Did you know that the sleepy farm town of Tipton, Kansas, is the center of the Jeep universe? Actually, it depends upon your point of view. If you look at it from a linear historical perspective, then perhaps the home town of Ken Hake's Jeep Parts is the center because the owner of this company is the prototype Jeep guru of the world. Ken has found and restored more Jeep prototypes than probably anyone.
Those of you who are new to the Jeep world may know the word "prototype," but may not understand how it applies to Jeeps. When Jeep buffs talk about prototypes, they are referring to the Bantam, Ford, and Willys 1/4-tons built before the standard-production World War II models.
After the first 1/4-ton prototypes were tested late in 1940, 1,500 revised models were ordered from each of the three companies in competition for the initial 16,000-unit contract. The idea was to give the manufacturers a chance to upgrade the products according to the shortcomings noted during the earlier evaluations, then to test the new rigs in the field with actual Army units. Up to this time nothing like the Jeep existed, and the Army really didn't know where the little 1/4-tons would fit in the overall scheme of things.
As America's entrance into the war grew more certain, the rearmament programs went into a feverish race against time. America also started sending equipment overseas to supply future allies. While standardized models were developed, the 1,500-unit orders were quickly supplemented-for Ford and Bantam at least. Willys was way behind in building its MA model, but eventually Ford produced 4,458 GPs ("G" stood for government contract, "P" for 80-inch wheelbase reconnaissance car) and Bantam built 2,605 BRC-40s. Willys built a mere 1,555 MA models during the same period.
Many of the prototypes were used by Army units until they were replaced, starting in early 1942 by the standard production Willys MB or Ford GPW (which were near identical designs). Most of the prototypes from all three of the manufacturers were sent to England and the Soviet Union, where they saw extensive combat, and many were destroyed.
The first of the 639,235 standard model Jeeps that streamed out of the Ford and Willys factories during the war quickly overwhelmed and replaced the prototypes in service. Here in the United States, some prototypes were handed down to nonmilitary government agencies, but by 1943 many had been sold-a number of them to a surplus outfit in Chicago called Bergs Truck Parts. Some of the prototypes remaining in the United States can be traced back to Hy Bergs, who billed himself the "King of Jeeps." These rigs were the first 1/4-tons to be placed in civilian hands.
The prototypes are rare. The Willys MA is the rarest, with 25 known to exist worldwide, although there may be a few more hidden in the weeds somewhere. A correctly restored MA will fetch upwards of $50,000 on the market.
Next in rarity is the Bantam BRC-40, of which about 100 remain. The BRC Bantams can pull an easy $35,000, restored. There was a Bantam model previous to the BRC-40, of which only 70 units were built. Only one Bantam Mark II remains, owned by the Smithsonian and displayed at the Army Transportation Museum in Fort Eustis, Virginia. Of course, it's priceless.
Perhaps 180 Ford GPs remain, and they collect $25,000 in original restored condition. The original Ford "Pygmy" reconnaissance car, used in the first round of 1/4-ton tests, also resides in a private collection. Again, it's priceless.
Enter Ken Hake.
Ken entered into the Jeep business about 15 years ago. He owns a factory in Tipton called Kent Manufacturing, which produces a staggering variety of farm implements. He bought his first prototype Jeep-a Ford GP-as a restoration project to enjoy with his son. "It just kinda snowballed from there," Ken says with a chuckle.
Since then Ken has restored 25 Ford GPs, 50 Bantams, and is currently working on eight MAs, with two already completed. With son Ken Jr. doing the lion's share of Kent's day-to-day management, the elder Ken is free to play with Jeeps. A separate shop has been established nearby for Jeep restorations, and Kent's vast production capability has been utilized to manufacture parts that are no longer available.
Parts are the main problem. The prototypes were built from a variety of specialty bits and pieces, with little regard for standardization. Ken has scoured the world for remaining stocks of prototype parts and has filled the best part of a warehouse with them. Still, Kent Manufacturing is utilized to make many obscure pieces. Case in point: Bantam BRC-40 air cleaners. Only a couple had survived over the years, so Ken paid an outrageous sum for a pristine example and then was able to manufacture brand-new units.
Another case in point: Ken recently paid $5,000 for the last remaining NOS Ford GP carb with an eye towards reproducing this ultra-rare piece. The GP carbs were notoriously problematic, and most of them were trashed in the intervening years and replaced. A GP owner has few prospects of finding an OE carb unless Ken comes up with a reproduction.
Ken has two full-time employees restoring Jeeps. What Gary Slogget and Larry Gillette know about prototype Jeeps could fill a large book. They have researched every nuance and turn out a product that is considered flawless in execution by every expert in the field. These guys do it all, from cleaning 60 years of grunge off of an engine block, to building the dies to stamp out replacement body panels.
Most of the prototypes have now been discovered, so Ken is winding down his prototype work and is gearing up to rebuild Willys MBs and Ford GPWs to the same high standard. He also has acquired a half-dozen World War II P-40 Warhawk fighters, most of them crash recoveries from the wilds of New Guinea, the Aleutian Islands, or Siberia, and has begun restoring one.
Whether you agree that Tipton, Kansas, is the center of the Jeep universe or not, you must agree that it's a repository for the heirloom seeds of a revered American vehicle and the sport that it inspired.