Published January 7, 2009

  

A Brief Story of the American Bantam

 

Over the years the subject of Kib Roberts' Bantam has come up in car talk around Greenfield. One of the recurring questions is who manufactured the Bantam, was it American or foreign? 

Recently Chuck Kerr let me borrow a book detailing American made automobiles of the 1940s and the American Bantam was one of the makes featured but without providing much detail. 

So, with the aid of the Internet I decided to assemble a little background on the subject. 

The story begins in England with the formation of the Austin Motor Company in the early 1900s and a vehicle they designed and sold throughout Europe named the Austin Seven. Austin didn’t manufacture all versions of the Seven but they licensed it to be made in a number of European nations. 

In 1929 Austin convinced a group of American investors to begin producing the car in Butler, PA under the name of American Austin Car Company. Like other companies, American Austin was producing their version of the Austin Seven and initial sales were very good. The depression, however, crushed initial success and by the mid 1930s the company was near going broke. Total production by 1935 totaled less than 20,000 vehicles. 

In 1936 the company was reorganized into the American Bantam Car Company and introduced a more powerful product, free of licensing from Austin. Between 1936 and 1940 the company only produced 6,700 vehicles. In 1940 they began retooling for the upcoming war effort. 

For many, the most important and interesting part of Bantam’s history was the role it played in WWII. When the government announced they wanted a new general purpose vehicle Bantam was one of only three companies showing interest in submitting a design. In fact, they were the first to submit both a design and a prototype for testing.  

When Ford and Willy’s saw what Bantam was up to they rushed to the drawing boards and quickly submitted designs of their own, often borrowing from Bantam’s version.  

Bantams produced the first Jeeps (around 2,700) but were later judged to be too small to meet production needs. The contract was awarded to Ford and Willy’s while Bantam was given the job of producing utility trailers to be pulled behind the Jeep.

Speaking of the Jeep, there is some dispute as to how the vehicle got its name. Some are of the opinion that it came from the term General Purpose, GP became Jeep. Others insist it was borrowed from a character that appeared in the Popeye Cartoon series. Eugene the Jeep was a dog-like character who could walk through walls, walk on ceilings, climb trees, fly and otherwise go just about any place it wanted, just like many GIs believed their new vehicle could do. Whatever the truth, the Jeep vehicle has become an international icon.

Getting back to the Bantam, all I ever knew about this car was focused on the one that local theatre owner Kib Roberts entered into the annual Wheels of Progress car show. Once I began digging around the Internet I discovered that the American Bantam Car Company produced many variations of the Bantam. From sporty roadsters, sedans, pickup and panel trucks and all the way up to a miniature semi-truck and trailer.  

Following WWII the company tried to carry on by manufacturing utility and recreational trailers and large semi trailers for the trucking industry. By the mid 1950s, however, all had failed and the company went out of business. Its properties were purchased by Armco Steel Corp.  

I don’t really know exactly what year the Roberts' roadster was or what became of it. Some of the local car guys think that Kib’s son, Rick, still owns the vehicle. Maybe one of you can offer some info along with a photo of Kib’s car. Email greenfieldohio@gmail.com.

Addendum: One of the local car guys emailed me this input... "The local car guys have this one right. I talked to Rick on the day he was hauling the old Bantam to its new home, somewhere around Cincinnati. I believe it was to sit alongside Kip's old Packard(s) and some other Greenfield goodies.

Earlier in the year, he had the the old Rand theatre marquee and four old buggies delivered to the same location. There were two Patterson buggies in the group and an especially interesting grocery delivery wagon belonging to the former Genaro (not sure of the spelling) Wolfe." 1/9/09

 
       
L-R: 1933 Bantam Austin Seven, American Bantam panel and pickup trucks, American Bantam roadster
  
1939 American Bantam semi truck. According to the owner of this vehicle, it is the only one in existence and was one of 6 or 8 that Bantam made for promotional purposes.
  

  

L-R: Bantam BRC-40 version of the Jeep, 1/2 ton military utility trailer

   

Additional information about the Bantam and Bantam owners may be found at...

http://www.austinbantamclub.com/index.html

  

  

greenfieldohio@gmail.com

Copyright Fall Creek Communications, 2009