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Oldest Army jeep finally gets some TLC

Seventy-five years after it impressed the Army, the oldest known jeep is getting some much needed attention.

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 GP designation is believed by many to have hatched the name "jeep."

The Pygmy had features that remain prominent on Fiat Chrysler's Jeep brand 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," Gessler said.

In this photo taken on Monday, Feb. 3, 2014, World War I British trenches are preserved at Hill 62, Sanctuary Wood in Ypres, Belgium. The farmer who owned the site was required to leave his land in 1914 when the war began. After returning to reclaim the land much was cleared away, but he maintained to keep a large section of British trench. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
In this photo taken on Monday, Feb. 3, 2014, World War I British trenches are preserved at Hill 62, Sanctuary Wood in Ypres, Belgium. The farmer who owned the site was required to leave his land in 1914 when the war began. After returning to reclaim the land much was cleared away, but he maintained to keep a large section of British trench. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

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.

"It's an icon of World War II and a symbol of wartime production by the auto industry," said Matt Anderson, transportation curator at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. "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."

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, Kentucky, 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.

When Soldiers from Headquarters Company, 15th Infantry come to a bad spot with their
When Soldiers from Headquarters Company, 15th Infantry come to a bad spot with their "Blitz Buggies," they just pick them up and move them. The Jep was the latest in battlefield equipment early in world war II. Fort Lewis Military Museum

When soldiers from Headquarters Company, 15th Infantry come to a bad spot with their "Blitz Buggies," they just picked them up and move them. The Jeep was the latest in battlefield equipment early in World War II.

Photo Credit: Army

The Jeep remained in military service for decades, but it was popular with civilians before the guns of World War II 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.

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

Source: Historic Vehicle Association

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