Project Management History Lessons: The Jeep

Project Management History Lessons:

The Jeep

by Paul Bruno

Editor's Note: Paul Bruno, The History Czar to many of you, wrote a series of articles for and this piece was originally published there. Yes, when speaking of project management, he was thinking of large IT endeavors. However, his advice works for those of us who are working together to launch websites, those of us planning conferences -- and those of us writing and publishing books, either alone or with partners. Enjoy.

In the summer of 1940, with Germany winning the war in Europe and Japan rising in Asia, the U.S. Army initiated a procurement of a revolutionary vehicle prototype that would help win World War II and endure for 70 years — a project which has lessons to teach us today.

Many historical events and milestones meet the definition of a project as a “temporary endeavor with a defined beginning and end that is undertaken to meet unique goals and objectives, which will typically bring about beneficial change or added value.” The goal of the Project Management Lessons from History series is to provide practical knowledge applicable to today’s projects while exploring some history along the way.  

In the summer of 1940, the United States Army was rated 28th in the world, just behind Bulgaria. Traditional demobilization following World War I, coupled with deep budget cuts during the Great Depression, had left the United States woefully unprepared to meet the dual threats from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. During May and June 1940 Nazi Germany defeated France, employing a new form of mobile warfare named Blitzkrieg (lightning war).  

The U.S. Army quickly realized it was completely outclassed by the new German tactics and, while Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for an unprecedented third term as President of the United States on a platform of keeping his country out of the war in Europe, behind the scenes the military was beginning to modernize. A key component for the Army was to replace the mule with a lightweight, small vehicle that could quickly transport troops and small payloads.

The story of the team destined to meet this challenge begins years earlier and, as it unfolds, provides 10 lessons that can still inform the work of today’s project managers and teams.

1. Have a compelling vision

Roy S. Evans was born in 1900 in the small village of Bartow, Georgia. At a young age he developed a love for the automobile and by the age of 30 he owned a chain of dealerships that made him the largest car dealer in the southern United States. In the early 1930s he discovered the American Austin small cars being built in Butler, Pennsylvania. He quickly came to believe that the American consumer should own two cars — a larger one for long trips and materials transport, and a smaller vehicle for local driving. It was this vision that would sustain Evans in the difficult years ahead.

Projects go through both good and bad times and having a compelling vision of the project’s contribution will help sustain the effort throughout the entire endeavor.

2. Stay committed to your vision

While Evans’ vision was compelling, his timing was atrocious. The market for small cars dried up as the Great Depression deepened. By 1935 American Austin was bankrupt and for sale. The factory and ancillary equipment were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but there were no buyers at this nadir of the Depression. Evans decided to keep his vision alive by purchasing the entire operation for $10,000.

While there are appropriate times to kill a project, there are other times when a project is worth a stepped up commitment. An individual should consider for themselves what type of undertaking is worth making a personal sacrifice to keep alive.

3. Be innovative and creative

While Evans may have made the commitment to keep his small-car vision alive it did not change the fact that American Austin’s vehicles were not selling. He renamed the company the American Bantam Car Company and for the next five years, using his expertise along with that of his managers and employees, tried every conceivable idea, improvement and innovation to sell small cars, but to no avail. By the summer of 1940 the American Bantam Car Company was bankrupt.

Keeping an open mind and trying any and all appropriate ideas, no matter how seemingly outlandish, provides a good example for project work. This is especially true for difficult or unique projects, but is a mindset that project managers and teams should adopt as a matter of course. While it is true that people are usually more willing to try something new when the chips are down, those who can build an innovative mindset into their project culture are more likely to succeed in the long run.

4. Seek other related opportunities

While Evans was doing everything possible to build a civilian market for small cars he was savvy enough to scan the economic environment for other opportunities. By the late 1930s he realized the military, especially the Army, would need new vehicles for the mechanized warfare of the future. He began the process of trying to interest the Army in small vehicles (especially his small vehicles!) during the late 1930s.

While the requirements will dictate the direction and outcomes for a particular endeavor, project managers and team members should always be on the lookout for other ways to meet the project’s objectives. Ancillary opportunities are unlikely to end up being a one-roll-of-the-dice chance to save the entire company like competing for the Army’s new vehicle would be for Evans and the American Bantam Car Company; however, looking for new opportunities to bring a project to a successful conclusion is good practice.

5. Understand the requirements

The suddenness and completeness of Germany’s defeat of France provided the impetus for the usually conservative military establishment to seek a revolutionary new vehicle to move troops and small payloads. The procurement, begun in June 1940, produced a list of requirements for a prototype that had to be delivered in 49 days once the contract was signed. The requirements were sent to 135 companies. Only two — Willys-Overland Motors and the American Bantam Car Co. — responded because the requirements and short development time were so daunting. When Willys could not guarantee delivery of the prototype in 49 days, the contract to build the prototype went to American Bantam. While the requirements were revolutionary for the other manufacturers they were right in line with the type of vehicles Evans’ company had been producing for five years. He knew his firm was uniquely positioned to produce the prototype and he thoroughly understood the specifications. They also really had nothing to lose, for if Bantam failed to deliver, Evans’ company was still bankrupt. It is a testament to the desperation of the Army that they let Evans try.

