Of all the four-letter words in the English language, only one has been fought over this fiercely. Most Jeep histories begin with Karl Probst and Bantam, move on to Willys-Overland and Ford producing them during World War II, then shift to Willys-Overland and Kaiser’s post-war civilian production of the Jeep. It’s a very complicated tale, one that to this day involves claims and counterclaims regarding the true originator of the iconic (and lucrative) go-anywhere brand.
Lost over the years, however, was an alternate jeep from another American manufacturer, one that predates anything built by Bantam, Willys-Overland or Ford: the Minneapolis-Moline jeep.
After forming in 1929, Minneapolis-Moline quickly established itself as a leading tractor manufacturer, and in 1938 even attempted to broaden the company’s appeal to farmers by offering the UDLX, a fully enclosed tractor meant to both plow the fields and ply the roads (see HCC #7). However, the UDLX was a flop—only about 150 were built, and some remained on dealer lots through 1940.
Perhaps in an effort to salvage the UDLX development program, or perhaps in an effort to open up new revenue sources, at about the same time it offered the UDLX, Minneapolis-Moline began to develop a four-wheel-drive version of its Model U tractor and offered it to the Army for testing.
Minneapolis-Moline designed this new product, designated the UTX and rated at five tons, to move around light artillery. Built with similar fenders—and, in some cases, the same enclosed cabs—as the UDLX, the UTX initially used the Model DEF 41.5hp 283-cu.in. four-cylinder engine from the Model U; later, it was powered by a Model CE 75hp 425-cu.in. six-cylinder.
Aside from the driven front axle, Minneapolis-Moline also added a full-width front roller bumper that allowed the UTX to climb obstacles and roll back up the other side of ravines without getting stuck. Otherwise, Minneapolis-Moline left the UTX mostly stock, reasoning that the company could quickly enter production with the tractors for the Army and that the Army could utilize various off-the-shelf attachments that Minneapolis-Moline already produced for its farm tractors.
The UTX went to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, but earned its place in history in August 1940 at Camp Ripley, Minnesota, when Sergeant James T. O’Brien of the 109th Ordnance Company of the Minnesota National Guard noted the overall proficiency of the tractors, especially when pulling a stuck howitzer out of the mud. Inspired by the “Eugene the Jeep” character in the Popeye comic strip, O’Brien first hung from the tractor’s radiator cap a sign painted with the word “Jeep,” then painted the word “Jeep” itself on the flanks of the tractor.
Minneapolis-Moline chronicled the christening in a wartime advertisement: “This new MM army vehicle was not a crawler, tractor, truck nor tank, and yet it could do almost anything and it knew all the answers. Because of this, it brought to mind the Popeye cartoon figure called ‘Jeep’ which was neither fowl nor beast, but knew all the answers and could do almost anything.””Almost” is the operative word here. The UTX couldn’t pull the heavier artillery the Army required, nor could it reach decent highway speeds (it topped out at around 20-30 MPH). Reportedly, Minneapolis-Moline built just six UTXs, but the company followed with several other military tractors, including a lighter version called the ZTX, and a heavier six-wheeled version called the GTX.
Perhaps the most successful product of Minneapolis-Moline’s military program, however, was the NTX, another four-wheel-drive vehicle that military boys referred to as a “jeep.”Little more than a bench seat, a cargo box and four 9.00-20 tires on a 101-inch-wheelbase, 11/2-ton chassis, Minneapolis-Moline built the NTX to serve the Army Air Force’s need for an aircraft towing tractor from 1942-’44. Minneapolis-Moline designed the minimal, low-slung body—which looks more like a big louvered oil drum cut in two to cover the tires—to allow the NTX to slip under aircraft wings, while it designed the chassis for maneuverability and traction on improvised landing strips.
For a powertrain, Minneapolis-Moline chose its Model OE 44.5hp 206-cu.in. four-cylinder engine, which was unique in a few ways. First, it used a fully hydraulic valvetrain—that is, the camshaft pushed a plunger, which hydraulically actuated the valves. Second, while the valves were located in the engine block, as with an L-head engine, they were positioned horizontally. The cylinder head was located on the side of the block and the exhaust and intake ports were located on the top of the block.Eddie Sloan, the owner of our featured NTX, said Minneapolis-Moline chose this design so the engine would have fewer moving parts. “The theory was that when the engine got low on oil, it wouldn’t run, so the Army boys wouldn’t be able to run the engines without oil,” he said.
Backing that four-cylinder engine was a dual-range five-speed transmission (effectively making it a 10-speed) and a chain-driven transfer case, all mounted in a unit with the rear axle, allowing no rear suspension whatsoever, just as in the Minneapolis-Moline farm tractors. The front axle, a Timken unit, was also mounted rigidly to the frame. Theoretical top speed was 43 MPH.Just as Minneapolis-Moline built the estimated 840 NTX tractors, the company stepped into the wartime dispute between Bantam and Willys-Overland over who should receive credit for originating the 1/4-ton jeep reconnaissance vehicle. Minneapolis-Moline pointed both to the UTX and the NTX as evidence that the “Jeep” name rightfully belonged on its products.
Though Minneapolis-Moline lodged a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission in 1943, the company also appealed to the public. Minneapolis-Moline took out plenty of ads and published plenty of pamphlets staking a claim for the Jeep name. It also sent out a string of press releases over the next two years noting how the UTX and NTX—both referred to in the press releases as “Jeeps”—proved themselves in the war effort. One, in particular, noted how an NTX “help(ed) save lives of war heroes” by clearing a damaged plane off a runway so a squadron low on fuel could land.
But it was all for naught. The FTC ruled in favor of Bantam in May 1943 and continued to scold Willys-Overland after the war for advertising that it had created the Jeep, but largely ignored Minneapolis-Moline’s claim.
What good it would have done Minneapolis-Moline to have won the Jeep name is debatable. The company continued farm tractor production after the war, but returned to its typical tractor designs and never again built anything like the NTX.
This article originally appeared in the June, 2010 issue of Hemmings Classic Car.