The Lost Bantam

The history of the automobile is one littered with iconic vehicles. While many of the last century’s famous, trendsetting models have managed to survive into the modern era, others simply vanished. Or have they?

Knowing that there may well still exist a number of these “missing” vehicles drives collectors and enthusiasts to continue searching and speculating about the possibility of someday coming across the ultimate barn find. Beginning this month, we’ll be taking a look at some of these “lost” vehicles, exploring their history and looking for clues that may lead to their wonderful rediscovery.

Bantam 1
When faced with the prospect of engaging in yet another world war, the United States Army of the late 1930s sought to commission an all-purpose vehicle that could easily traverse the varied terrain of the different theaters across the globe. In this, the Army Quartermasters Corps (QMC) offered up a contract for a lightweight reconnaissance vehicle. American Bantam Motor of Butler, Pennsylvania, was the first to respond.

Together, the QMC and Bantam created the specifications for what would eventually become the Jeep. Released on July 11, 1940, the general specs started called for a vehicle with a 70-inch wheelbase and a weight of 1,200 pounds. These rough specs were then given to 135 manufacturers with the strict stipulation that bids had to be turned in within 22 days, a pilot vehicle within 49 days and 70 additional prototype vehicles within 75 days.

Blitz Buggy, We Hardly Knew Ye

Despite the tough timeline, Bantam managed to deliver a pilot vehicle. Alternately referred to as the “Blitz Buggy” and “Old Number One,” the hand-built Bantam pilot featured a 20-hp engine and manual, three-speed transmission. Making it in just under the deadline, the Bantam garnered a fair amount of attention as it made its way some 450 miles to Fort Holabird in Maryland for testing.

In the meantime, Ford and Willys were provided the technical drawings for the vehicle and were still working to complete a pilot model. Needless to say, this did Bantam little in the way of favors. Bantam’s Blitz Buggy ultimately fell short of military expectations during testing. The company responded by making a handful of modifications requested by the QMC and delivering updated BRC prototypes. But they ultimately lost out to Willys. The rest, as they say, is history. But what became of Old Number One?

Of the 70 subsequent prototypes, only one Bantam is known to exist, safely in the hands of the Smithsonian. Records indicate “Old Number One” was involved in an accident on its return trip to Butler. From there, the stories become a little hazier. Some anecdotal accounts say the original vehicle was scrapped while others claim it was disassembled and buried on the grounds of the Bantam factory. Still other rumors claim to have spotted the vehicle in Canada.

Bantam 2
Photographic Proof?

Is it possible “Old Number One” and a handful of its progeny may still exist? As these ended up being the first jeeps sold as surplus to civilians, it’s certainly possible that they might well be hiding in someone’s garage, barn or basement. But what of the original, the pilot Bantam that started it all?

Randy Withrow, director of the U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Alabama, is one who believes the original Bantam pilot may still be out there. Withrow believes the rumors of a photograph somewhere showing a vehicle with a double-compound side and MK II pilot frontend — all the telltale signs of the original Bantam — being tested by the Canadians.

“I have been on the lookout for the original photograph every since,” he says. “The story that seems most plausible to me is that the vehicle was involved in a crash on the way back to Butler. But even if the vehicle was damaged, what would be the reason to destroy it? It’s my belief that — if the vehicle wasn’t repaired then given or sold to someone at Willys — it was probably repaired and then given to the Canadian military as a test vehicle.”

Withrow can cite dozens of cases where old military vehicles that were thought to be lost suddenly surfaced in someone’s garage or barn. Bantam is the father of the jeep concept, he says, which gives the original Bantam “holy grail status” among enthusiasts collectors.

“I do think the original Bantam is out there,” he says. “And one day when it is found, it will rank up there as ‘the ultimate jeep find’ simply for all the history it represents.”

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