Most Jeep fans know Ford Motor Company played a part in developing the World War II jeep. Many don’t know just how big a part Ford actually played. It all started in the summer of 1940 when an Ordnance Department subcommittee visited the Bantam Car Company to research a light reconnaissance vehicle, and ultimately helped them flesh out an idea for a quarter-ton 4x4. Thinking they were in line for a negotiated contract, Bantam shared a lot of ideas that got used against them in the end. Much to their chagrin, the Army reps went the competitive bid route instead, and invited 135 other auto manufacturers to bid, including Ford Motor Company.
After hearing the details, FoMoCo was disinclined to bid. The initial development contract was for only 70 vehicles, with no lock on a larger follow-up contract. There was a ridiculously short 10 days allowed to develop a bid, and it had a very short production deadline and an uphill climb on the engineering side. On top of that, the Army’s requirements were vague and subject to constant revision, because each branch (Infantry, Ordnance, Cavalry, Quartermaster, etc.) wanted something slightly different. Indications are Ford intended to jump in later, if and when the project had more firmly defined goals and a higher production estimate. Only two companies made bids: Bantam and Willys-Overland. Bantam won the bid on July 22, 1940, subject to supplying a pilot model for validation in just 49 days. It was an epic struggle, but Bantam made it!
In the midst of Bantam’s frantic labors, both Willys-Overland and Ford were being “courted” to stay in the game. On its own dime, Willys began building two prototypes, later known as Quads. Once Bantam’s pilot model was delivered to the Army’s Camp Holabird, Maryland, test facility, it’s known that both Ford and Willys representatives stopped in to view the progress and send back reports. This provided good intelligence on what the Army was thinking, what Bantam features they liked or didn’t like, and what design features worked or didn’t work.
Early in October, the Quartermaster Corps (QMC, the branch generally responsible for non-fighting vehicle procurement) solicited informal bidding from Bantam, Ford, and Willys for 1,500 units of an improved design (to be determined at that point). This is when Ford’s interest was seriously piqued and the long political knives were unsheathed. About this time, Spicer announced it was short of tooling to build enough axles and transfer cases to keep up with a rapid production schedule. We won’t relate the gory details, but ultimately Bantam, Ford, and Willys were each given contracts for 1,500 improved models based on their pilot models. That compromise happened partly because Ford loaned Spicer the extra tooling it needed to keep up with the increased demand for axles and transfer cases, and it locked Ford in for a guaranteed percentage of it.
Though Ford’s upper management gave engineering the official go-ahead to develop a prototype on October 17, 1940, they were already well acquainted with the project. Ford’s entrant was coded “GP”—a Ford designation indicating G = Government Contract Vehicle and P = 80-inch wheelbase reconnaissance car. The initial problem was an engine, but they had recently developed a 119ci 28hp four-cylinder engine for the 9N Ford-Ferguson tractor. Cut a Mercury 239ci flathead V-8 in half, and voilà, instant four-cylinder. Engineers were sure it could be souped up to meet the 40hp minimum requirement set forth by the QMC. For a transmission, they adapted a three-speed manual from the Ford Model A to the Spicer transfer case. The basic chassis layout and suspension wasn’t a difficult engineering challenge. They raided the Ford car and truck parts bins for anything else that would work and fabricated the rest.
When it came to a body, the Ford team had ideas for improvements, but given the QMC’s schizophrenic nature, they decided to hedge their bets. They built two identical chassis and two different bodies. One had a flat hood, a new take on a folding windshield, and headlights recessed behind a slat grille. The other shared the same rear body but had a front wrap that was closer to the QMC blueprints and strongly resembled the Bantams, 70 of which were then under construction. When both bodies were complete, the two rigs were fully assembled at the Ford plant. These two rigs have become known as the Ford-Bodied GP (which we’ll call GP-1) and the Budd-Bodied GP (GP-2).
Both vehicles were complete by Thanksgiving Day 1940, and they were delivered on November 23. The Army had the option of testing either or both, but it was soon very clear GP-1 was a hit, and it was taken away for validation testing. GP-2 was waved off. The low profile and general layout of both rigs was clearly a step beyond the other prototypes at this point. GP-1 was well received, but changes were specified; the main change involved reducing weight.
QMC’s obsession with a low curb weight was the one PITA all three manufacturers shared. Bantam had done the best in this regard and Willys the worst. In fact, had government allies not intervened on Willys’ behalf, they might not have been allowed to bid on the 1,500-unit contract due to the Quad being about 400 pounds overweight. The Ford was overweight too at 2,340 pounds (about 250 pounds over), but was given a weight variance in consideration of the cowl height being reduced to 38 inches from the specified 40 inches. The official weight limit was soon raised to 2,175 pounds to account for a gun mount, spare tire, and tools. Contrast that with the more realistic standardized spec of 2,450 pounds.
