By Roger Gaisford

1007  The pilot model Willys the Quad  November 1940

With the Union Defence Force preferring to use Ford V8s back in the day, the classic WWII-developed Willys MB jeep is rare in South Africa. However, a small number found their way down and are sought after today. While studying at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1967, I managed to get my hands on one.

At the time the jeep was used by engineering students to lure student teachers and nurses on bouts of bad behaviour in Braamfontein and Hillbrow. I was enamoured with the idea of a vehicle which could explore unknown Africa, and the jeep seemed just the thing. I managed to buy it by flashing money I had wheedled out of my brother. R220 changed hands and I drove the jeep home to Irene.

The jeep had the Union Defence Force number U 47521 stamped on its scuttle. On disposal it was bought by a fellow in Hermanus to use on fishing trips before his engineering student son took it to Joburg. It proved to be a mechanical potjie pot with years of being thrashed taking toll: front axle was bent by a boulder and replaced with a CJ2A unit which had a differential ratio of 5.38:1 while the rear axle was the original with a differential ratio of 4.88. The gearbox, which had ills, was also from a CJ2A but fortunately I had been given a workshop manual in the deal, so became a regular customer at Main Spares in Johannesburg’s Harrison Street.

Later, a jeep-mad fellow by the name of Eugen Nick came knocking, saying he wanted the MB and I sold it to him for enough for me to buy a very good Willys CJ2A Jeep. This was a 1948 model which I still own and with which I have had great adventures. Eugen did a wonderful restoration back to its WWII glory days on his, and regularly used it on rallies and twice, in 1984 and ‘94, shipped it, together with his Ford GPA Amphibious jeep, to France for the D-Day landing commemorations. These old veterans of the Second World War are much sought after and command high prices, so how did these interesting machines come about?

1001 My first jeep a 1943 Willys MB  Bait for pretty students
Before: Gaisford’s first jeep, a 1943 Willys MB as a student car.
1002  Never ending mechanical fiddling
MB needed never-ending mechanical fiddling.
1003  My old 1943 Willys MB  Beautifully rebuilt by Eugen Nick
After: Following a beautiful rebuild by Eugen Nick.
1004  Eugen Nick in his 1943 Willys MB on Old Trucks Babanango  Proof she has twice been to Normady
Eugen Nick in his 1943 Willys MB on Old Trucks Babanango.

The outbreak of WWII in September 1939 saw the German Army overrun Poland, Holland, Belgium and France. With this on the go, the US President made a proclamation to increase the size of the Army and the US Quartermaster issued a specification to American motor manufacturing concerns for vehicles. As part of this process, 135 companies were asked to tender on production of a prototype lightweight cross-country vehicle.

Rewind a bit to 1937, when Major Robert Howie and Sergeant Melvin Wiley developed a light cross-country vehicle that, thanks to a low-profile platform running on fat little tyres (its only suspension) was said to perform like a ‘snake in the grass’. With no bodywork and powered by a rear-mounted Austin Seven engine, the Howie-Wiley Carrier was capable of about 45km/h while the driver and gunner lay on mattresses. Not surprisingly, the device became known as the ‘Belly Flopper’, but the Howie-Wiley Carrier idea intrigued the Army. This meant that the 1939 lightweight reconnaissance car tender was based on the Belly Flopper’s dimensions. It needed to carry 275kg, have a wheelbase of 2.03 metres, be less than a metre high, use a four-cylinder engine pulling from 8kph to 80kph and be four-wheel drive with low ratio. The gross vehicle weight was to be below 590kg. What’s more, a prototype had to be available for testing within 49 days from 22 July 1940. With such criteria there was little interest shown and only the American Bantam Car Company, which built Austin Sevens under licence, and Willys Overland responded.

Almost bankrupt, American Bantam was the first to seize the challenge because the possibility of a contract had great appeal. An army delegation visited the firm and viewed a stripped Bantam chassis in action. Its performance was cause for optimism and three Bantams were given to the Philadelphia National Guard for testing. Robert Brown, a civilian engineer attached to the military vehicle testing ground at Camp Holabird, then joined Roy Evans and Harold Crist of American Bantam to aid further development and realised that the vehicle would have to be all-new, as the Austin components were too flimsy.

1015  The Toyota AK 10 of 1942  Based on captured Bantam BRC 40 jeeps
Toyota AK 10 of 1942 based on captured Bantam BRC 40 jeeps.
1010  A willys MB jeep on Utah beach at 6 30 on the morning of 6 June 1979
A Willys MB jeep on Utah beach on the morning of 6 June 1979.
1018  Jeep modified as used by SAS in North Africa 1942-1943
Jeep modified as used by SAS in North Africa 1942-1943.
1017  Ford GPW jeep seen at Arromanche Normandy 2004
Ford GPW jeep seen at Arromanches Normandy in 2004.

