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When someone mentions the word Jeep, people think of versatile, powerful vehicles capable of moving through any terrain. Jeep is the manufacturer and namesake of one of the most recognized vehicles in the world. Currently, Jeep produces sport utility vehicles and 4x4 off-road vehicles, but it has also produced pickup trucks in the past as well. It is currently owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), formerly Fiat S.p.A, and is a division under its Chrysler Group wholly owned subsidiary.
The history of the Jeep brand began just prior to World War II, when the U.S. Army, having realized it could no longer stay out of the conflict, called for a new four-wheel-drive vehicle which had to have a large payload capacity, small wheelbase, and be lightweight. An extremely aggressive production timeline was set by the Army as selected manufacturers would only have 49 days to supply a working protoype of the reconnaissance vehicle. Of the 135 companies that were invited to bid on the contract, only two answered the call: The American Bantam Car Company, and Willys-Overland. Willys, realizing that this was an almost impossible deadline to meet, asked the Army for more time but was refused. Bantam, who at the time was dealing with serious financial problems, had no in-house engineering resources of their own and manufacturing operations were in the process of shutting down. Their response to the contract was essentially a last ditch effort to try and save the company. With no ability to design the prototype themselves, Bantam reached out to a freelance designer by the name of Karl Probst. After initially refusing Bantam’s request, Probst agreed to design the prototype after the U.S. Army reached out to him as well. He got to work on his plan on July 17th, 1940.
With the odds stacked against him, and the bid deadline rapidly approaching, Probst was able to come up with the framework for what would eventually become the basis for America’s first Jeep - the Bantam Reconnaissance Car, or BRC. Amazingly, Probst did this in just two days, with a cost estimate coming a day after that. Bantam won the contract to produce the initial prototype, and while it met most of the Army’s requirements with the exception of weight and performed relatively well during testing, the Army still had its concerns. It felt that Bantam was too small of a company to handle the high production demand and, due to its financial troubles, that the company would have difficulty fulfilling the contract. Therefore, the Army supplied the Bantam design to Willys as well as to Ford at the outrage of Bantam, and asked them to submit prototypes of their own based on the Bantam design. They were encouraged to make their own changes and modifications as well. The results were the Willys “Quad” and Ford “Pygmy” prototypes. Neither of these prototypes were able to meet the weight requirement either, forcing the Army to revise it. Fifteen hundred of each prototype were produced and rigorously tested by the Army, with the advantage going to Willys due to changes in the design they had made to meet the revised weight requirement. While Willys prototype was still heavy, it was much more powerful than the prototypes of both Ford and Bantam. Therefore, Willys won the contract to manufacture the new scout vehicle for the Army.
Because Willys was a small company and the Army needed a lot of these vehicles in a short amount of time, the U.S. Government was granted a non-exclusive license by Willys-Overland to allow another company to manufacture the vehicle using its design to help boost production of the new vehicle. The Army chose Ford and Willys supplied them with their specificationss so that they could share the burden of manufacturing the vehicle. Willys-Overland and Ford produced two slightly different versions of the Jeep during this time, the model MB by Willys and the model GPW (which gave rise to the Jeep nickname) by Ford. However, it was Willys-Overland’s standardized version that saw the battlefield and was the workhorse vehicle of the American armies during WWII. After the war, having won the adoration of the military and earning fame as a war hero, Willys decided to repurpose the Jeep for civilian use in order to capitalize on its popularity. The first civilian model of the Jeep, dubbed the Willys CJ (for Civillian Jeep, later known as the Jeep CJ), was released to the public in 1945 by Willys-Overland and generations of off-roading enthusiasts were born. This began the oldest 4x4 off-road and SUV brand in the world, which still continues to this day.
Ownership Changes, Models, and More
The Jeep marque went through several owners after its inception. Having been granted the trademark for the Jeep name in 1950, Willys-Overland eventually was sold to Kaiser Motors (formerly Kaiser-Frazier), another independent automaker, in 1953. The name of the company was changed to Willys Motors, and was controlled by Kaiser Industries (formerly Kaiser Motors), which was now a holding company for various Kaiser businesses. Production of Kaiser and Willys passenger cars ceased in 1955, with the Jeep brand being the only vehicle produced. This year saw the beginning of production on the long-running Jeep DJ Series, starting with the DJ-3A, which was a two-wheel-drive variant of the CJ series. Production on the DJ Series ended in 1984.
The name of the company was changed once again in 1963 from Willys Motors to Kaiser-Jeep. It was during this time that the first model of the Jeep Wagoneer (SJ) was introduced, which is credited as being the first real American SUV. The Jeep Gladiator pickup truck would also be released during this time (the Gladiator name was dropped after 1971, and was known simply as the Jeep J Series pickup until 1988 when it was discontinued), as would the Jeepster Commando (which became simply the Jeep Commando in 1972). Kaiser sold the Jeep division to American Motors Corporation (AMC), due to the fact that it was losing the company money and that Kaiser wanted to leave the automotive industry and focus on its other industrial activities. During this period, the Jeep Cherokee (SJ) full-size SUV was also introduced to the world. In 1984, a new version of the the Jeep Cherokee - the Jeep Cherokee (XJ) - was released. It shared the name of the original full-size Jeep Cherokee SJ model, but it came without a body-on-frame chassis. The Jeep Cherokee (XJ) set the stage for the modern sport utility vehicle (SUV) and it has been named one of the greatest cars of all time, and possibly the greatest SUV shape of all time; it was discontinued following the 2001 year and was resurrected in 2014 as the KL. Also in 1984, a new version of the Wagoneer was released, the Jeep Wagoneer (XJ). This was joined that year by the Jeep Grand Wagoneer (SJ) which was the first time that name was used; prior to 1984, this more luxuriously equipped version of the Wagoneer was called the Limited, and was not an official model, but rather a trim package designation. In 1993, the Grand Wagoneer name was carried over by Jeep for a special luxury version of the Grand Cherokee. It was called the Jeep Grand Wagoneer (ZJ) and it would be the last time the Grand Wagoneer name would appear in the Jeep lineup.
