Subscribe to a magazine

Jeeps in Olive Drab

P26477 Image Large
Jim Allen | Writer
Posted October 1, 1999

A History of the GI Jeep

Step By Step

View Photo Gallery
  • From the front, Bantam’s No. 1 prototype, delivered September 23, 1940, didn’t look much like what we have come to know as a Jeep. Still, it was the undisputed first of the breed. Built from a hodgepodge of parts from the Bantam car line, Spicer, Warner Gear, Continental, and many other manufacturers, "Old Number One" was brutally tested in late 1940 at Camp Holabird, Maryland, by the torture specialists of the United States Army. Bantam No. 1 was the first of a 70 unit contract. It disappeared early in 1941 after being damaged in a collision with a utility truck. Its fate is a source of much speculation by historians.

  • The 1940 BRC-60 (Bantam Reconnaissance Car-60), also known as the Mark II, was very similar to the original pilot model, but its front fenders had a more military look. Sixty-nine were built to this design and tested with operational Army units in a variety of ways. Only one is known to have survived: The seventh unit built is owned by the Smithsonian, and you can see it at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum in Fort Eustis, Virginia, where it’s on long-term loan.

  • The upgrade of the BRC-60 was the BRC-40. A full 2,605 pre-standardized units were built to this design in 1941, most of them supplied to Allied nations under the Lend-Lease program. The BRC-40 was built in two versions: the Series 1 and the Series II. Series 1 rigs can be identified by their corrugated floorpan. BRC-40s were the lightest and most nimble of the three pre-standardized models, and the Army noted that this model had good suspension and brakes and high fuel economy. This BRC-40 belongs to noted pre-standardized Jeep restorer Ken Hake. The 37mm anti-tank gun is a period accessory.

  • The 1941 GP was the Ford entrant in the pre-standardized Jeep wars. Around 4,458 of these units were produced. In many ways, the GP was the best of the pre-standardized Jeeps. Contrary to popular myth, GP did not stand for General Purpose. It was an engineering term in which "G" stood for a government contract vehicle and "P" signified the 80-inch wheelbase reconnaissance car. The overall design and quality of construction put the GP ahead of the Bantam and Willys, and Ford very nearly walked away with the big contract for Jeeps. The engine, however, was its Achilles heel. An adaptation of the Model N tractor engine, it was underpowered and unreliable in the GP application. The unit shown is one of the four remaining four-wheel steer variants, of which a total of 50 were built.

  • The 1941 Willys MA is the rarest, most sought after, and most valuable of the pre-standardized Jeeps. A properly restored MA will bring a cool $50,000-plus! Only 1,555 were built, and a mere 27 are known to still exist. The MA was the winner in the battle for a big Jeep contract, and it owes this win to the Willys 60hp Go-Devil flathead four. It had more power and torque than either the Ford or the Bantam. Many MAs were sent to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program. You can see the MA heritage in the Russian GAZ-67 that was produced in WWII. This MA is owned by military-vehicle collector Wayne Dowdle of Memphis, Tennessee.

  • As you probably know, the first standardized Jeep was called the Willys MB, but when you look at this photo, you may say, "huh?" The first 25,808 Willys MBs, produced from December 1941 to March 6, 1942, are known as Slat-Grille models, for their welded grille. They are quite different than the more familiar stamped-grille units in many ways. They constantly evolved, so no two Slat-Grilles are quite alike, but common and obvious Slat-Grille differences include "Willys" stamped in the rear panel, a square fuel-tank tub, lack of a glovebox, and lack of a fender-mounted blackout light.

  • The standard stamped-grille Willys MB was produced until September 21, 1945; a total of 335,531 were built. They have been popular as collectables for quite some time with the military-vehicle crowd. They also proved to be one of the first vehicles chosen by the pioneers in the hard-core 4x4 recreation crowd. This MB, owned by Ken Hake, is fitted out with a number of replica weapons, period WWII camo, and the larger 7.50-16 flotation tires.

