Jeep’s iconic seven slot grille is the styling element most people think of when they think of a Jeep. Because of this, Jeep protects it fiercely, often suing any company that has a similar design. Yet, as crazy as it sounds, the Jeep grille wasn’t originally designed by Jeep. According to a story by Jalopnik, the origins of the seven slot grille are, in fact, from Ford.
That’s right, in some alternate universe, Jeeps may not have the seven slot grille. Weirder still, the upcoming Ford Bronco could have been called the Wrangler instead. The origins of this story go back to WWII, when the U.S. army needed a small reconnaissance vehicle that was great off-road.
Surprisingly, American Bantam was the only car company at the time that responded to the Army’s request with a suitable vehicle, with the Pilot. But American Bantam was a small company that wouldn’t have the resources to supply the army with the amount of vehicles they wanted.
Ford and Willys were asked to look at the American Bantam Pilot and create their take on the vehicle. Willys came up with the Quad, and Ford the Pygmy. Both looked very similar because they were essentially just a copy of the original Pilot. The Willys Quad was eventually chosen, for its chassis and engine qualities.
But so many were needed for WWII that all three companies were told to produce the car. Ford’s manufacturing network was especially important. To make manufacturing as simple as possible coming from three companies, the final vehicle was a sort of combination of all three. The Willys Quad chassis evolved into the final General Purpose (GP, where Jeep comes from) vehicle, called the MA, and had some Ford and Bantam design touches. Willys got the design rights to the vehicle, and the other companies were licensed to produce it.
The final Willys design used the vertical iron bars of the Bantam Pilot. It had echos of Jeep styling, but definitely not the thing everyone knows and loves. Early into production, Ford realized they could make a similar design with a single piece of stamped steel with holes in it. This would be far cheaper and quicker to produce.
That piece had nine slots in it, but looked just like the iconic Jeep grille. After the War, Willys wanted to produce a civilian version of the grille. Even though they had the basic design rights to the grille, Ford still had some control over it’s production, so Willys just took two slots away to make the final seven slot grille.
While the Jeep and Ford connection is already ironic at this point, it gets odder still. When Ford was developing the original Bronco, they considered Wrangler as a possible name. If a few things would have happened differently in history, we could have a Ford Wrangler with the trademark seven slot Jeep grille.