By the time the GP-1 had been validated, the tripartite 1,500-unit contracts had been issued and improved models were coming from all three manufacturers, albeit at a very low rate from Willys. Ford’s first production GP debuted in February of 1941. Ford and Bantam were very quick to complete their orders and from each, more were ordered. In the case of Ford, that was a total 4,458 units, many of which went to fulfill Lend Lease orders. Willys was very slow in filling orders and only managed to make 1,555 units.
As fate would have it, both GP-1 and GP-2 have survived and are the only pilot models that did. One very early Bantam prototype, the seventh built of the 70 1940 BRC models, also survives. GP-1, whose actual serial number was “*GP-N0-1*,” acquired the nickname “Pygmy” along the way, but it doesn’t appear to have been officially bestowed by Ford. In the end, “jeep” overtook them all, but Jeepdom knows GP-1 as Pygmy.
After testing, GP-1 went back to Ford and did the War Bond and PR circuit, acquiring “No.1 JEEP” on the sides. That’s about as much as Ford got into the “who-invented-the-jeep” marketing wars of the mid-’40s. Only very briefly did they consider a civilian model jeep for the post-war period. In 1948, Ford donated the Pygmy to the Henry Ford Greenfield Museum where it was displayed on and off until 1982, and then auctioned off. The winning bid came from Randy Withrow, then a serving Army officer who later retired as Lieutenant Colonel. Randy made a considered decision not to restore it, only replacing a few egregious “upgrades” from the WWII era and doing the repairs needed to get it running. When he got involved in creating the Veterans Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Alabama, in 2001, it became the museum’s centerpiece. In 2015, the Historic Vehicle Association added GP-1 to their National Historic Vehicle Registry because of its impact on American history.
The survival of GP-2, serial number “*GP-N0-2*,” is an even more miraculous story. It returned to Ford and did the same PR duty as GP-1, also acquiring a “No. 1 JEEP” graphic. It’s seen in period images being used as a factory runabout with civilian license plates, but drops off the historical research radar after 1942. In 1998, Jeff Polidoro found GP-2 in Riverside, California, more or less hiding in plain sight. Jeff had some of the best jeep historians help him validate the find, most notably Fred Coldwell, Jim Gilmore, and Todd Paisley. “Buddy,” as GP-2 became known, reemerged as a cherished member of the jeep family.
Jeff put the jeep up for sale and in 2005, and Englishman Fred Smith, one of the most noteworthy military vehicle restorers in the world, bought it. GP-2 could not have landed with a better, more detail-conscious restorer. Buddy was fairly complete, and after a year of hard work, debuted at the 2006 War & Peace show in England to admiring viewers.
The battle for the quarter-ton contracts reached a peak in July of 1941, after all brands of the pre-standardized jeeps had been tested with military units. The Army compiled the features it liked best into one specification for a 16,000-unit contract. When the smoke cleared, Willys had offered the lowest bid and won the contract. Ford’s planned bid was updated at the last minute by an exec not familiar with the deal, and that’s what lost FoMoCo the honor of building the first standardized jeeps. Ford didn’t lose much, though, and became a second source for standardized jeeps. Their GPW model (G = Government Contract Vehicle, P = 80-inch wheelbase reconnaissance car, and W = Willys engine) is close to being half the number of jeeps produced for WWII.
Editors Note: Special thanks to Jim Gilmore, who is writing the book on Ford jeeps, for assistance with this article.
Veterans Memorial MuseumCelebrating Service
If you get anywhere near Huntsville, Alabama, the Veterans Memorial Museum is well worth a Jeeper’s pilgrimage. It has a world-class collection of military jeeps, starting with the Pygmy; one each of the Ford GP, Bantam BRC, and Willys MA pre-standardized models; several variations of standardized WWII jeeps; and every other type of jeep up to the Vietnam War. They also have the first jeep sold surplus in 1943, a Ford GP. They have tanks, helicopters, trucks of all sizes, armored cars, and halftracks from the first days of internal combustion to very recent. Many of the vehicles are maintained in running condition and paraded for special occasions. Their collection of weapons and uniforms back to the founding of the country is remarkable. The U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College even holds classes there on military history. For more information about the VMM, check out Veterans Memorial Museum, 256/883-3737, memorialmuseum.org.