Who fanned the flames of the SUV cult? Barney Roos did of course…


No one single person is credited for the rise of the SUV: but when he engineered the first Jeep Roos did more than most to start the fire...

Was Barney Roos really the creator of the Jeep?

There’s a tough little niggle when it comes to finding out who created the original idea for the SUV.

All routes, of course, usually reach back to the Jeep – the light recce vehicle commissioned by the US Army in the early 1940s.

The logic goes of course that you then look at who is responsible for the Jeep itself. All routes usually lead back to Barney Roos – the brilliant engineer responsible for Studebaker, Pierce-Arrow and Marmon – as well as being on board with Willys-Overland when they were part of the Military brief.

Problem is – the person most responsible for the actual advent of the light recce vehicle that went on to inspire all cars that would in turn inspire the SUV format that is our focus this month is Emperor Hirohito. That’s right – it was WAR that inspired the Jeep – and therefore it was really designed-by-military committee.


Barney Roos was, however, in the right place and the right time when the vehicle was commissioned.
In 1940, after the fall of France in June 1940 the Army Quartermaster Corps issued specifications for a lightweight reconnaissance vehicle that could also carry men and equipment across rough terrain. The spec required was four-wheel drive, a load capacity of 600 pounds and maximum height of 36 inches. It also needed to come with a folding windshield.


Barney Roos was there at the demonstration of an existing prototype for such a vehicle – and was ultimately the man responsible for winning the contract to build the Jeep.
He replaced the existing Willys ‘Whippet’ four cylinder engine, fitting aluminium pistons and a counterweighted crank to give the engine in the Jeep a little more leverage. Enter the ‘Go-Devil’ (above). It was also Roos who took the prototype and made sure it made the Army’s weight limit. Vehicles from Willys, Bantam, and Ford were then tested extensively. As a result the army recommended that certain features of Bantam and Ford’s prototypes be incorporated into a standard based on the Willys’s design. The slimmed-down Willys, its powerful engine intact, was “superior in acceleration, maximum speed, grade climbing and cross country,” as the Infantry Board report concluded.


In the final round of bidding, which ended in July 1941, Willys’s superior engine and low cost of $738.74 per vehicle won the first large production contract of 16,000 jeeps.

Famous US War correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote that without the Jeep the US Army’s contribution to the War effort would be seriously compromised. “It does everything,” he wrote…”It goes everywhere. It’s as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat.”

It was a twist of unfortunate fate that brought to bear Roos’s engineering panache to a project that arguably turned the course of the war by making the Jeep so sturdy, agile and adaptable.


In 1936, five years before Pearl Harbor and the US’s entry into the war,
Barney Roos’s wife left him. Suffering greatly by all accounts, Roos got a pass from his then employer Studebaker president Paul Hoffman, to take a sabbatical in England with the Rootes Group, which distributed Studebaker products in the U.K. Roos apparently showed Rootes the new light and resilient ‘planar’-style independent front suspension, which it would adapt to Hillman, Talbot and Humber cars in the UK. But more importantly, Roos became convinced in his English sojourn that smaller cars made good sense.

This mind-opening trip to pastures new may help to explain why Roos accepted an offer to become chief engineer at Willys-Overland a couple of years later. Ford built the majority of operational Jeeps during the war. They of course had the huge infrastructure necessary to supply the US military with the right amount of machinery to the tightest of deadlines. Roos, however, had a serious role in Jeep’s post-war product line, including the creation of the Jeepster, an all-metal station wagon which was the closest thing to an SUV we would recognise today until the International Harvester Scout came along at the start of the 1960s.

The Jeep might have been a fatherless child – but his offspring have done very well for themselves.