In 1940, well before Pearl Harbor, the United States Army was on the hunt for a versatile multipurpose light vehicle. A number of automakers built prototypes in an effort to win a sweet production contract, and this proto-Jeep — Ford GP-No. 1 Pygmy, aka Numero Uno (OK, we just made that up) — was one of them. It has just been added to the National Historic Vehicle Register in recognition of its significant contributions to automotive history, to say nothing of its role in the Allied war effort.
Of the three hand-built contenders to be tested (the first prototype was supplied by American Bantam and another by Willys-Overland), this is the only survivor. So it’s amazing that it exists at all, let alone in this highly original state. And with just 1,100 miles on its odometer (a fancy art deco job apparently pulled from the Ford parts bin), it looks great — right down to the “No 1 JEEP” painted on its flank.
Ford would go on to produce hundreds of thousands of Jeeps (christened GPWs) for the war effort, splitting production with Willys (its near-identical vehicle was dubbed the MB). Production vehicles closely followed the rugged, flat-panel template of the Pygmy prototype, but the resemblance ends under the hood: In place of the Ford prototype’s modified Model A transmission and tractor-derived flathead-four, production Jeep got the more powerful Willys “Go-Devil” motor and a more suitable three-speed.
The Spicer four-wheel-drive transfer case, however, stayed, and arguably changed the off-road world forever. (Spicer is still around today — you may know it by the name Dana.)
The prototype joins the first 1964 Shelby Daytona Coupe, the 1947 Tucker 48 prototype and the GM Futurliner No. 10, along with a handful of other inarguably significant cars, on the registry. The Pygmy itself is owned by, and displayed at, the U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Alabama; you can learn more about it, and see it in action, in the video below. Keep an eye out for an interview with U.S. Army mechanic Edward T. Welburn Sr., father of the current GM VP of global design.