There are many different theories about the origins of the name “Jeep,” the little four-wheel-drive vehicle that is part of American automobile lore.
Before 1940, the word “jeep” was commonly used in the U.S. Army to identify new recruits or sometimes vehicles. Some historians believe the word might have come from the acronym GP, used by the Army meaning “General Purpose.”
Others think it might have come from the little mythical creature that was the pet of Popeye the Sailor, known as Eugene the Jeep. Eugene was nimble, able to solve complicated problems and had the ability to maneuver in other dimensions, which seems to describe the Jeep.
In the late 1950s, Bob Thomas bought his Jeep from the Studebaker/ International Harvester dealer in Waynesville.
“Somebody traded it in on a Studebaker car,” Bob said. “He had a son who I was in school with who drove it, and he kept it a couple of years, and then it came up for sale.”
Willys-Overland originally developed the Jeep for a competition to supply an all-purpose vehicle for the Army. Willys-Overland later sold to Nash-Kelvinator, which later became American Motors (AMC). Chrysler bought Jeep in 1987 after the demise of AMC.
Bob said he went into the Waynesville dealer, “and he wanted 300 bucks for it, but I didn’t have that much money.”
Bob gave the dealer $100 and signed a note for the $200 difference.
“I still have the note that I signed for.”
At that point, the 1948 Jeep was about 10 years old.
Bob has memories of seeing newspapers showing Army officers riding in Jeeps during WWII.
“I was eight years old when they bombed Pearl Harbor,” Bob said. “Then, later, when I was in the Army in Germany, we rode around in Jeeps.”
They used them on duty and also when they were off duty and did some sightseeing.
“My buddy was a sergeant, and he was from Minnesota,” Bob said. “On a couple of weekends we drove out to some of the burned-out castles.”
Running a Jeep on the German Autobahn in those days was an eye-opening experience, too.
“Jeeps would only run about 60 miles an hour, and Mercedes would pass us,” he said. “Of course 80-90 miles an hour was fast in those days.”
Over the years Bob has owned his Jeep, it has changed little. He replaced the engine at one point, but replaced it with an original-type, flathead four cylinder engine. By the mid-1950s, domestic car makers had replaced flathead engine designs with the new overhead valve engines.
He also replaced the roof and added wheel covers.
Before Bob owned a pick-up truck, he used the Jeep to tow farm wagons, fabricating a special hitch for the front of the Jeep so he could also push wagons.
“When I bought it, I didn’t have a pick-up truck,” Bob said. “We hauled wagons of corn with it. For 10 years, I used it before I bought my first pick-up in 1967.”
All of Bob’s daughters learned to drive using the Jeep as well.
“You could put it in low range, and you couldn’t kill it,” he said. “They drove it around, all four of them, and they learned how to shift gears.”
Bob’s siblings would decorate the Jeep every Fourth of July, “and we would drive it in the parade.” That was in the days when Waynesville held an annual July 4 parade and ice cream social.
“We did that for several years,” he said. “I also drove it in the Heyworth parade a couple of years.”
Bob’s Jeep is still painted its original maroon color.
“The wheels were yellow, and somewhere along the line we changed that and found those hubcaps off a Chevrolet,” Bob said.
The first thing Bob changed when he bought the Jeep was to install lock-out hubs on the front wheels. Lock-out hubs make it possible to disengage the front wheels so it can be driven in only two-wheel drive.
“Before that, the front end always had to run,” he said. “Those things were $109, and that was a tremendous investment at that time.”
He also has changed the tires over the years from the standard military tread to knobby tires.
“Those, actually, have been on there for about 20 years,” Bob said. “Of course, over the years, I’ve had several sets of tires on it.”
No one knows Bob’s Jeep better than he does. After 62 years, the little vehicle that was as nimble as Popeye’s little friend Eugene has been a major part of his family.
“I’ve lived it,” Bob said. “I’ve experienced it.”
“I’ve always kept it running, and I still drive it.”