Celebrating the GP – The Willys MB and Ford GPW
Celebrating the GP – The Willys MB and Ford GPW
By Justin Banner
Celebrating Memorial Day and the upcoming 75th D-Day Anniversary, let’s take the time to appreciate the original Jeeps – the Bantam BRC, the Willys MB and Ford GPW.
We all probably take it for granted that our beloved Jeep brand has been around for our entire lives. At least those of us who were born after 1945. However, the Jeep as both a brand and a vehicle, wasn’t born out of a civilian need but rather a military one. Other than the Hummer, not many road vehicles can say they were made as a military vehicle first and a civilian one after like a Jeep can.
Prior to World War II
The need arose from the wants of the US Military infantries with the following basic requirements – low, powerful, and have four-wheel-drive. This wasn’t an overnight development, though, as the process started before we – the US – even entered into World War II. Pack mules and horses worked for previous wars but General John Pershing wanted his cavalry to move quicker, farther, and with more people on board.
That’s not to say we didn’t have 4WD vehicles in use in the military before the Jeep. The 1914 Thomas B. Jeffery Company Quad (becoming the Nash Quad in 1916 when they bought the Jeffery company) was an early example of use of a 4WD vehicle including World War I to replace four-mule teams for 1.5-ton loads. The Four Wheel Drive Auto Company provided three-ton Model B as early as 1916 and the Pancho Villa Expedition.
The problems with those were weight and speed that the infantry needed. While the Quad was a 1.5-ton capable 4WD vehicle and lighter than the Model B, the Infantry were looking for lighter, 1/4-ton capacity 4x4s. In March of 1933, the Army bought an American Austin Car Company – specifically a “Baby Austin” – as a preliminary test vehicle. Once this vehicle tests were terminated, it was salvaged.
It, however, struck a chord as noted in the November-December 1937 issue of Infantry Journal written by Captain Wendell G. Johnson, “What is wanted is merely a gasoline-propelled conveyance not much higher than a man crawling that will be able to carry a one- or two-man crew, a gun, and plenty of ammunition, and scoot from one firing position to another at 5 to 10 miles an hour.”
The Belly Flopper
In late 1936 to April of 1937, a test carrier was built under the supervision of Captain Robert G. Howie, who was an instructor in the Tank Section of the Infantry School in Fort Benning, Georgia, with Master Sergeant M. C. Wiley working with him. Master Sergeant Wiley was credited as a “another long-time tanker and expert mechanic.” Nicknamed the “Belly Flopper,” the Howie-Wiley Machine Gun Carrier was a hand-made vehicle using scrap parts.
It held a crew of two soldiers, one as a driver and the other as a machine gunner, that rode in a prone position with its engine in the rear. It wasn’t 4WD, but it did power the rear wheels. It did this by using a common front-wheel-drive method at the time. The rear axle was connected directly to the transmission output shaft and the hubs would rotate a chain drive mechanism leading back to the rear wheels. Up front, a solid steering axle was used and turned using a simple rudder mechanism. Much of it was made from old Austin and Dodge cars and Captain Howie financing it himself.
It was also the only Army-built vehicle during this entire development lead-up to the Jeep. Despite better than expected performance, it was noted that it was too low for cross-country travel and too light for rough use. The US Army had decided to opt for development of a more conventional, seated passenger design.
The Requirements are Made Known
While the Belly Flopper was in development, the Army’s requirements for the US Army Truck, 1/4-ton, 4x4, Command Reconnaissance were finally made to be known. A committee of military and civilian engineers came up with the basic requirements and another vehicle was needed. In late 1937, the Army ordered a small car from American Bantam Car Company for preliminary engineering and testing of those specifications. It was assembled and delivered to the Holabird Quartermaster Depot (Fort Holabird) in Baltimore, Maryland. This was the location of the center for research and development of military vehicles.
The Bantam designed vehicle was based nearly entirely from the drawings created by the Holabird Depot. It was named the Bantam Reconnaissance Car (BRC). Showing early Toledo, Ohio heritage, the axles and transfer case of the Bantam were made by Spicer Manufacturing Corporation. Initially, Willys-Overland was the only other manufacturer to enter the development competition with the Quad. That is, until November 1940 when Ford joined in with a pre-production model of their own, the “Pygmy.”
Despite how most military contracts and developments go, this was truly a group effort. Lt. E. P. Hogan of the US Quartermaster Corps, the branch who supplies all branches of the US Military to this day, wrote in the September-October 1941 issue of The Quartermaster Review, “Credit for the original design of the Army’s truck 1/4-ton, 4x4, may not be claimed by any single individual or manufacturer. The vehicle is the result of much research and many tests.”
Bantam Follies Opens the Contract
Despite offering a lower bid, Willys was penalized for needing more time for production and Bantam received the first contract. They tried to keep production costs and time down by using as many parts that they already produced for their vehicles as well as common production parts from other manufacturers. However, it wasn’t all roses for Bantam. At the time, they had only restarted production after becoming American Bantam, the reorganized name of American Austin after filing bankruptcy in 1935.
Unfortunately, this resulted in lowered production ability and tighter fiscal constraints for Bantam. When this was revealed, Ford and Willys were encouraged to enter evolutions of their pilot designs based on the blueprints made by Bantam in 1941. The Army argued they owned the blueprints and Bantam, due to their dire financial position, didn’t dispute it. The Willy Quad and Ford “Pygmy” then entered the pilot program.