By having a vision, staying in the game, being innovative and creative, seeking other opportunities and understanding the requirements, Evans had a chance to save his company. Project managers should note that practicing these qualities may not produce immediate results for their current project or projects; however, having the discipline to practice them on a day-to-day basis will most likely positively impact your projects over the long run and, who knows, maybe position you to be the one to meet a critical challenge when the stakes are high.

6. Seek the best in key positions

Evans had no employees other than the factory night watchman when he won the contract to build the prototype — named the truck 4 X 4 light by the Army. While he could hire skilled labor he knew he needed the best automotive designer in the business if he was to achieve the impossible. Evans went to Detroit and convinced Karl Probst (with the help of the head of General Motors) to go to Butler, unpaid, to design the vehicle and help lead the team to build the design.

It is important for a project manager to determine what are the crucial resources that are needed for a project and ensure that the very best is procured for those resources. This is a key ingredient for ensuring project success.

7. Be politically astute

Probst was able to design the vehicle in two days of intense effort toward the end of June 1940. Evans and Probst travelled to Baltimore to confer with Evans’ government representative, Commander Charles Payne, to review the submission forms. When they reached the box marked “weight” Evans and Payne were alarmed that Probst had filled in the box for weight with a figure greater than the 1,200 pounds specified in the requirements. While Probst was honest, he was not politically astute, as the proposal would be immediately rejected by a bureaucrat who was merely reviewing the information provided in the boxes. Evans was able to secure a typist to come to their hotel room at 3:30 a.m. to retype the forms, and filled in the weight box with a figure of 1,180 pounds. Evans’ reasoning was no one could meet that weight and once the government saw the prototype they would waive the 1,200 pound requirement. While no one would recommend outright lying, Evans could not be “sure” that the 1,200 pound requirement would not be met. He had to decide if it was worth losing the chance to build the prototype by admitting a potential inability to meet what he perceived to be an unrealistic weight requirement. The best option would have been to meet with the customer and attempt to renegotiate the item; however, that option was not open to Evans.

When faced with a similar situation a project manager has to make a judgment call based upon their own ethics and values. Until confronted with such a dilemma no one can really say what they would do. It is best to have a firm grounding of one’s values before the crisis occurs, and then act according to those precepts.

8. Know what is critical

The American Bantam and the U.S. Army signed the contract on August 5, 1940. Evans had until September 23, 1940, to deliver the prototype to Camp Holabird in Maryland. While the team had many obstacles to overcome the most critical was obtaining the complex front axle from Spicer Axle of Toledo, Ohio. This item was monitored closely and when it was delivered a week before the deadline, American Bantam was ready to build the prototype around it.

The critical path may have more than one critical task so the project manager should know what is the “critical” of the “critical.” Monitor those tasks very closely while keeping an eye on the rest of the project and the odds of a successful project increase dramatically.

9. Celebrate the victories

On September 21, 1940, two days before the deadline, the completed prototype was rolled out of the factory. Someone said, “Get the Kodak” and a photograph of the very first Jeep, dubbed the Bantam Reconnaissance Car (BRC), was taken.

If the American Bantam team had failed to stop and smell the roses, one of history’s greatest moments would have gone unrecorded. They did not know they were creating the first Jeep; that it would help win a world war; or over the next 70 years that it would become arguably the greatest and most iconic vehicle ever created. By celebrating their victory, history in the making was recorded.

It is important to celebrate the victories.

10. Don’t cut it too close

The Bantam team members had two days to test the prototype before delivering it to the Army. They took every moment they had to put the vehicle through its paces. The team then delivered the BRC to Camp Holabird at 4:30 PM on September 23, 1940, leaving themselves a mere half hour to spare! What would history have recorded if a flat tire had delayed them and they had missed the deadline? Fortunately for American Bantam and the world, that did not happen.

While project managers like their extra time in a task, it should be used sparingly. That may seem like common sense; however, common sense can be very uncommon. Deliver your project as soon as you possibly can.


After delivering the vehicle, the head of the procurement for the Army’s Quartermaster Corp, Major Herbert Lawes, took the new vehicle for a 15-minute preliminary assessment. Upon arriving back from his personal investigation he stated, “I believe this unit will make history.”

The creation of the first Jeep was an astounding achievement by a group of ordinary people working for a bankrupt company in extraordinary circumstances. While your project may not be one to change the world (you never know), by learning and applying the lessons from the creation of the first Jeep you just might make your own history!

Paul Bruno, PgMP, PMP, is a project manager with the City of Henderson, Nevada, with 25 years experience in IT. He is the host of the History Czar Internet radio program and, with his wife and Max Freedman, has spent years working to have a feature film made about the creation of the first Jeep.


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Bruno, Paul