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When Brian Cessna, 33, first saw a Willys MB Jeep when he 15, he said he knew he wanted to be a Jeep guy.

"Jeeps are just awesome," the Hanover, Pa., resident said. "The inventors were innovative and thought outside the box."

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At the eighth annual Mason-Dixon Willys Jeep Gathering in Westminster on Sunday, Cessna was able to share his passion for the historic vehicles with hundreds of fellow enthusiasts — as well as his father and two children.

Many visitors to the show were Jeep owners. Others may not have owned Jeeps, but were nonetheless fascinated by the varieties of the vehicle. Some, like Mike Swisher, of Finksburg, attended because of the iconic vehicle's impact on the nation's history and contributions to American military success.

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Swisher's father worked in a shipyard during World War II, he said, so he knew the hard work that went into building the mechanized marvels that helped win the war. It wasn't until he delved into the history of the Jeep, however, that his interest turned from a hobby to a passion.

"At first, a Jeep was just a vehicle to me, but after learning its history, I wanted to preserve it," Swisher said.

Mike Hardesty, of Littlestown, Pa., said he started the event after discovering that the closest Jeep show was in upstate Pennsylvania. Hardesty said he wanted to make it more convenient for Jeep lovers to be able to share their passion with other like-minded people. He contacted the Union Mills Homestead Foundation and the organization allowed him to hold the show there.

For the first few years, the event remained fairly small, drawing approximately 25 Jeeps, all of which were civilian models, Hardesty said. Once word began to spread, more Jeep owners and enthusiasts started attending. Two years ago, owners of military Jeeps became interested in attending as well, he said. This year the show included more than 50 vehicles, including civilian and military Jeeps, as well as other classic, non-Jeep vehicles.

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Each year, visitors vote for their favorite vehicles in four categories —Best Civilian Jeep, Best Military Jeep, Best Work in Progress and Best Non-Jeep — with a trophy being awarded to each winner.

The fifth trophy awarded is the Chairman's Choice, and Hardesty said this award is chosen by him. Often it goes to the owner of a vehicle that stands out but may not fall in a category.

Hardesty said the historic Union Mills Homestead allows his organization to stage the show for free, which is why the event costs nothing to attend. Proceeds received from T-shirt sales, donations and food sales are given to the foundation to help it in its efforts to maintain the historic location. In the first seven years of the event, he and his volunteers were able to donate several thousand dollars to the foundation, he said.

After graduating from Western Maryland College, now McDaniel College, in 1982, Hardesty said he bought his first Jeep, a Scrambler, which was introduced in 1981.

"I had gotten into Jeeps when I was a kid, but when I bought the Scrambler, I was really bit by the bug," he said.

Though he's since sold that Jeep, he purchased another in 2006, a 1951 Willys CJ-3A, the second civilian Jeep model produced by Willys-Overland Motors.

The genesis of the Jeep was in July of 1940, 17 months before the U.S. entered World War II. At the time, the U.S. Army decided it needed to reevaluate and redesign its existing light motor vehicles, Hardesty said.

Though 135 automobile companies were asked to submit bids, just three did: American Bantam Car Company, based in Butler, Pa.; Willys-Overland Motors, in Ohio; and Ford Motor Company. Willys submitted the low bid, but the Army chose Bantam's design because it was the only company to provide both a pilot and a production model.

"Bantam can be credited for creating the first true Jeep," Cessna said.

Bantam could not keep pace with the Army's production demands, so Ford and Willys were sent blueprints of Bantam's design and encouraged to continue with the production of pilot vehicles.

After being awarded contracts to offset the lack of production on the part of Bantam, Willys introduced the Military Model A, shortened to MA, and Ford released its GP, or government passenger car, Hardesty said.

There are multiple theories of the origin of the term "Jeep," but one of the most widespread is the belief that the name began as a pronunciation of the acronym GP, he said.

A year later, in 1941, the U.S. War Department decided to standardize its vehicles. The best design features from all three companies were incorporated into the MA, resulting in an amalgamation that was named the MB, Cessna said. Willys was then awarded a contract to produce an additional 16,000 vehicles. The company was chosen thanks in large part to the quality of its engine, dubbed as the "go devil' engine by soldiers because it ran like the devil himself, Hardesty said.

Ford was also awarded a contract to produce the vehicle, and their standardized version was named the GPW, or General Purpose Willys design. Between 1942 and 1945, more than 360,000 MBs and nearly 280,000 GPWs were manufactured.

After the war, Willys owned the rights to the Jeep name, despite a court challenge by Ford. The firm decided to produce a civilian model to capitalize on the vehicle's popularity, Hardesty said.

"The success of the Jeep was well known in the States, and many of these veterans — these Jeeps saved their lives," he said. "Willys knew they had something there."

Willys produced the first civilian Jeep, called the CJ-2A, from 1945 to 1949. Perhaps the biggest difference between the MB and the CJ was the grille, which went from nine slots to seven. The grille design from the original CJ is still used in Jeeps made today, Hardesty said.

In 1953, Kaiser Motors purchased Willys and 10 years later, the company's name changed to Kaiser-Jeep Corporation. With the name change, the last of the three companies that helped design the historic vehicle was eliminated from future production.

Since then, the Jeep name and design has been bought and sold by several companies, but the history and legacy of the Jeep survives, Hardesty said. These days, the brand is owned by Chrysler.

Some owners prefer to faithfully restore their models to the condition they were in when they were first unloaded on the beaches of France, Hardesty said. Others make radical modifications that traditionalists may consider an affront to the historical importance of the vehicle.

To Hardesty, what owners do to their Jeeps doesn't matter. What does is the continued success of the Jeep and remembrance of the impact the vehicle has had on American history.

Cessna said after restoring Jeeps for almost two decades, it's become not just a living, but a hobby and a passion.

"The history is more like a mythology," Cessna said. "The Jeep is the best thing to come out of World War II."

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Reach staff writer Wiley Hayes at 410-857-3315 or wiley.hayes@carrollcountytimes.com.

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