  • After losing the first Jeep contract to Willys, Ford was immediately courted to build Jeeps to the Willys design. Called the GPW (W equals Willys pattern), Ford built a total of 278,000 from January 6, 1942 to July 31, 1945. The early-1942 models had Ford in script on the rear panel, and these are the most collectable. Though the Ford-built parts from GPWs were functionally interchangeable with MBs, many differences remained between Ford and Willys Jeeps. These included the chassis, which had a U-shaped front crossmember instead of a tubular unit, many body detail differences, and a Ford script F on nearly every small part. In January of 1944, a composite body was adopted by both Ford and Willys that contained features of both designs.

  • From September 9, 1942 to June 30, 1943, Ford produced 12,778 GPA amphibious Jeeps (the A stands for amphibian). Development of the amphibious Jeep was begun by Marmon-Herrington for the QMC-4 project. Ford soon eclipsed M-H and eventually developed the GPA, called the Seep by many. In the water, with a very low freeboard, it proved no match for anything more than light chop. It was most useful in crossing large inland rivers and lakes. The Russians received a number of GPAs and made several river assaults under fire with them. Today, floating examples are rare and pricey. This one belongs to Bill Anderson of Pueblo, Colorado, and gets plenty of frequent-floater miles.

  • The rare CJ-V35/U gets the nod for being the first post-war production military Jeep. Only 1,000 were built from March to June 1950 for use by the Navy and Marines. It was a specially built version of the civilian CJ-3A, adapted to provide transportation for beachmasters during amphibious landings. Its main features included snorkels on the intake and exhaust, waterproof ignition, and a PTO-driven 12- or 24-volt generator to run a special radio set.

  • The M38--or Willys Model MC--was the first Jeep in a new generation of military vehicles. It was built from September 1950 to July 1952. By the time the MC was developed, the military was looking to standardize everything possible. A new line of small parts, such as generators, starters, gauges, switches, and so on, were developed to be used in every military tactical rig. The M38 was the first military Jeep to contain these improvements. The M38 was considered a disappointment in terms of performance. The Army’s new requirements, including a higher weight capacity, added many pounds to the vehicle, and the old Willys 60hp Go-Devil had run out of go. The push to develop a more powerful engine led to the M38A1 and CJ-5 vehicles.

  • The M38A1--or Willys Model MD--was the most radical redesign of the production Jeep since the MB. Built from April 1952 to May 1955 (for U.S. service), it’s considered by many to be the last true military Jeep. The round fenders and higher hood came as a result of the development of the more powerful F-head four. The civilian CJ-5 and CJ-6 are direct developments of the MD. The M38A1 was noted for being capable, reliable, and popular with the troops. For a time in the early 1960s, some M38A1s were modified to carry the Davy Crockett launcher (then called the M38A1D).

  • The M170, also called the Willys MDA, was a long-wheelbase variant of the M38A1 and the ancestor of the later CJ-6. Built in small numbers from October 1953 to June 1955, the M170 was designed as a battlefield ambulance. With its 101-inch wheelbase, it could carry three litters and two crew or six seated patients and two crew. This restored M170 belongs to Jeep-collector Keith Buckley.

  • Though this rig looks a bit like an M38A1, it’s really something unique. The Bobcat--or Willys model BC--was a 1953 result of an ongoing program to develop an extra-light Jeep. The body was aluminum, but it was stamped with modified M38 and M38A1 dies. An 240-pound aluminum version of the 134cid flathead was developed for the BC. Aluminum transmission and transfer-case housings were also made. The rig weighed 1,500 pounds. Though a number of prototypes were developed, the Bobcat never saw production.

  • When the time came to replace the Army’s fleet of aging M37 Dodges, Kaiser Jeep stepped in with the M715 and won the contract. The M715 cargo truck was a militarized version of the Jeep Gladiator that was produced from January 1967 to May 1969. Rated as a 1-1/4-ton, it proved itself in Vietnam but was never as popular as the M37 Dodge. It had the beefiest drivetrain that could be ordered in that era: a Dana 70 rear axle, a Dana 60 front, an NP200 transfer case, and a T-98 trans. A variation of the M715 was the M726 Maintenance truck.

  • An ambulance version of the M715 was built and called the M725. It had an aluminum rear body but was mechanically identical to the cargo and maintenance trucks. This veteran is parked at the Firethorn Trading Post in Eckert, Colorado.

  • The M422 and M422 Mighty-Mites are not technically Jeeps, but since they were built by American Motors from 1960 to 1963 and had one of the original developers of the Jeep as a designer, we’ll include them. The M422 was built for the Marine Corps as an air portable tactical vehicle. Two versions were built, the 67-inch wheelbase M422 and the 71-inch wheelbase M422A1. The units used an aluminum air-cooled V-4 engine, independent suspension with quarter-elliptic leaf springs, and inboard drum brakes. The original concept went back to 1953, when the Mid-America Research Corporation developed the MM100. Harold Crist was the principal engineer and had played a major role in developing the first Jeeps from Bantam in 1940.

  • The M151 M.U.T.T. (Mobile Utility Tactical Truck) became the replacement for the M38A1 starting in about 1960. The development began with Ford in March of 1951, but by the time 1959 rolled around, the commercial side of Willys Motors had the contract to build them. The M151 was a high-tech tactical rig with an independent coil spring suspension. It was the plushest-riding tactical Jeep ever produced, but it had some unsafe handling quirks. It was built through 1978 and the last years by AM General in three versions: the original M151, the M151A1, and the M151A2. The A2 versions had an improved rear suspension that made them much less prone to rolling over. The M151A1C and M825 variants mounted 105 and 105mm recoiless rifles. The M107 and M108 variants were equipped with radio gear.

  • The M718 was a field-ambulance version of the M151 chassis. An extended rear body enabled two litters and two ambulatory patients to be carried with two crew or three litters to be carried with two crew.

  • The M606 Jeep was a low-cost export military vehicle that sold well all over the world. The M606s were standard civilian CJ-3Bs fitted out with olive-drab paint, military pintle hitches, blackout lights, bumperettes, and optional features. While rigs such as this were available as early as the late 1950s, the M606 term wasn’t seen until about 1965. Many like this were supplied under MDAP (Military Defense Assistance Program) where the U.S. Government supplied friendly foreign governments with modern military vehicles. The U.S. military also used the vehicles in non-tactical roles overseas. The M606A2 and A3 models, a similar adaptation of the CJ-5, replaced the CJ-3B based M606 models when the old high-hood went out of production in 1968. This restored M606 is an ex-Swiss Army rig and belongs to Rob Baens in the Netherlands.

The Jeep was born in an age of global strife. Bred for battle, it became the four-wheel version of the Swiss Army knife, able to do almost anything. To the soldiers who fought in World War II--friend and foe alike--it became a legend. While Willys Overland emerged from the war with most of the credit for the 1/4-ton Jeep, it was American Bantam that made the Army's vague concepts a reality and built many of the first prototypes and pre-standardized models. Likewise, Ford Motor Company did much to further the design in the form of its pre-standardized GP models.

The WWII Jeep inspired many imitations from Willys, the descendant companies that continued the name, and competing manufacturers. Land Rover, Toyota, Nissan, and a few others all owe their beginnings in the 4x4 world to the inspiration of the military Jeep. Many other companies, such as India’s Mahindra & Mahindra, Japan’s Mitsubishi, Spain’s VIASA, Colombia’s Willco, and France’s Hotchkis profited from building Jeeps under license.

The Jeep legend continued after the war, and even though many civilian 4x4 designs were marketed under the Jeep banner, the manufacturer’s ties to the military continued well into the 1970s. Our four-wheeling sport began in large part with surplus military rigs tweaked for the trail. They were affordable, adaptable, plentiful, and fun. To celebrate this history, we thought you’d enjoy this parade of military Jeeps.