf as well as a PDF of the catalogue cover and the page on the jeep itself.
 Come back next week. I haven’t an idea right now of what I’m going to write about, but I also said that last week and then realized that this was something that I had wanted to put the time into researching for some time now. Hope that you enjoyed it and see you next week with more of the best of the jeep since 1940!

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