Rick Hiduk Summer 2015
Butler, Pa., home of the first Jeep prototype to impress the U.S. Army, is also home to the annual Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival, which will be held in and around Butler on June 12 to 14. A highlight of the event, which coincides with the 75th anniversary of the production of the Jeep prototype, will be an effort to enter the Guinness Book of World Records with the largest parade of Jeeps in history.
The American Austin Car Company became American Bantam after it was bought out of bankruptcy in 1935. The company specialized in the manufacturing of small, European-type cars, but struggled to tap an American market still reeling from the Great Depression. With the help of a patriotic engineer, who agreed to work for free, Bantam was able to produce the first light-weight four-wheel-drive car to meet most of the Army’s rigid specifications.
The bulk of the Army contract was eventually awarded to the Willys and Ford companies because they had the financial backing to quickly manufacture the number of Jeeps needed. The Bantam Reconnaissance Car (BRC), however, was regarded as the standard by which subsequent models were designed. By 2011, Jeep enthusiasts and Butler County officials collaborated to capitalize on that fame before the Bantam Jeep became a historical footnote.
The event annually draws thousands of Jeep fans from 30 states and Canada. Many of them bring their own Jeeps, potentially resulting in more than 2,500 Jeeps in Butler that weekend. Jeep owners can participate in the parade that will start at Butler County Community College at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, June 12, and wind its way through Butler.
Festival Director Patti Jo Lambert credits Butler County Tourism & Convention Board (BCTCB) president Jack Cohen with implementing the festival to acknowledge Butler’s role in the Jeep’s history and create an event that would bring Jeep fans back to the town to celebrate that distinction. Bantam Jeep Heritage Weekend has grown to involve a committee and 30 volunteers, as well as officials and authorities of numerous municipalities, to ensure the fun and safety of event participants.
The parade will be led by 75 Jeeps representing each of the years that the vehicle was manufactured. The majority of the Jeeps at the beginning of the procession will continue out the north side of the city and park in designated lots. Complimentary shuttles will provide transportation back to the downtown area, where approximately 1,200 preregistered Jeeps, including the 75 anniversary vehicles, will be parked as part of the festival’s Jeep Invasion street party. Food vendors and music will stoke the camaraderie of Jeep enthusiasts in attendance.
Some special fun is planned for Sunday morning, June 14, when up to 500 contestants will take to the festival’s muddy Jeep course and “playground” on foot for the annual Muddy 5K Race. Other features will include a Jeep-themed playground for kids, a World War II encampment, how-to clinics, a flea market, a pig roast on Saturday, a breakfast buffet on Sunday morning, opportunities to buy and sell Jeeps and accessories, and a garage on site for any needed repairs.
A re-creation of the original BRC will be delivered to Butler for display. Also on exhibit will be more than a dozen of the first Jeeps manufactured by Ford and Willys that were based largely on the Bantam prototype. The original pilot Jeep was destroyed during Army testing.
Duncan Rolls of Texas is credited for the meticulous re-creation of the BRC, working on the mock-up between 2004 and 2008. According to Rolls, who has studied and researched Jeeps since childhood, what took the Bantam car company approximately 1,200 hours to build took him about 3,500 hours to re-create.
To register for the Muddy 5K Race, which begins at 8:30 a.m., and to learn more about the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival in Butler, log on to www.bantamjeepfestival.com.