Bantam Car

The American Bantam Car Company had its roots in England, but its branches spread from Butler throughout the world. In England, in 1921, vehicles were taxed according to horsepower and the price of gasoline was extremely high. These two factors led Sir Herbert Austin to design a tiny automobile, unlike anything produced before. Known as the Austin Seven, it enjoyed immediate popularity.

By 1927, the cars were in demand nearly everywhere in the world. Sir Herbert had already expanded into several other countries and was now looking toward America. He negotiated with representatives from several localities, finally deciding upon Butler, Pennsylvania.

The American Austin debuted in 1930, at the National Automobile Show. In little more than a week more than 52,000 orders had been received. By mid-June, a production rate of 100 vehicles a day was achieved at the Butler plant. Unfortunately, the Great Depression continued and American families had less and less money and sales fell drastically. The factory closed in the spring of 1932.

In the fall of the same year, the factory was acquired by entrepreneur, Roy S. Evans, who, at age thirty, was the largest automobile dealer in the South.  Austins again rolled off the production line in Butler.  By the summer of 1935, more than 20,000 cars and trucks had been built. But the stockholders decided to sell all the assets of the American Austin Car Company.  Evans was able to acquire these assets and reorganize the company as the American Bantam Car Company by 1936, but had no money left to build cars.

It wasn't until 1938 that the first Bantam "60" passenger cars and trucks began rolling off the production line. A recession later that same year resulted in far fewer sales than expected. In 1939, five new models were added to the line and prospects seemed bright. Over a two and one-half year period, the company produced approximately 6,700 cars and trucks, but at an average loss of $75 per vehicle. By 1940, those bright prospects had dimmed considerably.

War had already consumed Europe and Evans saw the handwriting on the wall. He had tried to interest the government in a military version of the Bantam for some time. Meanwhile, a military committee had been formed to develop a midget combat car. Before deciding upon specifications, the committee members came to Butler and each drove a Bantam roadster.  The report of the committee indicated the potential of the vehicles and the capabilities of the plant.

Formal bid requests were sent in 1940 to 135 manufacturing companies. By the time Bantam received the request, the Engineering Department in Butler had been disbanded. With less than two weeks to develop a design and no engineer on the payroll, the company contacted Karl K. Probst, in Detroit.  He reluctantly agreed to come to Butler and make an attempt.  Within days, Probst, factory manager, Harold Crist and Cmdr. C. H. Payne, Bantam's military sales representative, presented an actual layout of the design to the committee.

The Willys Overland Company of Toledo, Ohio, also presented a design. (Ironic since Evans, himself, had helped keep the Toledo factory open through a financially hard time several years before.)  But only Bantam said they could deliver a prototype within the 49 day time frame required.

Bantam Jeep

Early on the morning of September 23, the prototype began a day-long drive to Camp Holiburd, Maryland. It arrived with only thirty minutes to spare. The vehicle was rigorously tested by the Army for several weeks, and then declared to exceed expectations. By this time, both Willys and Ford had submitted their own prototypes. Both companies had the advantage both of watching the testing of the Bantam, and having free access to the blueprints of the Bantam.

In the end, the government decided that the American Bantam Car Company plant in Butler was too small to produce the number of vehicles it needed and the contracts were given to Willys and Ford.  But the Bantam "jeep" had already begun to revolutionize surface warfare.

In 1940, the American Bantam Car Company of Butler, PA, developed the Bantam Reconnaissance Car in response to a U.S. Army request for an all-purpose military vehicle.  This vehicle became the prototype of the Jeep, later manufactured by Willys and Ford, and is the direct ancestor of the four-wheel drive vehicles of today.

In May of 1943, the Fair Trade Commission charged Willys with false and misleading advertising by claiming that Willys had created the Jeep.  The court determined that the Jeep was fostered and conceived in Butler, Pennsylvania, by the American Bantam Car Company.

At the end of the war, the tools and dies had been scrapped at government request and Evans sold the company in 1946. New management continued building trailers at the plant until 1956, when the plant was sold to the American Rolling Mill Corporation, commonly known as ARMCO.

The administration building still exists and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has placed an historic roadside marker on Hansen Avenue in Butler, commemorating the development of the Bantam Reconnaissance Car, the "jeep."  The small building where the prototype was built was torn down many years ago.