Bantam Reconnaissance Car
Artist: Michael Clark
Sponsored by: Circle of Swords Gaming Guild
Building Owners: Joe and Jackie Gray
Mural located at 123 W. New Castle Street, Butler, PA
Walldog Organizer: Scott “Cornbread” Lindley
2016 Butler Brush-Up hosted by the Butler County Historical Society
In the 1920s through the 1930s, the Army Quartermaster Technical Committee on Transportation met with members of several branches of the service, private companies, and individual investors to discuss the development of a new military vehicle. They realized that they needed an all-purpose vehicle, but did not know exactly what that vehicle would look like. Retired Naval Commander Charles “Harry” Payne who was active as a Bantam Lobbyist, was trying to interest the Army Quartermaster in a military version of the Bantam cars. Payne was at the meeting and offered the company’s manufacturing facilities to develop the new vehicle as long as it was based on the Bantam Automobiles. The Infantry enthusiastically began to discuss with Payne the possibility of Bantam building a small combat worthy car.
A letter dated June 6, 1940, to the Adjunct General from the office of General George Lynch, Chief of Infantry, contained some specifications for this combat worthy car. Many believe that Payne helped write the specifications since they resembled those of a four wheel drive Bantam Speedster. The QMC thought the specifications would not be enough for the rigorous performance requirements the vehicle needed and was against the idea. Payne went over the QMC’s head and met with the Secretary of War, Harry Woodring, who directed that a sub-committee be formed in the Ordinance Corps. A meeting was scheduled with the Bantam Company in Butler, Pennsylvania. Infantry, Cavalry, Quarter master officers and representatives from the Army’s Ordnance Committee came to the American Bantam Car Company in Butler, Pennsylvania, in June 1940, to discuss manufacturing a light reconnaissance vehicle.
They tested Bantam roadsters on a race track. They also added weight to the two wheel drive Bantam cars and tested them over Butler’s hills. Harold Crist, Factory Manager, demonstrated a re-designed pickup truck with a 3 main engine. The group discussed desired physical characteristics as well as the performance requirements of the new vehicle and a rough sketch was drawn up that included the vehicle’s size dimensions. Upright seats, four wheel drive, a lightweight Bantam engine, convoy speed, and a total maximum weight of 1,200 pounds were included. When the Army officers left they recommended that Bantam be given a contract to proceed.
While the QMC and Bantam created outline drawings, discussed four wheel drive parts and costs, redesigned the concept and finalized specifications over a two-week period, Bantam realized the performance specifications the QMC required were impossible achieve with the weight restriction. The QMC declined to raise the weight to the 1,800 limit that Harold Crist from Bantam needed to successfully build the vehicle.
After all the work Bantam had done on the concept and specifications of the new vehicle, it did not guarantee them the job. The QMC surprised both Bantam and the Infantry by sending the vehicle’s specifications and bid requests to 135 manufacturers early in July of 1940. Companies had to provide complete detailed drawings and deliver a prototype vehicle at their expense in 49 days to win the bid. The Infantry and Bantam vehemently objected to the QMC’s decision to accept other bids. It is speculated that the other companies believed it was impossible to build a vehicle meeting the required specifications and did not want to bear the costs of building a prototype vehicle, so they did not respond. Only Bantam and Willys-Overland competed for the bid.
Bantam needed help and contacted Karl Probst to create the vehicle’s formal drawings. Bantam was in debt and could not offer Probst a salary for his work. Probst declined the job.
In early July 1940, the Germans launched heavy air raids against the British. Soon after, Winston Churchill’s “bulldog determination” to fight and defeat the enemy was read by Probst. It was at this time that Probst had a growing sense of patriotism and changed his mind about joining Bantam. Bill Knudsen, the Chief of the National Defense Advisory Commission, convinced Probst that the reconnaissance vehicle would be good for the country.
Karl Probst made history on July 16, 1940, when he agreed to join the Bantam team. He departed from Detroit on July 17, making a quick stop in Toledo, Ohio at Spicer Manufacturing Company. He met with Chief Engineer Bob Lewis to consider axles and transfer cases needed for the Bantam prototype. Together they decided to use an axle from a Studebaker Champion – a heavier car with three times more horsepower than the Bantam, instead of trying to rework and use a Bantam axle.
Probst arrived on the 18th in Butler and met with Frank Fenn and Harold Crist who shared the drawings and designs created by Crist and his mechanics, which included Ralph Turner and Chet Hemphling. Beginning at 1:00 p.m., Probst began working on his layout with Crist supplying various dimensions and part specifications from Bantam and Spicer, working until 11:00 p.m.
At 7:00 a.m. Probst was back in the drafting room and after a total of 18 hours of work, he had completed the bid drawings for the prototype. They were created using a 25 percent scale and were very detailed. The drawings showed exactly how the car would be built and parts that would be used. This design was nothing like anything the military had previously examined or that Bantam had built. Bantam called this design original the Bantam Reconnaissance Car (BRC). It became the world’s first jeep.
The parts Bantam decided to use followed the performance characteristics of the bid specifications and the detailed drawings became risky business for them because they ignored the weight requirements made by the QMC. Bantam had chosen heavier parts and a more powerful engine even though they knew the vehicle would weigh more than 1200 pounds. But the adjustments also would deliver the speed, ruggedness, and off-road abilities that the military required.
