Of the three prototypes that automakers submitted for the U.S. Army’s new lightweight scout car in the early days of World War II, Ford’s Pygmy probably shouldn’t have stood a chance. It wasn’t the lightest, it wasn’t the fastest, and it wasn’t the first submitted. But it’s still around today, making it the oldest jeep prototype tested by the Army as well as an excellent candidate for inclusion on the National Historic Vehicle Register.
On December 7, 2015, the Historic Vehicle Association announced, to coincide with Pearl Harbor Day, that the Ford Pygmy GP-001 has officially been added to the National Historic Vehicle Register.
Nowadays, nobody disputes the fact that Bantam was the first to submit a prototype for what would eventually become the quarter-ton jeep and eventually the postwar civilian Jeep. In 1940, with global war looming, the U.S. Army assessed its mechanical capabilities and found a need for a fast – and therefore lightweight – reconnaissance vehicle that could handle rugged terrain and deliver a machine gun or two to the front lines. Bantam seemed an ideal candidate for the job: It had plenty of experience building light, four-cylinder-powered cars at a time when most of the rest of the American automotive industry had abandoned fours for six- and eight-cylinder engines to power heavier cars; and as a small and agile company, it could theoretically respond to design requests quicker than larger manufacturers. In addition, as Patrick Foster wrote in The Story of Jeep, Bantam had already submitted specially modified cars to the Army for testing even before a committee of Army officers drew up the specifications for the quarter-ton four-wheel-drive scout car, so Bantam officials already had an idea of what the Army was looking for.
Indeed, on September 23, 1940, two months after submitting his designs, freelance engineer and designer Karl Probst delivered – on Bantam’s behalf – the world’s first jeep prototype, the Bantam Reconnaissance Car, which he drove from Bantam’s factory in Butler, Pennsylvania, to Fort Holabird in Baltimore.
But others would soon follow. Both Willys and Ford had expressed interest in competing for the contract, and the Army figured that both had the capability to produce in volume that Bantam lacked, so the Army shared Probst’s design with both companies, and Willys submitted its prototype – what later became known as the Quad – for testing on November 13 while Ford submitted two prototypes – the Pygmy, engine number GP-001; and a similar Budd-bodied jeep that was never tested, GP-002 – on November 23.
While the Army was looking for a car that would weigh less than 1,300 pounds, none of the three prototypes came close to that target: The Bantam Reconnaissance Car weighed 1,840 pounds dry; the Ford, 2,150 pounds; and the Willys, 2,450 pounds. The latter made up for its excess weight with its 60-hp four-cylinder, while the 45-hp Continental four-cylinder of the Bantam was deemed adequate, but the 42-hp four-cylinder of the Ford set it at a disadvantage. When it came to powertrains, Ford found itself at a disadvantage simply because, in 1940, it no longer offered four-cylinder engines in its domestic cars and trucks; it had to develop the 120-cu.in. flathead engine from its 9N tractor. For a transmission, Ford engineers essentially brought the Model A’s transmission out of retirement, and they then mated it to a Spicer transfer case and axles.
The Ford Pygmy prototype, for all of its disadvantages, did introduce a number of innovations, including headlamps that hinge up to provide engine bay illumination, an under-the-seat gas tank to eliminate external fuel fillers, and a second top bow to keep the top from slapping the driver around. In addition, while the Bantam Reconnaissance Car and the Willys Quad (as well as the 69 BRC-60s that followed the pilot BRC) featured rounded hoodlines and grilles, the Ford Pygmy used a flat front grille constructed of welded flat stock that also doubled as a brush guard for the headlamps.
Regardless of the differences among the three prototypes, the Army ordered 1,500 more vehicles from each of the three competitors for the contract. Intriguingly, Army officials revised the maximum weight of the successor models upward to 2,160 pounds, just 10 pounds heavier than the Pygmy, suggesting that Ford representatives had somehow convinced Army officials that the weight of the Pygmy was sufficient.
From the models that the three companies then built – the Bantam BRC-40, the Willys MA, and the Ford GP – the Army would develop the final standardized version, the Willys MB, which Ford would also build as the GPW during the war.
As for the prototypes, all three went back to their respective companies. The Bantam Reconnaissance Car has since disappeared (documented as wrecked, and possibly rebuilt for testing by the Canadian military), as has the Willys Quad (which did show up in a circa 1963 photo along with Willys’s successive military jeeps, as seen above). Both Ford prototypes, however, still exist. The Budd-bodied prototype, which toured the country during World War II, recently surfaced out West. The Ford Pygmy, which also toured the country during World War II, then reportedly served as a company car around Dearborn before Henry Ford II gave it to The Henry Ford in 1948. The Henry Ford, in turn, sold the Pygmy at a deaccession auction in September 1982 to Randy Withrow, who now has it displayed at the Veterans Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Alabama.
“The museum knew what it was when they sold it to me, but they said it didn’t really fit their theme,” Withrow said. He refused to say how much he paid for the Pygmy more than 30 years ago because he said he doesn’t want people asking him if they can buy it for that much today. “But it doesn’t matter, because it’s not for sale at any price.”
Withrow said that he had to do some minor work on the Pygmy after buying it, including a rebuild of the brake system and fuel system as well as sourcing the correct wheels and tires for it, but the Pygmy today remains largely as it was constructed and tested in 1940. “The intent is to leave it as undisturbed as possible,” he said. “It still has the testing dirt on it. It still has the tiedown straps mounted to the frame; the Army never took ‘em off, and I sure never will either.”
It does run and drive, though with a little more than 1,100 original miles on the odometer, Withrow and the museum staff understandably don’t take it out for excursions all that often.
Of the four criteria for a vehicle to be included in the National Historic Vehicle Register (association with important American historic events, association with important American historic figures, its design or construction value, and its informational value), the Ford Pygmy conceivably meets at least three, given its prototype status, the contributions it made to jeep design, and its role in the development of the military jeep, which has been lauded as one of the key weapons that helped win World War II.
Selection to the register involves a complete documentation of the vehicle, including a fully referenced narrative of the vehicle’s provenance and full photography, which will then be placed in the Library of Congress. No restrictions are placed on subsequent use or sale of the vehicle.
For more information about the Historic Vehicle Association and the National Historic Vehicle Register, visit HistoricVehicle.org.