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A green 1942 Jeep Wrangler Willys MB is shown from the side on a beach at sunset.

80 Years of Off-Roading: 1941 Willy MB vs 2021 Jeep Wrangler

When it comes to rugged off-roaders, the first vehicle that comes to mind is the Jeep. From the military models of the 1940s to the plush four-door Wranglers of today, no matter its official name, the off-road Jeep is one of those handful of models that has maintained its iconic look for the better part of a century. However, over the past 80 years, technology has advanced considerably, and Jeep has always kept up with the times. The original inline-four engine has been replaced with more powerful V6, V8, and even hybrid options, while a plethora of off-road features has been added to the basic design. But just how does the latest 2021 Wrangler stack up when placed side by side with a 1941 Willys MB?

Mission Drives Design

If you are an avid reader of CarLifeNation, then the odds are that you can recite the Jeep origin story from memory, relating how the small Willys-Overland company responded to the US Army’s request for a lightweight scout vehicle, eventually emerging victorious after a close-fought three-way competition against Ford and Bantam. However, the important takeaway from the classic tale is that the original 1941 Jeep was designed for a military mission and particular set of requirements that drove its design and features.

The original specs that the Army called for in its July 11, 1940 request for proposal described a four-wheel drive scout vehicle with a two-speed transfer case and an overall weight of just 1,300 pounds. Other features the military desired included an engine with at least 85 lb-ft of torque, a top speed of 50 mph, three seats, and a 660 lb payload. To make the vehicle combat-ready, the windshield needed to fold down for a lower silhouette, blackout marker lights were required for nighttime driving, and there had to be a pintle mount for a .30 machine gun.

These specs were extremely aggressive in a day when the only four-wheel drive vehicles on the market were large military and commercial trucks, and it is not surprising that only three of the 135 companies that received the proposal bothered to respond. The first Willy-Overland prototype (dubbed the “Quad”) actually exceeded the Army’s weight limit by a full 250 lbs. In the company’s search for weight savings, they even went as far as only applying a single coat of paint (saving an entire 7 ounces).

Before the competition went much further, the Army realized that it was asking for too much and relaxed the weight limit to a far more realistic 2,160 lbs, allowing the Jeep to evolve into a far more versatile vehicle than originally imagined. However, the ultimate aim remained an extremely light and compact machine that could go anywhere, carrying a small number of soldiers for reconnaissance missions or general transportation.

A close up shows the 4x4 trail rated badge on a grey 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4Xe Rubicon.

A New Role For the Modern World

While the 2021 Wrangler has more than a passing similarity to the 1941 MB, it was designed for an entirely different mission – civilian off-roading. The first Wrangler hit the market in 1986 and, despite its looks, was a complete ground-up redesign to better fit the modern world. While the late CJ models had indeed been little more than lightly modernized military Jeeps, the Wrangler was something new and was built for the civilian market first and foremost.

Over the past 35 years, the Wrangler has continued to evolve, with additions like the four-door Wrangler Unlimited and the hybrid Wrangler 4xe contributing to its incredible popularity. The first-generation Wrangler YJ only sold around 50,000 units a year in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Today, the Wrangler JL commonly sells well over 200,000 units a year. While some Jeep purists may dislike the larger size and plentiful comfort features of the newer models, there is no denying that Jeep understood its market and designed its flagship product accordingly.

However, despite the large difference between the customer base of the 1941 MB and the 2021 Wrangler, and the fact the blackout lights and pintle mounts have been traded for leather seats and infotainment screens, the actual missions of the two models remain startlingly similar. Both were designed to transport a small number of people across any terrain, sacrificing some level of utility and comfort for off-road performance. This means that while the comparison of the two models isn’t entirely apples to apples, it is at least keeping things in the same ballpark.

Size and Specs

It didn’t quite meet the original Army specs, but the 1941 MB was still an incredibly compact and lightweight machine. Tipping the scales with a curb weight of between 2,300 and 2,450 lbs, with an overall length of 131 inches, this legendary off-roader was smaller and lighter than modern Miata. Other specs of the MB would also likely make the modern driver question what the designer was thinking if it was marketed as an off-road vehicle today.

The ground clearance was a measly 8.75 inches, and the plain steel 16×4.5 inch wheels wore narrow 28-inch tires with a basic non-directional tread. The four-wheel drum brakes didn’t provide all that much stopping power, and leaf springs front and rear led to a bouncy ride. However, the 2.2L inline-4 engine only produced 60 hp and 105 lb-ft of torque, and the vehicle’s 4000 rpm redline (not that the Jeep had a tachometer) and three-speed manual transmission were not intended for going fast (the speedometer maxed out at 65 mph).

Against those rather underwhelming specs, the 2021 Wrangler is a veritable off-road monster. A base two-door Wrangler Sport weighs in just shy of 4,000 lbs and measures 167 inches (three feet longer than the MB to the dot). Opt for a four-door version, and the weight climbs to nearly 4,200 lbs, and you have another foot of length to handle. Of course, that extreme growth in size was just to accommodate the luxury features beloved by the civilian market – it directly correlates with improved performance.

The modern machine boasts 9.7 inches of ground clearance with its wide 31 inch tires on 17×7.5 inch styled steel wheels. While the stock all-season tires may actually give less off-road traction than the 1941 tires with their deep tread, that is easily remedied. The Wrangler Rubicon sports 33-inch all-terrains standard, boosting ground clearance to an impressive 10.8 inches. Choose the new Xtreme Recon package, and you will be rewarded with massive 35-inch all-terrains that provide the Wrangler with 12.9 inches of ground clearance (nearly 50% more than the 1941 vehicle).

Under the hood, the 2021 Wrangler offers an array of no fewer than five different powertrains to choose from, all of which amply demonstrate the result of 80 years of automotive advances. The base engine, a 3.6L V6 with 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, is already lightyears ahead of the old “Go Devil” inline-4, and that is just the beginning. Other choices include a 3.0L diesel with 442 lb-ft of torque, a plug-in hybrid that can travel 22 miles on battery power, and a slightly ridiculous 6.4L V8 pumping out no less than 470 horsepower. And while a six-speed manual is standard with the base engine (that’s already twice as many gears as the 1941 model), most Wranglers now come with a modern eight-speed automatic.

A white 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is shown splashing through a river.

You Can’t Stop Progress

The Jeep is one of America’s most iconic vehicles, and Jeep has done an incredible job keeping the spirit of the 1941 model alive while still incorporating modern technology and adapting the vehicle to the changing market. But while they may look similar from a distance, and the 2021 model still has that folding windshield that was designed to make scout vehicles less visible to Axis forces, the MB and the Wrangler are undeniably two different vehicles from two different eras.

The result of 80 years of progress is a vehicle that weighs nearly twice as much, has twice as many doors, and is several feet longer, but it has also produced a vehicle with eight times the horsepower and half again as much ground clearance. More importantly for the average driver, the 2021 Wrangler is an off-roader you can actually live with. In addition to its modern creature comforts, the Wrangler is safe to drive at highway speeds and low speed accidents like the one that killed General George Patton are no longer high-fatality incidents.

No Jeep fan will ever say no to a joyride in an original Willys MB, but we can say pretty clearly that the modern Jeep Wrangler is superior in pretty much every metric – assuming you don’t have a .30 machine gun that you need to mount.

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