Probst and Fenn drove to Baltimore to deliver the bid drawing and meet with Payne on the night of July 20. Because the vehicle’s weight was now 1,850 pounds, much higher that the specified weight of 1,200 pounds, Payne was sure that Bantam would never win the bid. While Bantam could not guarantee such a low weight, they also knew that no other car company could guarantee it either. Knowing that lying about the weight was the only way to secure a bid with the Army; Payne gained access to blank bid forms. He had the hotel manager bring in his public stenographer at 3:30 a.m. to re-type all the forms and changed the vehicle’s weight to 1,273 pounds.
Bantam and Willys submitted bids to the Army on July 22. While Bantam delivered their detailed drawings to Camp Holabird with the promise to manufacture the prototype in 49 days, Willys submitted an incomplete bid by only providing a time and cost estimate with a 75-day deadline. The QMC had asked Ford Motor Company to submit a bid, but they declined and were present as an observer along with a representative from Crosley. So Bantam won the bid to manufacture the prototype.
The contract was for 70 vehicles and was dated August 5, 1940. The prototype had to be completed and delivered to Camp Holabird within 49 days. Bantam’s crew of Crist, Hemphling, Turner, Probst, and Probst’s Detroit drafting crew began a frantic, round the clock effort as it began work on the first Bantam Reconnaissance Car.
The crew worked relentlessly and overcame many obstacles, completing the vehicle on September 21, 1940, forty-seven days after the contract date. It was ready for its first test drive with Crist at the wheel and Probst in the passenger seat; they drove on the road and then tested it on the steep grassy hills in and around the Lyndora and Highfield areas. During the test drive Crist said, “It sure is fun to drive!”
The Bantam team took turns test driving the vehicle throughout the day on September 22. The vehicle performed well and did not overheat. A few minor changes were made to the brake and steering systems and then received a fresh coat of paint by John L. Rodgers. Early the next morning the BRC left Butler and traveled 230 miles to Camp Holabird, Maryland.
The car did not exceed 25 mph at first, but as the 5:00 p.m. deadline approached, the Bantam team tested the BRC’s speed limits. While Crist and Probst took turns driving, Fenn and Turner followed behind in another vehicle, keeping other vehicles away. At 4:30 p.m., the BRC arrived at Camp Holabird with half an hour to spare. If Bantam had missed the deadline, they would have been charged a $100 per day penalty fee. They were enthusiastically greeted by offers and soldiers. Willys-Overland and Ford Motor Company representatives also were there for this momentous occasion.
The Army was so impressed with the vehicle that they showed it off for several days before they tested it. It was taken to Fort Myers in Virginia to show General George Marshall and other Army brass. It was immediately deemed a success and a tactics-changing weapon.
The Army vigorously tested the BRC prototype from September 27 to October 16 at Camp Holabird where it was driven more than 3,000 miles with all but 247 miles off-highway. Captain Mosley, chief of Holabird testing, performed the majority of the test and when he question of the vehicle’s weight came up, Probst honestly replied that the vehicle was 1,850 pounds. So Major Lawed instructed an office to see if he could lift the car off the ground. The officer complied and said, “It feels like 1,400 pounds to me, sir.” Major Lawes
replied, “If it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for the Army.” The weight specification was changed at that time.
Willys-Overland and Ford were on site throughout the numerous days of testing and they took notes, made sketches and eventually were given the blueprints so they could create their own prototypes, based on the BRC. Bantam had no patent on their product so the government claimed ownership of the blueprints. Bantam did secure the first contract for 70 BRC-60s and had 12 weeks to produce them, but Bantam completed them in eight weeks, on December 17, 1940.
After much debate between the Infantry and the QMC, all three companies received an order to produce 1,500 vehicles based on the Bantam design. The Infantry objected to Willys and Ford obtaining contracts then they had not produced a working prototype. However, the National Advisory Commission and the QMC decided to supply contracts to all three auto companies.
The majority of Bantam’s 1,500 BRC-40s were eventually delivered to Russia through the Lend-Lease program. In June of 1941, Bantam delivered the last of its orders and was not given the opportunity to produce any more as the government awarded large contracts to Willy-Overland and Ford.
Many reports at the time stated that the American Bantam Car Company was too small and too much in debt to produce the number of jeeps the Army required. Records indicate that Bantam was capable of producing at least 300 jeeps per day, equivalent to 109,500 jeeps in one year. Considering that Willys-Overland and Ford produced nearly 650,000 jeeps total in four years combined, size most certainly was not an issue for Bantam. Despite their best efforts, Bantam never received another contract for the military vehicles they invented.
Bantam did manage to keep the company profitable by building military trailers for Army jeeps during the war. The trailers could haul more than 500 pounds and were made to handle tough conditions. By the end of World War II, Bantam had built more than 73,000 military trailers.
At the government’s request, the tools and dies were scrapped at the end of the war. Roy Evans sold the company in 1946 and the new management continued building Bantam civilian style trailers. When the company went out of business, its assets were sold at auction, and the property sold to ARMCO in 1956.
The Fair Trade Commission charged Willys-Overland with false and misleading advertising in May of 1943, when they claimed that Willys had created the jeep. The court determined that the jeep was fostered and conceived in Butler, Pennsylvania, by the American Bantam Car Company.
ARMCO tore down the factory building long ago but the administration building is still standing although it has been abandoned for over 60 years.
© 2017 Butler County Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.