While most every gearhead knows about the iconic military Jeep that helped carry the Allies to victory during World War II, they may not be entirely familiar with its origin and development.

Truth is, the Jeep has a few parents, namely Bantam, Willys, and Ford.

All three developed concepts for a military scout vehicle early in World War II, yet it was Bantam’s 4×4 Reconnaissance Car (BRC) that showed the most promise and formed the nascent Jeep’s basic layout.

But the United States military kept Willys and Ford at the table, opting for a “design by committee” approach to ensure its lofty performance goals were met.

The Bantam Reconnaissance Car developed by American Bantam is regarded by many as the first example of the “Jeep.” (Image/Public Domain)

So using the BRC prototype as a benchmark, Willys developed its MA and eventually the MB—which ended up winning the primary military production contract. Hence, the Willys MB is what most people picture when they hear the words “Army Jeep.”

This is an authentic Willys MB we spotted at a recent air show, wearing the iconic stamped steel grille originally implemented by Ford. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Yet, to get more Jeeps onto the battlefield, Ford stepped in to produce the MB under license from Willys, with Ford’s model being designated the GPW.

Save for some minor discrepancies, the MB and GPW are mostly identical. That was a strategic move to ensure parts would be interchangeable between the two for field service.

But it was Ford’s assembly line expertise that begat the iconic Jeep “Slot Grille.”

Instead of using the Willys grille that was fabricated out of several parts, Ford simply stamped the GPW grille from a single piece of steel. Ford’s method was much faster and cheaper, so Willys adopted the process too, which solidified the Jeep’s signature visage.

Early MB and GPW Jeeps often have either the block WILLYS or script Ford logo on the rear, but the practice was discontinued soon after initial production began. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

When we spotted this particular Jeep on its way to a car show a few weeks ago, we immediately noticed the script F-o-r-d on the back, which told us this was a legit Ford GPW—and that we had to talk to its owner to learn more.

Yup, you can credit Ford with creating the legendary slotted Jeep grille. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

“It was made in May of 1942,” Mike McKinney tells us. “My Dad bought it in the 1960s, and he did a lot of work to it.”

The eldest of three sons and a retired Army veteran, Mike inherited the Jeep when his father passed away about a decade ago. In the years since, the GPW’s been treated to a thoughtful restoration.

Note the original dash plaques on the glovebox door. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

“It had a lot of M38 parts on it. It was mix-and-matched, but back then it didn’t matter,” Mike says. “Now I’ve put it back to original.”

As alluded to above, that’s not uncommon. To make field repairs easier, parts were often relatively interchangeable, even between later military Jeeps, like the M38, and their civilian counterparts in the CJ series.

When we called this a Go-Devil engine, Mike quickly corrected us. “Ford didn’t call ’em ‘Go-Devils,’ Willys did. This is just the original L-134.” (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Mike then describes a restoration process that took him a couple of years, working off and on between other automotive projects. (If you couldn’t tell, Mike’s an avid gearhead too, and currently working on a hot rodded 1951 GMC truck.)

But then our attention was drawn to the Jeep’s hood number, 20114460, and we asked Mike what it meant. “Those numbers on the hood, a lot of people think that’s the serial number,” he begins. “But it’s not. It’s actually the invoice number. The different military services, the Army, Navy, Marines, they ordered a specific amount, so all the quarter-ton Jeeps start with a 20, the next numbers were the invoice number.”

Then, Mike gestures to his GPW’s hood. “This number is original to the vehicle.”

The 1CAV15FSB markings on the front and back bumpers however, have a different, more personal meaning. “That’s the last unit I was in before I retired,” Mike explains. “First Cavalry Division, 15 Forward Support Battalion.”

While the numbers on the hood are original to this specific Ford GPW, Mike customized the markings on its front and rear bumpers. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Mike says both he and the GPW are enjoying retired civilian life. “I just drive it on nice days, when it’s not going to rain or be too extremely hot,” he laughs.

And on that note, we thanked Mike for his service and let him go enjoy the rest of the car show.

Check out the hinges on the top of the headlight mounting brackets. The lights are designed to flip backward to illuminate the engine bay when you’re working under the hood at night. That handy feature is unique to military Jeeps. (Image/OnAllCylinders)
See that thing under the driver’s seat? That’s the Jeep’s gas tank. You flip the seat forward to access the filler port. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Author: Paul Sakalas

Paul is the editor of OnAllCylinders. When he's not writing, you'll probably find him fixing oil leaks in a Jeep CJ-5 or roof leaks in an old Corvette ragtop. Thanks to a penchant for vintage Honda motorcycles, he spends the rest of his time fiddling with carburetors and cleaning chain lube off his left pant leg.