Also, in the mid 1980s, the Jeep Comanche (MJ)—a pickup truck version of the Cherokee compact SUV—was released; it was discontinued following the 1992 year. Also around this time, one of the most well known vehicles today, the Jeep Wrangler, was unveiled. The Wrangler is a direct descendant of the Willys MB by way of the Willys civilian Jeeps (Jeep CJ) of the mid-1940s through 1980s. The first generation was the Jeep Wrangler YJ; a second generation, the TJ, debuted in 1997; a third generation, the JK, debuted in 2007. In 1987 AMC, which at that point was majority owned by the French automaker Renault, was then bought out by the Chrysler Corporation. What remained of AMC after the buyout formed the Jeep/Eagle division of Chrysler, and both Jeep and Eagle branded vehicles were produced.1993 saw the release of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, a mid-sized version of the smaller Jeep Cherokee (XJ) SUV. The first generation Grand Cherokee was the ZJ; a second generation, the WJ, debuted in 1999; a third generation, the WK, debuted in 2005; and a newer version of the WK - the WK2 - was released in 2010. The Jeep Grand Cherokee would be the first Chrysler-badged Jeep product.
The Chrysler Corporation would go through its own ownership changes in the years that followed its purchase of Jeep. First, it merged with and was then subsequently acquired by Daimler-Benz AG in 1998 to form DaimlerChrysler, with U.S. operations generally referred to as the “Chrysler Group.” Not long after the merger was finalized, Jeep became a standalone division and the Eagle brand was retired. DaimlerChrysler then sold a majority of its interest in the Chrysler Group to a private equity firm, Cerberus Capital Management, in 2007 and thereafter it became a new company: Chrysler LLC. DaimlerChrysler changed its name to Daimler AG shortly afterwards, but maintained a 19.9% interest in the now separated Chrysler LLC. Daimler AG came to an agreement with Cerberus Capital Management to give up its remaining stake in Chrysler LLC in April of 2009, days before Chrysler LLC filed for bankruptcy. On June 10, 2009, Chrysler LLC emerged from a Chapter 11 restructuring overseen by the U.S. government, with the majority of all of Chrysler's assets being sold to what was called "New Chrysler", which became Chrysler Group LLC in alliance with and owned by Fiat, an Italian automaker. The U.S. government lent support to the deal in the form of 6.6 billion US dollars in financing, which was paid out to the "Old Chrysler,” formerly Chrysler LLC, and now a company called Old Carco LLC. While Fiat initially only owned 20% of the new Chrysler Group LLC company, of which Jeep was a division of, after the bankruptcy proceedings were complete, that was increased to over half in 2011 when it bought the shares of Chrysler that were being held by the U.S. Treasury and Canada. This purchase once again returned control of Chrysler into the hands of a foreign owned company. Fiat continued to gradually acquire the other parties' shares and increase its ownership stake of Chrysler over the next couple of years.
In January of 2014, Fiat S.p.A. purchased the remaining 41.5% of Chrysler Group LLC from the United Auto Workers, taking complete ownership, and announced that it would be reorganizing and merging into a new holding company. In July of 2014, Fiat announced how this would all take place, and that Fiat S.p.A. (which now wholly owned the Chrysler Group) would be merged into Fiat Investments N.V., a new Netherlands based company. Fiat Investments would then be renamed Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. and would become the new holding company of the Fiat Group, once shareholders approved the deal. In October, the merger was approved and Fiat S.p.A. and Chrysler Group LLC were officially merged together to form Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). It was established as a Netherlands-based holding company with its global headquarters located in the United Kingdom, with two wholly owned automotive subsidiaries under its control: Fiat Group Automobiles, which houses Abarth, Alfa Romeo, Fiat (Fiat’s own branded cars), Fiat Professional and Lancia, and Chrysler Group, which houses Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Ram Trucks. The names of these two groups were subsequently changed in late 2014 to FCA Italy S.p.A. (formerly Fiat Group Automobiles S.p.A.) and FCA US LLC (formerly Chrysler Group LLC). This was implemented as the latest phase in the adoption of the FCA corporate identity, in order to highlight that all group companies worldwide are part of a single company. The Chrysler name will continue on as a vehicle brand under the FCA US LLC however. FCA also continued its direct ownership of other former Fiat S.p.A. companies, such as luxury car manufacturer Maserati and Mopar, a components manufacturer.
FCA now owns the trademark for the Jeep name and its famous front slot grille design, which was initially a Ford design feature for their GPW model and incorporated into the standardized design of the vehicle, the Willys MB model. Insanely popular, Jeep has a loyal following of enthusiastic drivers all over the world who swear “you wouldn't understand, it's a Jeep thing.” Reliable, powerful, and affordable, Jeep vehicles such as the Jeep CJ series, Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Comanche, Jeep Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, Jeep Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer, etc., have been tearing up the roads and trails with style for decades, transporting everything from soldiers to groceries. Newer models, like the Jeep Liberty which was built on the KJ platform from its launch in 2002 until 2007 and since then on the KK platform, the Jeep Patriot, and the Jeep Compass, both of which launched in 2007 and are built on the MK platform, have continued the tradition of the Jeep brand.