Last Modified July 19, 2008

© Wm Spear 2002

No part of this document may be published in any form or with out the express permission of the author.

Karl Probst did not invent the jeep

Heresy of the worst sort I know, but there it is. He didn't. In all the other web sites and books you will read it says he did, and that he is the "Father of the Jeep". You can believe them or you can believe me..take your pick. Anthropologists speculate that about 25% of us have fathers other than the ones we think we have, so, save your shock for something worthwhile.

In the few accounts of the history of the jeep BEFORE 1962 there is no, or almost no mention at all of Karl Probst having much to do with the jeep project. His testimony at the FTC hearings on the very subject of who DID invent the jeep is short and lightly cross examined. He makes no claim for the invention of the jeep here, or anywhere else. His focus of pride throughout all the literature are the BID DRAWINGS. When Bantam has delivered the car at Holabird, the bowled over CO Major Lawes asks Bantam President Frank Fenn to introduce him to the man who produced the vehicle. Fenn introduced both Harold Crist and Probst. Old timers at the factory who have considerable recall of the various players and events hardly mention Probst at all in their accounts. Somehow history has decided to "remember" Probst repeatedly, with an occasional assist to the Quartermaster's Corps (QMC) but to totally forget Harold Crist, Harry Payne, Bob Brown, Frank Fenn and others who actually conceived, promoted, largely designed and built the car.

Typical is an article by Paul Hackenberg in the 1953 "True's Automobile Yearbook" entitled "It Doesn't Pay to Invent a Jeep" where the jeep story is told in detail focusing mainly on Harold Crist, the man who did in fact build the jeep and probably designed it too. There is no mention at all of Karl Probst. Neither is he mentioned in the almost contemporary article (1942) "The Story Behind the Army Jeep" By John W. Chapman in the "Illustrated Gazette"(Nationally Distributed it says). Here Col. Bill Lee, Chief of Infantry George Lynch and Bantam Lobbyist Harry Payne are the point of view characters.

What happened then in 1962 and how did Probst's name become so synonymous with the jeep? It began when Karl Probst was on his death bed and, 22 years after the fact, wrote up his account of the jeep story, something he had never done before. He never sought to have this account published but either slightly before or sometime after his death it was apparently distributed to a limited number of people. Clearly Probst saw his part in the jeep story (which WAS important, don't misunderstand) as one of the greatest achievements of his life. Taking an overdose of pills to end a tortuous bout with cancer in his 80's, Probst apparently had open, some say as a sort of shroud, his original BID drawings of the jeep. (These were burned by a daughter-in-law some time later according to Charles Probst, a son). These BID drawings are also the focus of his attention in the FTC hearings, and they ARE important because Bantam never would have gotten the bid had they not had drawings on time. See elsewhere.

As soon as his obituaries start to appear Karl Probst is crowned as the "Father of the Jeep", a title he had never claimed previously for himself at any time, did not claim in his account, would not have been in his character in any case to claim, and frankly a title he did not deserve. Karl was well connected and popular among a lot of insiders in the auto industry and articles began to appear by well known auto journalists exemplified best perhaps by "Father of the Jeep" by Michael Lamm (Special Interest Autos #31) which gives a wonderful account of Probst's impressive career and personality but, for the jeep information his source is Charles Probst, one of Carl's sons. Charles' source in turn is Karl's notes because he told me personally that he had no idea of what Karl was up to during his time with Bantam and was a busy young man hundreds of miles away developing a career of his own. Charles in fact began to make a sort of mini industry out of Karl's notes writing articles and giving lectures, however the notes themselves were never revealed un-varnished. (Charles was very kind in giving me copies of many of his notes and articles about the jeep, but these crucial root documents were not included).

For several years various versions, tidbits and spins of Karl's notes begin to surface and be fed into what became a legend that continues to be spread today by self appointed "auto-historians". For example a book by respected jeep historian Pat Foster starts right out with the unsupported assertion (first paragraph Ch,2) in "The Story of the Jeep" that " A great man named Karl Probst is generally, and correctly, recognized as the person who designed the original Jeep [sic]." Other such articles appear over the years, all bootstrapping from some unknown, un-documented information. Stan Brams " How the Jeep Came to Be" ( Wards Auto World May 1996) paraphrases earlier articles. To this day, even Bantam enthusiasts and Club members have yet to get it that the actual Bantam engineers and employees and lobbyist had far more to do with the jeep than the hired gun Probst. The ACTUAL notes of Karl's were NEVER PRINTED until they were published in full in 2007 by Rooster Tails, the Journal of the Austin Bantam Society (ABS). Hey, who loves you!?

In the mid 60's a detailed article about the Bantam jeep was written by John Underwood, a respected writer on cars and planes and ABS member. A modified version of the article appears in his "Whatever Happened to the Baby Austin?", a wonderful book about the marque (available from Norm Booth, 1589 N. Grand Oaks Ave, Pasadena CA 91104). Underwood was commissioned by Bantam founder Roy S. Evans to write the book, and as such should be considered primarily as a volume for enthusiasts as was intended. A separate chapter on the jeep seemed quite informative although it was not intended as a scholarly work and, although much detail in included, few references are made or sources revealed. Then in 1974 an article entitled "One Summer in Butler" appears in the automotive "bible" Automobile Quarterly (Vol 14 #4, p. 430) We are all familiar with this volume which also contains the absolutely wonderful article about the American cars by ABS Historian, George Domer. The jeep article is said to be "by Karl Probst with Charles O. Probst". It is a glowing account and of course Karl Probst is the central, point of view character.

