The city of Huntsville, AL, is home to the US Space and Rocket Center, which not only houses an incredible “NASA Visitor Center”, but also the “Payload Operations Center” of the International Space Station. Definitely worth a whole day visit (the NASA museum is open to all, but the launch pads and the rocket engine test areas are inside the perimeter of a US Army base – only US Citizens are authorized to enter).
In another part of Huntsville, you will also find the US Veterans Memorial Museum. Entrance is free (a donation is expected, though) and it’s staffed by volunteers. Don’t expect a fancy facility – it’s a windowless and rather small warehouse, and it’s seriously cramped. But besides an impressive collection of personal weapons and uniforms of WWII and of the Korean and Vietnam wars, they have approximately thirty military vehicles on exhibit, and in particular, a unique collection of very early Jeeps.
The history of the Jeep is a subject of controversy, but I’ll stick to the non-disputed facts, as they relate to the different prototypes and early models shown in Huntsville.
The very first prototype of the “4×4 ¼ ton reconnaissance truck” that would later be known as “the Jeep” was designed and assembled by a small company named the “American Bantam Car Company”, in response to a Request for Proposal (RFP) issued by the US Military in June 1940. The Willys-Overland company had also sent a response, but was not down selected because the delivery calendar they had proposed did not meet the Army’s requirements. Ford had shown interest (they had sent observers to the bid opening) but had not submitted a response to the RFP.
In line with the RFP requirements, the Bantam BRC “pilot” (their prototype) was delivered to the US Army for tests in late September 1940. That prototype is lost.
The US military did not trust Bantam (it was a financially fragile, 15 people outfit that had stopped manufacturing new cars by the time they responded to the RFP) and they asked Ford and Willys to work on their own version of the ¼ ton truck, on their own dime. As per the procurement rules, the US Government owned the plans of the Bantam prototype, and they may have let Ford and Willys have a peek at them – but that’s a discussion for another day.
The hard facts are that Willys delivered their prototype, the Quad, on November 11th, and that one also is lost. Ford delivered their GP #1 prototype (often named the “Pigmy”) at the end of the same month. It’s the oldest surviving ancestor of the Jeep, and it’s on display in Huntsville.
Bantam were still one step ahead at that time. Their “pilot” had met the requirements of the June RFP, and they received the green light to build a first series of 69 pre-production Bantam BRC-60 models. They were to be distributed to the different branches of the Army for further evaluation. All BRC-60s are lost, except for one, which now belongs to the Smithsonian Institute.
Having tested the Willys and Ford prototypes, and deployed the 69 pre-production Bantams in different units, the Army had a better idea of what it needed. A set of revised requirements was published, and 1,500 units were ordered from each of the three competitors, for an in-depth field evaluation. The revised trucks, the Bantam BRC-40, the Ford GP and the Willys MA were delivered in the requested quantities to the armed forces during the summer of 1941. The Veterans Museum has a copy of each of them, parked next to each other.
They had been designed to meet the same requirements, and looked very similar from the outside, but the engines, the gearboxes and the chassis were specific to each model – which explain the differences in performance noted by the testers.
Having extensively tested those 4,500 little trucks (by that time, the 4×4 1/4 ton reconnaissance trucks were already known as “Jeeps”), the Army decided to standardize on a single model. They asked for an offer for 16,000 more Jeeps – winner takes it all, and subsequently down selected Willys. They requested a few more changes, of course, and Willys-Overland obliged by delivering what would be known universally as the Jeep Willys MB. The Museum has an early “slat grill” MB, the one with the iron slats grill instead of the well known “nine slot” stamped grill.
Just before Pearl Harbor, concerned that they would need more Jeeps than Willys alone could manufacture, the US military asked Ford to become the second supplier for the standardized Jeep. Manufactured under a license, the Ford GPW is virtually identical to the Willys MB, and therefore significantly different from Ford’s own earlier GP (the Army kept on insisting that all parts needed to be interchangeable between the Willys MB and Ford GPW).
Therefore, when Ford proposed to replace the heavy iron slats grill of the early MBs with an easier to manufacture and lighter stamped “9 slot grill”, Willys adopted it as well. After the war, Willys trade-marked a 7 slot derivative of the 9 slot design, which is still used on the Jeep Wrangler to this day.
The Museum also houses post WWII military Jeeps (M38, M38A1), a Mighty Mite, several versions of the M151 (the “Mutt”), as well as a prototype of the Humvee. Larger combat vehicles (tanks, half-tracks, armored personal carriers) are also displayed.
Don’t expect to be able to take great pictures of those trucks – the exhibition area is too cramped, the lighting not very good, and the models are partially masked by retractable crowd control belts and by all sorts of paraphernalia. But having the opportunity to approach all those early Jeeps in a single place is a still something unique. Definitely worth a visit.