Final bids and specifications were presented by Bantam and Willys at a meeting at Camp Holabird. Only Bantam provided drawings of their proposed vehicle but representatives from Crossley and the Ford Motor Company were present. Bantam won the contract on price, initially calculated for 70 vehicles and promising a test unit within 49 days. Realising that the vehicle was vital to the US Army, the Quartermaster made Bantam’s drawings available to Willys, Crossley and Ford.

Over the next weeks a new Bantam chassis and body were fabricated. Spicer engineers developed axles, a narrowed Studebaker Champion back with the differential offset to the right, and the same axle modified with swivel housings and CV joints to provide front wheel drive and steering. Spicer also developed a transfer case to drive to the rear axle for normal travel, or drive to the front axle as well, for four-wheel drive, and a low ratio, for very rough going. Power came from the four-cylinder 1700cc Y 4112 Continental which produced 45 horsepower at 3500rpm and was commonly found in forklifts. The Bantam Reconnaissance Car (BRC) took shape, but the initial weight criteria demanded by the Army proved unrealistic as the Bantam weighed in at over 860kg.

On 23 September 1940 the test Bantam was driven 370km over mountainous roads to Camp Holabird in Maryland, beating the 17:00 hour deadline by 30 minutes. The first jeep was alive! Over three weeks this was tested for 5 500km cross country and along rough tracks. While testing, the weight debate was resolved and a new maximum of 980kg set when a sergeant got four soldiers to lift the Bantam from a mud hole. Engineers from Willys and Ford were present during the testing.

As a result of the BRC’s performance, American Bantam was given the order for the further 70 vehicles, these to incorporate various improvements. In the meantime, Willys and Ford worked on a pilot model of their Reconnaissance Car.

Willys Overland had experience producing cars powered by their proven 2.2-litre side-valve engine designed in 1924 for the Whippet car. Realising that to remain competitive, it needed a new engine, but, short on capital, they contracted engineer Barney Roos to improve the existing unit. Testing the original engine flat-out for seven hours showed signs of wear. He replaced the cast-iron pistons with aluminium ones, improved the crankshaft, bearings, breathing, lubrication and cooling and the result proved astonishing, running 150 hours without any sign of wear. This engine, now called the ‘Go Devil’, outperformed the opposition and Willys won the contract for the Reconnaissance Car.

Axles and transfer case were Spicer units as used on the Bantam, but with the differential offset to the left. Gearbox was a Warner T 84 three-speed with synchromesh on second and top, as used on the Bantam. The Willys car, known as the Quad, was delivered to Camp Holabird in mid-November 1940. The Army found the car unwieldy and a lot heavier than the Bantam, but the engine left its competitors in the dust.

1019  Ford GPW  This one in Pietermaritzburg
Ford GPW in Pietermaritzburg.
1009  Ford GP 119cu inch engine  Half a 3 9 Mercury V8
Ford GP 119 cubic inch engine.
1012  An MB jeep at Arromanche in Normandy 7 June 2004  1943 Diamond T wrecker behind
MB jeep at Arromanches in Normandy in June 2004.
1008  A Ford GP one of 4500 produced in 1941  Seen at the Land Rover Show at Billing Northampton 2005
Ford GP, one of 4 500 produced in 1941. Seen in 2005.

The Ford Motor Company delivered their prototype, the Pygmy, to Camp Holabird two weeks after the Willys. This was powered by a modified Ferguson Dearborn tractor engine, the NNA 119.5 C10 of 1939cc good for 45bhp at 3600rpm. Gearbox was a modified Ford Model A unit, a three-speed without synchromesh. Axles and transfer case were Spicer but with differential offset to the right as on the Bantam.

In March 1941, American Bantam, Ford and Willys were given orders for 1 500 improved models. All three had observed their competitors’ vehicles during testing, and incorporated aspects of their designs into their vehicles. The Ford Pygmy was praised for its flat bonnet, which could be used as a table, and flat grille which protected the radiator and headlights. Ford headlights were also mounted on brackets which could be swung backwards to illuminate the engine compartment for maintenance. The Bantam BRC 40, the Ford GP and Willys MA all looked fairly similar, but because of its outstanding engine, the Willys outperformed the others. Vehicles were sent to bases around the US, incorporated with motorcycles, Dodge ½ ton 4x4s, and White Scout Cars fleets.