When the Army finally required 75 of these infantry vehicles per day, Bantam showed it could not meet the demand with their BRC 40 production that had stared in late March of 1941. This forced the Army to additionally award the contract to both Ford and Willys to meet the demand. Bantam wasn’t totally out of the war effort, though, as they would produce BRC 40s and the T-3 trailer for the Willys and Ford Jeeps. Bantam would continue building two-wheel trailers until it was taken over by American Rolling Mill Company (ARMCO) in 1956, now known as AK Steel when it changed its name 1993.
Side Note: The Flying Jeep
The jeep seen flying with a 37mm anti-tank gun with a three-man crew isn’t a Willys or Ford. This is a Bantam BRC. These jeeps were highly regarded by the men who drove them during testing and their strengths were far better than either Ford or Willys as it was lighter than the Ford and more powerful that the Willys.
So impressive was this feat, it’s said this poster was made using that BRC test as its inspiration. Makes you wonder what would have happened if Bantam was able to produce the jeep in the numbers the Army needed.
Willys and Ford GPs
Prior to production, the Quad was upgraded and found a way to lose another 240-pounds of weight. With so many detail changes, the Willys Quad was renamed the MA or Military model A. The Ford Pygmy would also be renamed as the GP, were “G” stood for Government contract car and “P” reflecting a vehicle with a wheelbase of 80-inches.
While the Ford was the better build and design, the Willys was favored over the GP because of the L134 “Go Devil” inline-four engine. At around 60-horsepower, the L134 was more powerful than the tractor-based Ford N that was only 18.4-horsepower.
In 1941, the War Department desired to standardize further and went back to only having a single manufacturer, in which Willys won because of its more powerful engine. However, advantages that the Bantam BRC and Ford GP had displayed were incorporated into the Willys build, like the flatter, wider hood of the GP. Once the MA was in production, it was changed to the MB designation.
However, by October of 1941, Willys revealed they could not meet the demand placed on them by the Army. Ford was once again awarded a contract to make up for the lack of production by Willys and appointed their production Jeep as the GPW. The “W” was a reference to Willys owning the license to the design and engine, so, yes, Ford GPWs used the Go Devil engine.
Interchangeability and Differences of the MB and GPW
Both the Ford GPW and the Willys MB were built so that parts were interchangeable. This was made easier by sourcing parts from the same manufacturers, like the Kelsey-Hayes wheels and axles and transfer cases from Spicer.
However, there were differences. The Ford used an inverted, U-shaped front cross member over Willys’ tubular bar. Ford parts were also stamped with the “F” from Ford’s logo. For a long time, the MB used a grill with bar slats until the bodies were unified in design with Ford’s stamped grille.
You’d even see the Ford script or Willys block on the left-rear panel of the body tub. This was stopped by mid-1942. Another difference was how the depression for the rear wheel well toolboxes was shaped. Fords had a rectangular depression while the Willys had a circular one. The Ford toolboxes also had an embossed lid where the Willys was a flat cover. The gussets that attached the firewall to the frame also had a small script “F” stamped into them in GPWs while also having rounded corners and three large holes in them.
This led to the final unification was the bodies as up until late 1943, Willys and Ford used bodies they produced. In early 1944, the bodies came from a single source – American Central Manufacturing Company. They are referred to as “composite” bodies but they are steel. The name comes from the face that both Ford and Willys designs were made into the jeep body. These bodies had round toolbox depressions and rounded, three-hole gussets. However, any parts that were bolted on were still unique to Ford and Willys production. So, Ford toolboxes had the embossed lids, for example.
What’s in a Name?
What we call a Jeep today is obviously extremely far removed from the jeep of WWII. So, where did the name come from? Well, nobody has a single, locked down answer to that question. There are several sources and all of them could be the reason without being a single one.
Some say it comes from Popeye’s “jungle pet,” Eugene the Jeep, who would also make a “jeep” noise when it spoke. It gets attached to the GPW and MB, but jeep was also used to describe many different vehicles used during the war. Any vehicle that was capable, dependable, and solved seemingly impossible problems would potentially be called a “jeep” during WWII.
”Jeep” was also used as early as World War I for describing new recruits and personnel who were still wet behind the ears. Mechanics would also call prototypes and untested vehicles “jeeps.” The other explanation comes from the phonic slang of “GP” from General Purpose and the Ford GPW. Much like how the acronym HMMWV became “Humvee,” “GP” can be simplified down to sounding out “jep.”
Jeep, as a Brand, is Born
What none will argue is that Willys cemented the word to their MB. In advertising from 1942, Willys proclaimed it had created and perfected the jeep despite the first was the Bantam BRC and the Willys MB coming from those plans. By 1943, they had trademarked the word and Jeep as a brand was born. However, what made the Jeep what it’s known for today comes from its work in World War II. Pulizer Prize-winning war journalist, Ernie Pyle once wrote, “It does everything. It goes everywhere. It's as faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule and as agile as a goat. It constantly carries twice what it was designed for, and still keeps on going.”
In a combined total between Ford and Willys, there were 643,000 produced just for the war. However, the total of all jeeps made between 1940 to 1964 – including the pilot versions, the amphibious Ford GPA, and post-war M38/M38A1, M606, and M170 – totaled nearly 1-million units.
This is what makes the Jeep, quite possibly, the best recognized vehicle in the world. One look and you know something is a Jeep. You may not know a TJ from a YJ, but you won’t mistake it for anything else but being a Jeep.