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Fighting Above Your Weight Class: The Bantam American

Hooniverse March 13, 2012 Cars You Should Know 29 Comments
Bantam originated north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and this producer of small cars is almost unknown in the automotive world. The automaker started by selling copies of British Austin Sevens, but they would go on to be better remembered as the original creator of the World War II Jeep.
[Images: wikipedia.org]

American Austin

Bantam initially started as American Austin building the Austin Seven under license from 1930 through 1934. Throughout the Depression an inexpensive car like the Austin Seven would have looked like a frugal option. Sold for $445, the price was lower than  a Ford V8’s $495… but still didn’t appear to be a  great value due to their diminutive size.  In the four years of production 20,000 American Austins would be manufactured and yet the Bantam’s existence would be very short lived.

American Austin would return three years later in 1937 under the moniker of  Bantam American. Once they broke their connection to Austin, they manufactured their own designs for the next four years. 6,000  Bantams would be produced in various body styles from convertibles to pick up trucks.  Although most of the survivors would end up as the basis for hot rodders, the design of the Bantam was very attractive. That is until you got up close to the vehicle and realized how small they actually were.

Powered by a 20-horsepower, 747cc inline four-cylinder engine, this was seen as under powered by the standards of the day. Those who restore them today know they are not capable of being driven on a modern highway due to the low top speed.

Bantam Jeep

Bantam’s place in history hasn’t been without its own bit of controversy. During the competition for the US Army’s reconnaissance car, Bantam would release the first vehicle that would look like the classic Jeep. Unfortunately for Bantam, the military didn’t feel they would have the capacity to produce enough Jeeps for the war effort  and awarded their design to Willy’s while having Ford produce them. In spite of this, Bantam’s war time production still reached  2,765. With the loss of the Jeep contract, Bantam ceased producing vehicles and would ultimately disappear in 1956.

1939 American Bantam

Microcars had a second renaissance during the 50’s with, among other brands, the Crosley. Today, we’re once again faced with a new run of microcars in the US thanks to the Smart Car, Fiat 500, and Scion iQ. The premise behind the microcar is sound but we, as Americans, simply do not trust vehicles of this size.

  • Bantam's consolation prize for not getting the Jeep contract was that they got to build the trailers for the Jeep.
    <img src="http://jeepdraw.com/images/jeepdraw/default/USA_AUST_BANTAMb.jpg"width=500&gt;

    • DemonXanth

      Bantam designed it, Ford made a lot of them, Willy's got most of the credit, and the name got the fame. Those original jeeps are a testament to rugged simplicity and ingenious design. They even made it so one of the headlights pivoted in so you can use it to see what you're working on at night.

      • Jim-Bob

        The original Jeep used a Willys "Go Devil" engine under the hood and Willys kept producing them after the war. After that, Kaiser bought out Willys in 1955 and promptly went out of car production in the US, preferring to build cars in Argentina (as IKA) instead. In 1969 or 1970, Kaiser sold Jeep to AMC. Chrysler then bought out AMC in 1987 to get the Jeep brand. Chrysler was then taken over by Mercedes-Benz to get Jeep. The stripped carcass of Chrysler and jeep was then sold off to the hedge-fund Cerebrus. Cerebrus could not make a go of it and they offloaded the leftovers to the US govt and the UAW who promptly let Fiat in to take control and try to turn it around. It's interesting how everyone who owns Jeep goes into financial trouble.

        • The Jeep Curse. Everybody who owns Jeep goes under or in the case of M-B and Renault get badly burned, but Jeep just keeps going.

    • They went on to keep making the TC3, civilian version, which happens to tow nicely behind my civilian Jeep:
      <img src="http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3155/3108282477_34b96c1d56.jpg&quot; width="500" height="334" alt="Trailer">

      • fodder650

        Do you still have it? I've never had a chance to actually see a Bantam trailer. I know it's odd but I'm a fan of the brand and, oddly, this is their legacy. Well that and being hacked into Hot Rods

  • Much as with the Graham Hollywood so often getting called the Hollywood Graham, some names seem to lend themselves to reversal. The company and the vehicle are both American Bantam, not Bantam American.

  • HSA

    Perfect timing for a post about Bantam. You don't mention it, but it was intentional, wasn't it? It's the birthday of the most well-known Bantam driver ever: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Duck_in_comic

  • tonyola

    Probably the cutest Bantam of them all – the rare Boulevard Delivery panel truck.
    <img src="http://i40.tinypic.com/ezqq85.jpg&quot; width=600>

    • fodder650

      I'm guessing that's a 39 or 40?

      • tonyola

        The picture is captioned as 1938.

  • suju89

    Other than the red pickup in the above article, I really love the proportions of these Bantams!

  • 4doornomore

    Seems like a good place to mention my favorite Bantam…Jonah's Phanton Bantam.

    <img src="http://img158.imageshack.us/img158/3337/09453ig4.jpg"&gt;