Seventy-five years after it wowed the U.S. Army, the oldest known Jeep is getting its due as a symbol of the Greatest Generation’s fight and Detroit’s role in what Franklin D. Roosevelt called “the Arsenal of Democracy” — the manufacturing might that helped the Allies win World War II.
“It’s an icon of WWII and a symbol of wartime production by the auto industry,” said Matt Anderson, transportation curator at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI. “It’s also the grandfather of all SUVs. It’s very rare to be able to trace a whole class of vehicles to a single one, but this is where it all began.”
Ford GP-No.1, a prototype for a light, rugged four-wheel-drive vehicle for reconnaissance and other military use, was delivered to the Army for tests Nov. 23, 1940.
“The Army still had horse cavalry then,” said 97-year-old Ed Welburn Sr., who served in the U.S. Army in Papua-New Guinea and Australia in WWII. “They brought horses to the island, but you can’t use horses in the jungle. The Jeep was small and tough. It could travel most anywhere. The cavalry liked the Jeep much better than horses.
“It was very durable,” said Welburn, who was a mechanic. “But if you had to work on one, you could get 2-3 men to flip it on its side, pull the transmission, then set the Jeep back down and drive it off.”
News reports, photos and films quickly made the Jeep famous and nearly indistinguishable from the American GIs who relied on it.
“Good Lord, I don’t think we could continue the war without the Jeep,” wrote war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who won a Pulitzer Prize for describing what life was like for the average GI. “It does everything. It goes everywhere. It’s as faithful as a dog, strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat.” Pyle was killed by machine gun fire while taking a Jeep to see troops on a small Pacific island near Guam on April 18, 1945.
GP-No.1 is on display in the Veteran’s Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Ala. The museum and the Historic Vehicle Association just finished verifying its history and documenting that GP-01 is one of five original test vehicles – two from Ford, two from Willys Overland and one from American Bantam.
Originally called the “Pygmy” and built and tested by Ford engineers in Dearborn and Detroit, GP-No.1 is the only one of those prototypes known to still exist in North America.
The Pygmy had features that remain prominent on Jeeps today, including the upright grille with vertical slots that are literally the brand’s trademark, Historic Vehicle Association president Mark Gessler said.
“The government didn’t really know what it wanted,” when Jeep development began, Fiat Chrysler historian Brandt Rosenbuch said. The Army began work on specifications for a light four-wheel-drive reconnaissance vehicle in 1937 with American Bantam of Butler, Penn.
“Bantam deserves the vast majority of the credit for developing the basic concept and capabilities that became the Jeep,” Historic Vehicle Association president Mark Gessler said.
Henry Ford was a staunch pacifist with little interest in the war brewing overseas, but he thought a little four-wheel-drive vehicle could be useful for agriculture, one of his passions. His more globally minded son Edsel used that opening to spearhead the GP-No.1 project, beginning a process that would see Ford become a vital supplier of wartime equipment.
The Army evaluated hundreds of vehicles from Bantam, Ford and Willys. It cherry-picked the best features of each to create the military-spec Jeep, a vehicle of unrivaled durability and capability.
“It was the finest engineering of the day,” Rosenbuch said. “The Jeep brought together everything the best minds in Toledo and Detroit could create.”
Willys built 362,894 wartime Jeeps, all at its headquarters plant in Toledo, Ohio. Ford built 285,660, initially at the Rouge plant in Detroit that today produces F-150 pickups. Ford later added Jeep production in several other plants around the country, including Louisville, KY, where it still builds pickups and SUVs.
American Bantam got the short end of the stick, building just 2,676 Jeeps. The Army threw the little company a bone with a contract to build the trailers that hauled equipment behind Jeeps.
The Jeep remained in military service for decades, but it was popular with civilians before the guns of WWII even fell silent. Willys got special permission to begin building civilian Jeeps months before other automakers were allowed to switch from wartime production and resume their usual businesses.
“It was initially marketed as a farm vehicle,” Rosenbuch said. “That’s why the government allowed civilian production, to help get the economy up and running after the war.”
Henry Ford donated GP-No.1 to the museum that bears his name in Dearborn in 1948. It remained there, getting surprisingly little attention, until the museum sold it and some other “minor” items from its collection in 1982.
History buff Randy Withrow of Huntsville snapped it up.
“It gave me a chill,” he said. “I couldn’t believe they’d auction it off.
“It’s a survivor. People come to the museum from all over the world specifically to see that Jeep. It’s the one that started it all.”
Contact Mark Phelan: [email protected] or 313-222-6731. Follow him on Twitter @mark_phelan.
Where to see GP-No.1
U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum, 2060 Airport Rd SW, Huntsville, AL 35801
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. (Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day)
$5 Donation for Adults; $4 Donation for Seniors; $3 Donation for Students under 18. Active Duty in Uniform and Guests Free
http://www.memorialmuseum.org/ or (256) 883-3737
Ownership History of America’s Oldest Known Jeep
1940 Ford builds Pilot Model GP – No. 1 (Called “Pygmy”)
Nov. 23, 1940 Delivered by Ford to the U.S. Army Camp Holabird in Baltimore for testing. Ford maintained ownership.
Dec. 9, 1948 Henry Ford II gifts the vehicle to The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.
Sep. 19, 1982 Sold to Randall Withrow at the Hudson & Marshall, Inc. “The Auction by Edison Institute at the Henry Ford Museum at
Greenfield Village” in Dearborn, Mich.
Circa 1987 Randall Withrow gifts the vehicle to the U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Ala. where it is the
centerpiece of the museum’s collection military artifacts and other military vehicles.
Source: Historic Vehicle Association
Specifications of 1940 Ford “Pygmy” prototype GP-No.1
- Vehicle type: Quarter-ton four-wheel-drive reconnaissance truck
- Curb weight: Approximately 2,150 pounds
- 42 horsepower Ford 119.5 cubic-inch four-cylinder modified tractor engine
- Spicer transfer case and axles
- Suspension: beam axles on leaf springs
- Length: 133 inches
- Width: 59 inches
- Height: 59 inches