Ever since I was a kid growing up in Oklahoma, the one thing I’ve hoped to find under the tree on Christmas morning more than anything else was a Jeep. And, I didn’t want just any ol’ Jeep. I’ve always wanted a 1945 Ford “script” Jeep, one of the World War II era quarter ton trucks manufactured for the U.S. military and that served in combat theaters around the world (the “script refers to the Ford name affixed to all the parts). It was the vehicle that established Jeep as a brand and as a trademark and served as the jumping off point for ensuing decades of sport utility vehicles manufactured by almost every automobile maker in the U.S.
Recently, the oldest known Jeep, officially designated GP-No.1, was put on display in the Veteran’s Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Alabama after the museum and the Historic Vehicle Association 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.
GP-No.1 was originally called the “Pygmy” and was built and tested by Ford engineers in Michigan to U.S. Army specifications. Shortly before the Second World War, the Army began work on specifications for a light four-wheel-drive reconnaissance vehicle in 1937 with American Bantam, but Bantam was a relatively small company and couldn’t satisfy the Army’s production requirements during a war economy.
Bantam certainly deserves the credit for developing the basic concept and capabilities that became the Jeep, but other companies, including Ford Motor Co. eventually were contracted to provide the bulk of the Jeeps produced for the war. By war’s end, Willys had built 362,894 Jeeps, Ford built 285,660, and American Bantam got the short end of the stick, building just 2,676 Jeeps. The Army threw Bantam a bone with a contract to build the trailers that hauled equipment behind the Jeeps.
Now, GP-No. 1 is the only one of the original prototypes known to still exist in North America. Shrouded in some mystery, many believe the GP designation led to the name “jeep” affixed by GI’s who affixed their own unique names to virtually all of their wartime equipment. Nevertheless, looking at the Pygmy, it’s easy to pick out certain features that remain prominent on Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep brand today, including the upright grille with vertical slots. Quite literally, the vertical slats are the basis for the brand’s most recognizable trademark.
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.
Henry Ford donated GP-No.1 to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan in 1948. It remained there, getting surprisingly little attention, until the museum sold it and some other “minor” items from its collection in 1982 to a private collector who then donated it to the Veteran’s Memorial Museum.
Why It Matters. Most companies take pride in their trademarks and many can trace the history of their most prominent marks back to a founder or iconic product. But, it is highly unusual to be able to trace an entire class of goods, in this case SUV’s, to a single product and for that first product to also serve as the basis for the very trademarks that define it. The Jeep is an icon of World War II, a symbol of wartime production by the auto industry, and the grandfather of all SUV’s.