Tracking the vanishing jeep

A current advertisement from American Motors compliments its civilain version of the jeep for "transcending passing styles." Well, not quite. The Army is ready to put the jeep out to pasture, and the old cavalrymen sentimentally phrased it. Sixty-one companies have been invited to submit designs for an all-new Army vehicle, boasting a diesel engine, automatic transmission, and a cruising range of 300 miles.

Jeep stood for G.P., as in general purpose. The jeep's replacement will be called "the high mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicle," which may tell us more about the changes in language than the changes in automotive design over the past 40 years.

We wish the Hmmwv (as we shall think of it) all the success in the world when it joins the Army in 1984, according to schedule. But we can't just let the last jeep roll away into the sunset without a few words of appreciation, spoken, perhaps, to the background accompaniment of the Andrews Sisters' recording "The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B."

Like anybody who has ever ridden in a jeep, we still clench our teeth fondly at the thought and remember --down to the last rattled disc on our spine -- every mile we vibrated over. The jeep had an incomparable will-to-bounce. Engineered to survive the roughest terrain, it chose to treat the smallest pebble like a boulder on a trail in the lower Pyrenees. When in doubt, it went airborne.

Will the Hmmwv have carpeting and air conditioning -- options on the latest civilian jeep? Somehow that doesn't bother us as much as the possibility of a third option: contoured seats. An Army vehicle that rides comfortably is as much of a contradiction as a waterbed on field maneuvers.

That automatic transmission has us worried too. The gearshift of the old jeep was such a marvelous learning tool. Anybody who could shift a jeep could drive a trailer truck. Anybody who could shift a jeep without grinding could fly a Boeing with no further lessons.

Something stubborn way down there in the jeep gearbox carried on the cavalry tradition of the mule. Try to shove the stick into low, and the ornery creature dug in its hind feet and balked. It took prolonged clucks, three choruses of sweet talk, and a wrist of iron to get the job done.

The jeep built character. But who could resist this indestructible machine that challenged you to survive it? And so the jeep became as international four decades ago as blue jeans today. Jeep Militaire the French called it. The Russians bounced across the steppes in lend-lease jeeps. Chiang Kai-Shek's soldiers gunned them in the shadow of the Great Wall of China. The British tootled their jeeps across the deserts of North Africa.

The British became so fond of the jeep that after the war they made a military drill out of assembling it. A six-man team could complete the task -- from crate to rolling state -- in about three and a half minutes.

We have not even mentioned the amphibious jeep. In 1950 an Australian engineer named Ben Carlin started from New York in an amphib. It took him nine years off and on, modifying his land-and-sea crafts as he putted along, but he made it -- around the world in a jeep.

Traditionally, Americans have been infatuated with their vehicles for such frivolous reasons as flake paint, leopard seats, and throbbing exhaust note. Whether plowing snow or delivering mail, the jeep stands for a homely, corrective usefulness that warms the heart --if it does not quite ignite it.

With more justice than usual, the jeep can be called a legend.

There is an alternative explanation for the naming of the jeep. The term, it is said, comes from Jeep, a fabled character in the Popeye cartoo n, neither bird nor beast, that knew all the answers and could do about anything.

We'll bounce along with that.

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