Anyone can restore a classic Jeep like a Ford GPW or Willys MB with the right care, research, and access to parts. However, if you want to make the most out of this project, consider reading up on interesting facts you didn’t know about the first Jeeps. Familiarizing yourself with the legacy of the Jeep you’re restoring makes the whole process feel more important and fulfilling.
They’ve Been Around Since WWII
Many folks today think of modern models like the Wrangler when they hear the term “Jeep.” However, the Wrangler was far from being the first Jeep. Over 40 years before the arrival of the original Wrangler, the Willys MB helped U.S. troops maneuver the battlefield with ease and efficiency.
During the U.S. Army’s search for a suitable manufacturer of light-reconnaissance vehicles before World War II, the Willys threw their name into the hat. After the Willys MB hit the battlefield in 1941, it quickly became a beloved vehicle, starting a legacy that continues today.
Although the Willys MB is technically the first Jeep, there were two models before it. However, the Willys “Quad” was merely a prototype, and the Willys MA saw very little use, ultimately leading to the creation of the far better MB.
The Two-Day Design
Although Willys was the winner of the military’s contract for producing light-reconnaissance vehicles, Ford and Bantam were massively helpful in designing and building these Jeeps. It was Bantam’s Karl Probst who was the key designer behind the first Jeep. Since Bantam was trying to win the military contract, Probst put together the design specifications for the manufacturer’s prototype in merely two days.
Unfortunately for Bantam, the U.S. Army sought further help from larger companies to sustain their production needs. For this reason, the Army took Bantam’s designs to Ford and Willys, who brought their ideas to the table too.
The First Jeep Outdates the First Civilian Jeep
Despite the Jeep origins beginning in WWII, the first Jeep for U.S. citizens would not arrive until after the war. In 1945, the CJ-2A finally hit U.S. roads. Well, sort of. “CJ” stands for “civilian Jeep,” but the target audience for this model was farmers. The CJ-2A is a Jeep with the capability to attach to various farming equipment, making work in the field more efficient. The 1948 Jeepster was the first model to really take aim at the everyday American driver.
An Iconic Name With a Mysterious Origin
If you ask a large group of Jeep fans where the term “Jeep” comes from, you’ll hear many different theories. For such an iconic vehicle, it’s surprising that the origins of its title remain a mystery 40 years later.
For instance, the prototypes Jeeps Ford sent to the Army originally carried the signifying moniker “GP.” Understandably, some people thought GP was an acronym for the phrase “General Purpose.” In fact, it’s not rare to come across folks who still assume that to be the case. The truth is that GP isn’t quite the acronym you might think it is.
The letter G is there to signify the vehicle is government property. The P, on the other hand, is an indication of the Jeep’s 80-inch wheelbase. That being said, even with the knowledge of what GP means, it’s possible that it was the cause for the “Jeep” moniker, but there’s no concrete proof to support that.
One of the strangest theories is that the term “Jeep” came from a comic book character. This theory isn’t strange due to it being unbelievable—it’s strange because it’s believable. In the 30s, Eugene the Jeep became a character in the Thimble Theater comics, which is where the famous Popeye character comes from. The story goes that soldiers were fond of these comics on the battlefield, eventually causing them to nickname the Willys MB a “Jeep.”
There are other theories you’ll hear from Jeep fans, and what’s so intriguing about these theories is that a few of them sound believable. Some of them even have roots in straight-up facts, but figuring out who was the inspiration has proven impossible even decades after the MB’s inception.
The First Jeep Is a Purple Heart Recipient
If you think only human beings can earn a Purple Heart, a Jeep by the name of “Old Faithful” proves you wrong. Back in the 40s, Old Faithful was transporting high-ranking military officials all across the battlefield.
More specifically, Old Faithful was one of the first Jeeps to hit the ground in Bougainville. This Jeep is also one of the first vehicles on-site in Guadalcanal, arriving on Lunga Beach when the battles in the area began in August 1942. Guadalcanal saw a lot of combat, and Old Faithful didn’t come out of it without some battle scars.
After making it through some hectic battles in December 1943, the Army chose to retire Old Faithful. Luckily, Old Faithful didn’t retire without receiving the right recognition. Thanks to this durable vehicle accruing damage during its time in Guadalcanal, it was the first Jeep to receive a Purple Heart.
The Grille Was Originally a Ford Design
The Jeep’s flat-slotted grille with round, integrated headlights is an undoubtedly iconic look. However, something you might not know about this beloved design is that it’s a Ford addition. As you know from the points above, Ford had a hand in bringing the original Jeeps to life, with one of the manufacturer’s unique contributions being the grille.
This design began as part of the Ford Pilot Model GP-No. 1, which also goes by the less wordy moniker “Pygmy.” It was a decision brilliantly made to make Jeeps' production more efficient, but eventually bloomed into a look still beloved today. As you can see, the name Willys MB is a bit deceptive since it was such a collaborative design process. In fact, you might hear some folks argue that the Ford GPW is worthy of the “first Jeep” title, but that’s a debate we can have another time.
When you’re restoring a classic Jeep like the Willys MB, it’s good to learn some of the interesting facts you didn’t know about the first Jeeps. This will help you grow more of an appreciation for the vehicle as you work on bringing it back to life.
If you need any authentic replacement components for your vehicle, our selection of Willys Jeep parts is quite extensive. Once you bring this classic Jeep back to life with the right parts, the facts above will be some great stories to tell when you show it off to guests.