In July 1941 the US Army placed an order for 16 000 Reconnaissance Cars. Ford was initially favoured because of its massive production facilities, in spite of the Willys having better performance and slightly cheaper price: $748.74 as opposed to $788.32. However, Bill Knudsen, President of General Motors, who had been asked by President Roosevelt to head War Production, was of the opinion that Willys was quite able to handle production, so the contract went to Willys for an improved MA, the MB. This was the jeep that from November 1941, first appeared in general service, the jeep now famous.

1013  A slat grille Willys MB one of the first 25000 built  Seen at Ste Marie Eglise Normandy 2004
A slat grille Willys MB, one of the first 25 000 built.
1020  Ford GPW nomenclature plate  This one delivered 17 September 1941  From early 1942 Ford licence produced the Willys MB as the Ford GPW
Ford GPW nomenclature plate. This one delivered 17 September 1941.

Ford produced some 4 500 GPs before production stopped. However, realising that the US Army and allies needed large numbers of the little vehicles, Ford co-produced the Willys MB, and so in January 1942, the Ford GPW (GP Willys) saw the light of day, identical to the Willys MB, with all parts being interchangeable. However, Henry Ford was determined that American boys must know they were in a Ford, so every individual component of the GPW was stamped with the Ford ‘F’ script. Both early production Willys and Ford jeeps had the manufacturer’s name stamped on the lower left of the rear body panel. Later a jerry can bracket was fitted there and the stamping deleted. The first 25 000 MBs built were known as flat grilles from the radiator grille made of flat bar. Ford grilles, however, were stamped from sheet metal. From April 1942 Willys incorporated the Ford GPW-style grille on the MB, the grille so familiar today. Between November 1941 and September 1945, 358 489 Willys MBs were built while 277 896 Ford GPWs were manufactured by end of production in July 1945.

Because of limited production facilities American Bantam, having fathered the jeep, was not given further orders for their BRC 40 other than completing another 1 000 for supply to the Russians and Dutch. But the firm did secure a contract to build trailers for the jeep, the MBT, supplying 73 689 by the end of the war.

And the name ‘jeep’? Those who know little declare it comes from the Ford GP, the so-called General Purpose. However, ‘GP’ does not stand for General Purpose. ‘GP’ was Ford’s production code for the vehicle: ‘G’ for Government issue, and ‘P’ the code for 80-inch wheelbase. Another argument is that the jeep got its name from a doglike creature in the Popeye comic which could do anything, go anywhere and never got tired. A number of other versatile pieces of US Military equipment were also known as jeeps – one was a large six-wheel-drive Minneapolis Moline tractor, so too the Dodge 4x4 ½ tonners and a light twin-engined aircraft built by Curtiss.

Jeep, with a capital J is the trademark registered by Willys Overland. The civilian CJ2A, first produced in July 1945, was known as a jeep, but it was only after a long legal battle with Ford over the use of the name Jeep, that Willys won the right in 1948 to use the name with a capital J as their trademark. The Bantam, Ford and Willys Reconnaissance Cars produced during the War and referred to as jeeps, are annotated with a small j.

Bantams were the first jeeps to see action, some serving in 1941 with Dutch forces in Java. A number of captured Bantams were sent to Japan for evaluation, resulting in the military authorities tasking Toyota with building a similar vehicle. The result was the Toyota AK10 of 1942. Powered by a four-cylinder engine through a three-speed box and suspended on quarter elliptic springs, the vehicle needed development but was however the beginning of great things.

The Russians too, got into the action. As a result of the supply of jeeps to Russia, Stalin ordered a similar vehicle to be produced. This saw light of day in 1943 as the GAZ 67. GAZ produced cars and trucks based on the Ford Model A, the tooling bought from the Germans when the Ford Cologne factory began production of the Model B. So the GAZ 67 is little more than a four-wheel-drive Model A in disguise. Powered by the famous Model A 3.2-litre side-valve four, driving through a Model A three-speed non-synchromesh gearbox and modified Ford axles, it is an archaic and basic vehicle but a simple, good performer.

The British also fiddled with jeep-type vehicles, some being lightweight machines powered by motorbike engines, and others based on a standard pickup chassis, but with only two-wheel drive.

The Jeep. So much from the small beginnings of the Belly Flopper.

  • Views  2,272
  • 5
  • Comments  0

Add a Comment

Login or register to start a conversation.

Latest Motoring Articles

Browse our classic cars on auction
Visit Auctions
Inviting auction consignments
Selling Guide