The Jeep was originally commissioned as a wartime vehicle for surveillance and reconnaissance use. With 6.00 x 16” tires, 60 honest horsepower at 4,000 RPM, and the famous L4-134 “Go-Devil” engine, it was quickly discovered that this compact, yet powerful, machinery could truly conquer any terrain. These features and capabilities made Jeeps the perfect mode of transportation for evacuating wounded soldiers off the front lines of the battlefield and into a secure location.
Willys and Ford didn’t reconstruct their automóbiles into official ambulances, rather it was the soldiers who fashioned Jeeps into medical vehicles. When this practice first started, wounded troopers were gently placed in stretchers, and carefully balanced in the backseat or hood of the Jeep. They were secured as well as possible, sometimes with one soldier holding on to the stretcher as another drove.
With time, modifications were introduced with improved comfort and security in mind. One of the first alterations was the addition of a folding canvas cover, which was attached to the hood of the Willys MB. This idea was developed further, and the canvas enclosures were built around the rear and hood framework, allowing for more soldiers to be transported at a time. Chain Link Company developed a kit which could be added to any WWII jeep and handled two stretchers with a canvas cover.
Once the U.S. Marines of the Pacific realized the versatility and resourcefulness of their DIY medical units, they contracted General Motors-Holden in Melbourne, Australia, to alter existing Jeeps into makeshift ambulances. Thus was born the famous “Holden USMC Ambulance.”
Holden reinforced the Jeep framework, added a canvas enclosure as well as two racks, and modified the rear seating to support multiple stretchers and ambulatory patients at once. Later, the front passenger seat was fashioned into a medical supply compartment, and the famous spare wheel made its way to the front hood.
Most Holden ambulances didn’t survive the war, and very few can be found today, but they did pave the way for postwar prototypes, including the M170 Jeep models.