Like everyone else, I read the Probst AQ article as a new Bantam enthusiast and took the account to be the "gospel" truth and spread the word on my then new web site. In later years however, as I became interested in the history myself, certain shadows of doubt formed. Things began not to quite fit. I was particularly disturbed when I eventually found the original Underwood article because here was an article written over ten years before the AQ offering which seemed to be very much the same material, even including odd, mistaken little details and phrasings. Eventually I began to think the Underwood article had been almost or actually plagiarized and expressed my doubts to John who was gentlemanly, brief and non committal about it. It was not until the ACTUAL Probst notes appeared by total accident from a collector last year that any of this began to make sense. Once the original Karl Probst notes were read it seemed obvious to me that both John Underwood and Charles Probst were using these original notes as the basis for their own articles. I leave it to the researchers among you to determine what to make of it all after re-reading all your old jeep articles including these, and the original notes we published. In my mind the Underwood use is a more or less fair summary of the notes, albeit without attribution, but the Charles Probst version is spun, and sometimes none too subtly. You make the call.

So..with that said....

In seeking out the origins of the original jeep, many jeep enthusiasts are looking for a single person with a sort of "eureka" discovery, and perhaps because of this the Karl Probst story has gotten legs. It seems to make a good story (although the real story is a lot more interesting). In fact the jeep was the conception and creation of a number of people, including Probst to some extent. Before I get rolled out of the Bantam Clubs I should say that it is my opinion that the vast majority of people referred to above who did conceive of, design and construct the original jeep were Bantam employees and "the Army" or "certain Army officers" had very little to do with it. lifted from the Bantam civilian blueprints.

Concerning Probst, two things should be kept in mind. 1) the situation Bantam found itself in when it hired Probst, and 2) when exactly Probst came into the story. Probst's narrative, and all the renditions of it begin on July 17, 1940, a time when the jeep had already been conceived, described in fairly definite detail, drawn in outline, parts, including power plant option identified and ordered and layout begun.

As noted above, nowhere does Karl himself ever claim he invented the jeep and indeed, he testified that when he saw the original specifications, that although the individual elements (like 4wd). were familiar to him, the particular combination of elements in one vehicle were new to him. IN short the conception had alredy taken place. In general Karl was very clear in saying that many others besides himself were involved in and deserved credit for the success of the project. .

In order to stay in the game that the QMC was desperately trying to get them out of Bantam now had to come up with drawings, not a prototype, The phoney excuse (for going competitive) was that if they negotiated sole source it would give Bantam an unfair leg up on other possible bidders or manufacturers like poor little old Ford who the QMC desperately wanted to get the contract. Leg up? It was explained that because of the extensive tooling which would undoubtedly be developed by Bantam in the process of building a prototype, underpriveledged companies such as Ford wouldn't be able to compete with mighty Bantam. Since the prototype was completely made by hand from off the shelf parts it is not difficult to see how transparent this QMC "fear" was.

In the competitive bid Bantam needed to produce, not a car which they were fully capable of doing with the personnel on hand, but rather lay-out drawings for the bid. Although Crist could draw mechanicals, there was no way he could produce a winning bid in the 5 days allotted remaining. He was a hands on mechanic and engineer, not an artist or theoritician.

Probst correctly states that the bid drawing 08370-Z was simply an "outline" and that what he drew, and what he was most proud of were actual design plans from which an actual car could be built, a very major distinction. The traditional story has Probst going in and doing these drawings in 3 days, which he did certainly, but a further question which is never asked is, how much work had already been done at Bantam when he got there? Quite a lot as we have seen, and I cannot think that Crist did not provide substantial help. There is even evidence that it was Crist who hired Probst, or asked that he be hired.

Finally it should be noted that it is these bid drawings, completed on July 21 or so which were the source of Probst's greatest personal pride. And well they should be. Although missing from the US Archives along with all the other oversized drawings, they were apparently detailed and complete and were clearly not susceptible to being ignored or lightly dismissed. His plans for the bid still contained provision for the Hercules rather than the Continental engine which Crist and crew were still negotiatiating for and modifyingbefore Probsts arrival.

Without Probst's drawing speed Bantam would have surely been rolled out of play at the bid opening, and without Probst it is unlikely Bantam could have gotten the plans drawn up no matter how much practical work they had accomplished. The later, more complete drawings which accompanied the delivery of the car were drawn up by Probst and his crew, but were not a lone wolf effort by any stretch. Much of what was in those plans such as the new Spicer axles, or all of the electrical components were all provided and attached by the manufacturers. A great deal of the original Bantam engineering contained in the later plans was not drawn up by Probst and sent to the floor, but exactly the other way around. The Probst engineers drew up from photographs parts that had been fabricated by Crist and his crew. Indeed, much of what was sent down from the Probst offices had to be rejected as it was impractical or unusable. Crist and Probst had several substantial arguments over design features, in most of which Crist prevailed. One such was the placement of the motor mounts. Probst wanted them straight, Crist who had plenty of practical racing experience wanted an angle to accomodate torque.

One must ask if Bantam isn't more entitled to credt for it's hustle in finding and hiring Probst than is Probst himsself?

Have you got facts or specific information which might bear on these notes? Let's hear 'em.

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