American Desert Buggy – aka Jeep

JeepTo celebrate Jeep’s 75th Anniversary, Jeep took us to the forest and took us back in time, we got educated the brand but more importantly we got muddy, very very muddy!

In 1941 the world was an entirely different place, we were at war. Europe was a vast continent of unpredictable weather and terrain and of course a vicious enemy – all three needed to be conquered. With this in mind (one year earlier), the US Department of War asked 135 carmakers to submit proposals for a much needed light reconnaissance vehicle, Willys submitted a design and in only 40 days built a prototype. On the 27th September 1940 Willys (and Ford) were told to pilot production and in July 1941 Willy’s MB went into full production. That was the date our 75 years (so far) love affair with the Jeep began.

363,000 Willy’s were built with an extra 13,000 Seeps (Sea Jeeps that were great for rivers but floated like a brick doesn’t) and in the same year of initial production troops from the New Zealand Army had their photo taken behind the wheel of the aptly named ‘American Desert Buggy’ in North Africa (at that point they didn’t know what to call it).

WranglerThe Jeep changed the face of warfare and played an incalculable role in allied victory in WWII. The Jeep allowed troops to cover vast amounts of hostile ground quickly and efficiently and mean that supplies could be delivered and the wounded rescued and transported back to safety. NZ war records show many images of the Jeep in combat, ‘The Div’ the 2nd New Zealand Division had them at one of the most brutal battles of WWII – Cassino (also visited by PM Peter Frazer days later), NZ drivers formed part of the legendary ‘Ghost Train’ delivering supplies to the front line through unimaginable dangers, Inferno Track, Faenza, Sora, Trieste the list goes on and on and regardless of what was thrown at it (man-made or mother nature at her cruelest) The Jeep made it through.

Since then the Jeep has been at the forefront of off-road design and SUV concepts. Maurice Wilkes (Land Rover) is said to have been influenced by a Jeep MB and the J in the 1950 Toyota BJ refers to Jeep. But it doesn’t just stop with the core frame, in 1946 their CJ-2A (C for civilian) was the first 4WD all terrain car for the masses, 1948 saw the first SUV – the Jeep Willys Wagon was a tall, light, go anywhere car that transported you and our countless luggage – sound familiar? In 1955 came the CJ-5 the first recreational 4WD and in 1963 the Jeep Wagoneer was the first large SUV. The first premium SUV came in 1984 by way of the Jeep Grand Wagoneer followed by the Cherokee (a compact SUV) in the same year – both way ahead of the band wagon that followed. In 1992 the Jeep Grand Cherokee brought premium to the compact SUV while a year later the Magnum threw in Performance – Oh yes make no bones about it, Jeep not only made history it continues to change it!

JeepAnd that brings us up to the 75th anniversary adventure Jeep NZ put on. We were greeted at the entrance to Woodhill Forest by military MP’s in a Willys MB and asked (ok ordered) to show ID before being allowed in. Then they escorted us to a clearing where thirty or so Jeeps of all models were waiting for us to put them through the rough stuff. Grand Cherokee’s, Wranglers and even the new Renegade were there to be played with and although we were going to chop and change throughout the day, the Cherokee was my first pick – I think because it was clean and white (the perfect choice to show off the mud).

We ran a short Jeep parade to the mess area, our base camp for coffee (and later lunch) where – as the rain came in – we got the day’s briefing and were split into groups. The rain pouring down was evidently significant; it would turn the already harsh terrain of the forest into a slippery mess, if the day ahead was supposed to put the Jeep through its paces, this nasty weather was going to turn the volume up to 11. Funnily enough no-one seemed concerned!

Our first exercise was a donut drive in a sandpit, not something you do every day. The route had been well and truly used before, like a moat around a castle we would be driving these big SUV’s hard around the moat, low for slow high for fast. Pedal to the metal 4 wheel drifting around a ring of sand in an SUV that is generally viewed as a city dweller, if that sounds entertaining you’d be right. Kicking up the sand from all wheels as we powered around and around before spinning out up over the rim – no one stayed low. It was the most fun I’ve had in the sand since burying (not completely) my nonplussed dad at Weston-Super- Mare beach.

With the adrenaline coursing through our veins and the downpour increasing we headed for the next exercise – Hill descent on soft sand. A steep drop with and without the hill descent button depressed, we took turns going through each of the Jeeps and I have to say the Renegade was the standout (mainly because I wasn’t convinced it was up to it). It seems that the Trail rated badge is not just there for show.

JeepNext up; uneven and rocky hill descent, same as before but shorter, steeper and much more uneven. A chance to lift wheels and barely stay seated. Again, for me the Renegade really showed its metal.

Last test for the morning, a mud and puddle four wheel drifting donuts drive (and my favorite exercise). It was a chance to really get my Cherokee dirty, then clean and then dirty again all in the blink of an eye. It’s hard to describe the joy involved but you know the satisfaction you get when you skim the edge of a puddle in your car and the water sprays up? Well imaging having no care whatsoever and ploughing through the middle at speed and then slipping the SUV around in the deep mud – all the while knowing that you’re safe and (more importantly) won’t need to clean the vehicle later. All Jeeps did well but the Wrangler does it better.

Then it was back to the mess tent for some chow Burgers, hot dogs and some good ol’ fashioned apple pie. However; before we sat down to eat, a full on gunfight broke out. The MP’s and their troops had a forest skirmish and offloaded their Enfields and Stens in to the foliage. It was loud and impressive (especially when the machine gun let loose) and all followed up by discovering a ‘spy’ amongst us and then – by the sound of it – blowing him up.

With a belly full of food (obviously to test the springs and chassis) we headed out to the tracks again, this time it was for splashing in water and a couple of extreme ‘capability’ demonstrations by professionals – Jeeps are incredibly good in their natural offroad habitat.

The day ended up with coffee and a bus ride back to civilization, it was a chance to reacquaint ourselves with the traffic and reminisce about the day. The Jeeps handled the exercises with aplomb but the thing I didn’t emphasize was the tracks and trails we took to get to each of them. Up slippery and nasty hills, across uneven and rocky ruts, as we drove along there were several times that I thought we shouldn’t or wouldn’t make it, the tracks were too deep or way too lopsided but in true Jeep fashion we made it through with surprising ease – even on what had been pointed out on several occasions – Fully inflated road tyres (offroaders go down to 15psi).

JeepThe American Desert Buggy has been with us for seventy Five years and by looks of it, intends to be with us for at least 75 more. They are great for the towns and cities but as was proven in the forest they excel outdoors. All in all I have to say, it was a Yankee Doodle Dandy of a day – Jeep, we salute you.

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