The 1940 Ford Pilot Model GP-No. 1 Pygmy, the prototype for what would become known around the world as the U.S military Jeep, and later would spawn an entire automotive brand, has been selected as the eighth vehicle to be recorded in the Historic Vehicle Association’s National Historic Vehicle Register.
In June 1940, the U.S. Army invited automakers to create designs for a “1/4 ton, four-wheel-drive reconnaissance truck” vehicle that could replace horses and mules in service to soldiers on the battlefield. American Bantam Car Company of Butler, Pennsylvania; Willys-Overland Motor Co., Inc. of Toledo, Ohio; and the Ford Motor Company responded.
American Bantam delivered a prototype to Camp Holabird in Balitmore on September 23. Willys-Overland and Ford staff watched that test and then completed their own vehicles. On November 11, Willys-Overland provided the first of its pair of “Quad” prototypes and Ford delivered two of its Pygmy models on November 23.
Only the two Fords — bearing serial numbers GP-No. 1 and GP-No. 2 — are known to have survived the military’s testing procedures.
According to a news release from the HVA, “The Ford Pilot Model GP-No. 1 Pygmy is historically significant based on: (i) its testing at Camp Holabird in late 1940 which was an important event in the development of the “jeep;” (ii) its design contribution to the eventual standard military “jeep;” (iii) being the first prototype produced by Ford and oldest known example of the “jeep;” and (iv) its mostly unrestored condition.”
The GP-No. 1 carries a modified 42-horsepower four-cylinder flathead Ford tractor engine, an updated Ford Model A transmission, Spicer transfer case, and axles and bodywork built for Ford by Edwin G. Budd Manufacturing. The original jeep weighs 2,150 pounds, has an 80-inch wheelbase and is 133 inches long, 60 inches wide and 56 inches tall.
“The Ford Pilot Model GP-No. 1 Pygmy design is perhaps most notable as the first ‘jeep’ prototype to feature a flat slatted front grille with integrated headlights which went on to become an iconic design element of the standardized mass produced WWII ‘jeep’ and subsequent commercial versions,” the news release continued.
In 1941, the U.S. military awarded contracts to Willys-Overland and Ford to produce a standardized “jeep” that incorporated designs from each of the three automakers’ prototype vehicles (American Bantam was simply too small a company to produce vehicles in quantity, but it did get a nifty consolation prize.). The Ford GPW and Willys-Overland MB versions were nearly identical and parts could be interchanged between the products.
From 1940 to 1941, American Bantam produced 2,676 pilot or its own BRC models. Meanwhile, from 1940 to 1945, Ford built 285,660 and Willys-Overland built 362,894 MA MB, Pigmy, GP and GPW (GP Willys) models.
“The jeep was pivotal during WWII; became an indispensable part of the U.S. Army efforts for decades; quickly transitioned to civilian use; and became a global icon for America,” retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Roger C. Schultz, president of the Army Historical Foundation, said in the HVA news release. “GP-No. 1, the oldest known jeep, is worthy to be recognized as an important American cultural treasure.”
In 1948, Henry Ford II donated GP-No. 1 to The Henry Ford Museum. In 1982, the museum sold the vehicle at auction, where it was purchased by Randall Withrow.
“I remember I could not believe that the Ford Pygmy was being sold and I was the winning bidder,” Withrow said in the HVA news release. “I later founded the U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum and donated the Ford Pygmy as an important centerpiece to the collection. At the museum today, we continue to carefully maintain GP-No. 1 in its unrestored condition.”
The museum is located in Huntsville, Alabama.
Willys-Overland included the term “jeep” in a U.S. trademark application in November 1940. The term became popular, the HVA reported, after a press conference on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building in February, 1941, with what the Army called its new “scout cars” being referred to as “quads” or “jeeps.”
After the war, Willys-Overland produced a civilian version of the vehicle known as the CJ, or civilian jeep. On July 13, 1950, Jeep became a registered trademark of Willys-Overland. The trademark became part of the sale of Willy-Overland to Kaiser Motors in 1953, in 1970 when Kaiser-Jeep became part of American Motors and in 1987, when Chrysler purchased AMC. The Jeep brand is now part of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V.
The HVA spent four months working with the U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum to document GP-No. 1, including detailed photography; engineering drawings developed from a 3D scan of the vehicle; and extensive historic research on the early origins and military development of the “jeep.” The effort was supported financially by Shell Lubricants and Hagerty.
The National Historic Vehicle Register is part of the Historic American Engineering Record and done in conjunction with the Library of Congress and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
To see the original “jeep” in action, see the HVA video that features an interview with 97-year-old Ed Welburn Sr., who was a U.S. Army mechanic in World War II. After the war, he fathered Ed Welburn Jr., who would become the head of global design for General Motors.