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Hammond drives the icons: Willys Jeep
Designed to a strict brief that it should be light enough to be lifted by four soldiers, have four-wheel drive and a wheelbase of 80 inches, the Jeep is, of course, one of the most functional machines ever built. That could explain why, sitting on our airfield on a damp day, it looks so good. Maybe its beauty comes from within, from that ‘fit for purpose’ sense a thing exudes when it is clearly the result of form following function. Or maybe it’s the car’s legendary status.
More than 600,000 of these were built during World War II, and they served in every theatre, plying their trade as an ambulance, a reconnaissance vehicle, a weapons carrier, a wire layer and a battlefield taxi. There hasn’t been a war movie in which a Jeep doesn’t at some point steal the scene. But, looking at it through the drizzle, I’d say that no, neither of these theories explain why it looks so mouth-wateringly, hand-wringingly good. Its beauty comes from the fact that it is, quite simply, beautiful in its own right. Every slope, curve, straight line and intersection tantalises and tempts, and sings of potential.
Weirdly, I’ve written about and talked about Jeeps like this one many times over the past 20 years, but it occurs to me today that I have never actually driven one. It will, of course, be awful. The design predates the Series I Land Rover’s launch by nearly a decade and, love it as I do, I’ll still be the first to admit that an enjoyable drive fails to make it onto the S1 Landie’s list of endearing qualities. This, then, designed for war, fixability in the field, portability by grunts and, of course, cheapness, is going to be terrible. And then comes the huge revelation: it isn’t. Not by a very, very long way. I’m simply staggered.
There’s an enjoyable bit of faffery to go through in order to fire it up: levers are pulled, switches turned and mixtures adjusted, all culminating in standing on a floor-mounted start button to be rewarded with a pleasingly robust and rugged burble from the 2.1-litre, four-cylinder engine.
Leaving it in two-wheel drive, I pull away and shift quickly through the three gears into top, where it stays. The photographer, who is riding shotgun, laughs into the wind at the idea that, well, that’s gear-changing taken care of. And it is. I shan’t have to shift again until I stop, simply because that humble engine in, I suspect, a pretty relaxed state of tune, might cough out only 54bhp, but it’s torquey and chuggy and happy to pull from five rpm.
The huge surprise is just how easy, how relaxed it feels to drive, and how user-friendly it is. Yes, every control and visible surface is made of cold, unrelenting metal, with the exception of the wafer-thin pads of soggy canvas on the seats, but this feels usable, drivable and a million miles easier to get along with than any S1 Landie I’ve driven. Which is an awkward admission for a life-long champion of Solihull’s best. The Jeep feels as light as it actually is, and nimble too; it’s as easy to imagine slotting it into a city-centre parking spot as it is to imagine blasting across a cratered battlefield to rescue a comrade in it.
I rode in a Spitfire once, along with my two colleagues, while making TopGear. And that is another wartime legend of a machine. Being in it was profoundly moving and stirring, and I said at the time that if there ever were real dragons in this world, then I was riding in the belly of one. But this wasn’t awoken in me by wartime associations and legendary status: I’m not all that good on the war and get quickly left behind when James and Jeremy talk about it, which makes, in a way, my response to the Spitfire’s undoubted magic all the more revealing. It possesses it simply because of what it is and how it works, not what it’s done. And the same can be said, very much, for the Jeep. Here’s a thing built to a budget and less complicated than a pepper grinder but it has it, that machine magic, no doubt.
Pictures: Justin Leighton
This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine