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What Is the Ford GPW Military Jeep?

Ford’s WWII military 4X4, with a lowercase j, helped win the war.

Ford's first mass produced 4x4, the Ford GPW military jeep, is a sometimes forgotten chapter in the history of trailblazing off-road vehicles and of Ford in general. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of GPWs were built for use during WWII, they faded into obscurity thanks in large part to Willys, the company that transformed the jeep from its military roots into the Jeep with a capital J.

The first jeeps were 4x4s built for WWII

Many folks in the know attribute the beginnings of recreational off-roading in America to a time when the humble jeep—the first, small, affordable, and nimble 4x4—became available to the general public shortly after WWII.

As the story goes, American GIs, familiar with the jeep from its wartime exploits, lapped up the inexpensive surplus models when they returned home. While some jeeps and the first civilian Willys Jeeps (starting in 1945) were tagged for work duty, many were also used for play. In short, these off-road pioneers went Jeepin'. And thanks in part to the large number of jeeps that were scattered across the globe at the war's end, the newfound fascination with four-wheeling eventually spread far and wide.

What is a Ford GPW?

Though Willys gets the vast majority of the credit for being the builder of the WWII jeep, the fact is Willys wasn't the originator of the design. Engineers working for Bantam, Willys, and Ford all contributed to the vehicle that won the U.S. military contract. Willys wasn't the only company that assembled jeeps for WWII, either—far from it. Ford built more than 300,000 GPW military jeeps in all, which amounted to roughly half of all jeeps built for WWII. According to the Lyon Air Museum in Santa Ana, California, the name stands for, G: Government contract, P: 80-inch wheelbase, and W: Willys design. The Willys produced version of the vehicle is known as the MB, which is the direct ancestor of the first civilian Jeep: the CJ-2a.

How Do You Identify a Ford GPW?

While there are hundreds of small nuances between a Ford GPW and a Willys MB, several of them do not hold water with some present day collectors, with history becoming subject to interpretation over the years. Part of the issue is that most surviving GPWs (and Willys MBs for that matter) are likely to have a combination of both Ford and Willys parts on them given that they were jointly maintained at a government run motor pool, rebuilt at government depots during the war, or modified by civilians shortly after the war. That said, there are several key differences between the two, among them:

Engine block serial numbers: These should start with either MB or GPW, though a civilian Jeep engine could have also been swapped in since the war. Several GPWs ended the war with a Willys manufactured engine and vice versa for the Willys MB.

Ford Script Bolts: All GPWs are assembled with what are known as Ford Script Bolts. These are little bolts that have a cursive "F" stamped into the head. This F script can also be found on just about any part that came off of a Ford GPW. Several on the frame (like on shock mounts and other brackets) would indicate a GPW frame, and there are other frame cues. The problem is F-script bolts and parts could be removed and re-used on an MB or a later civilian Jeep with ease.

Body Differences: There are some subtle differences between the later GPW and Willys military jeeps, but the early Fords and Willys were stamped as such. That was before the military reminded both companies in about mid-1942 that these were war time tools and should not have manufacturer markings on them. Also, the impression for the rear toolbox opening button on a GPW should be square and round on an MB. Lastly, the toe board gussets (that support the firewall below the base of the hood) are different between the Willys and Ford bodies. Despite that, there apparently can also be "composite bodies" with parts from both Ford and Willys models since neither company actually manufactured the jeep body tubs (both were supplied by American Central Manufacturing).

Frame differences: GPW frames have a rectangular upside-down C-channel front cross member, while Willys MBs have a tubular and round front cross member. Also, as previously mentioned, shock mounts and other brackets from a GPW will have F-script cast or stamped into them. This ranges from body parts to radiators, even some shims in the transfer case or axles will have a cursive F-stamped in them.

This is the F-script on a shock mount of an unrestored 1944 GPW.

Both MBs and GPWs are fueled under the driver's seat. We're not sure how this ever became something that made any sense because smoking was very popular with the general public as well as GIs at the time, but nevertheless, this helps discern either an MB or GPW from later military and civilian Jeeps. On those, the fuel fill is outside the body of the vehicle, albeit still directly under the driver's posterior.

Both MBs and GPWs have these small toolboxes integrated into the rear fenders. The recess below is where the button to open the door is located can be either squared off (shown) in GPWs or rounded. The rounded indicates either an MB or a GPW with a composite body.

The underhood view of a GPW and MB is basically identical, but closer inspection of the engine block serial number would indicate if the engine was originally from a Willys or Ford. But either engine could have made its way into either an MB or GPW over the past 74 to 78 years, including during the war, when motor pools and rebuild depots would intermix parts.

This is a Ford script bolt, originally from a GPW and possibly original to this unrestored 1944 GPW. But (and it's a big but) bolts can easily be moved to MBs, civilian, or any non-GPW military jeeps.

MBs and GPWs both had head lights that could be flipped to illuminate the engine if nighttime repairs were necessary. F-script markings on small parts would indicate a Ford GPW origin.

Even GPW axle shafts would have an F-script—do you see it on this restored axle? We've seen images of F-scripts stamped in radiators and cast into every imaginable part, including shims used to set up gears in axles and transfer cases.

Even the original GPW knuckles in this 1944 model have an F-script cast into the part, so there is no question where it was manufactured.

How Do You Identify a Ford GPW?

  • Engine block serial numbers
  • Ford script bolts
  • Body differences
  • Frame differences