How the 1940 Ford Pilot Evolved Into Today’s Jeep
The 1940 Ford Pilot Model GP-No. 1 Pygmy was recently added to the Historic Vehicle Association’s National Historic Vehicle Register, the eighth vehicle to make the list. However, as Larry Edsall of ClassicCars.com explains, the vehicle isn’t necessarily regarded as a ‘Ford’ as much as it is as a ‘Jeep.’
_You won’t find this Jeep for sale (unless the current owner decides to put it up for bid), but you can still appreciate the story of how the vehicle evolved into a completely separate brand… _
As the organization explains, the vehicle is significant for four reasons:
“The Ford Pilot Model GP-No. 1 Pygmy is historically significant based on: (i) its testing at Camp Holabird in late 1940 which was an important event in the development of the “jeep;” (ii) its design contribution to the eventual standard military “jeep;” (iii) being the first prototype produced by Ford and oldest known example of the “jeep;” and (iv) its mostly unrestored condition.”
Clearly, the vehicle has more significance for Jeep than Ford, but it certainly wasn’t that way at first. The 1940 Ford Pilot was actually a prototype, as the U.S. Army asked auto brands to produce a heavy, four-wheel-drive “reconnaissance” truck. Instead of using horses and mules, the Army figured a durable, rugged vehicle would be a better mode of transportation, and they received a trio of vehicles: the Willys-Overland “Quad” and two Ford Pilot “Pygmy’s.”
One of these Pygmys, featuring serial number GP-No. 1, is widely considered the first ‘Jeep.’ It was the first vehicle to feature the brand’s familiar “flat slatted front grille with integrated headlights,” and it included many of the capabilities that soon became familiar with the company’s rugged products.
Eventually, the military would ask Willys-Overland and Ford to produce a military vehicle based on the various prototype designs. This resulted in the production of the Ford GPW and Willy-Overland MB (which was essentially based on Ford’s vehicle).
In late 1940, as Willys-Overland’s vehicle gained popularity for its war efforts, the brand applied for a U.S. trademark for ‘Jeep.’ The term soon became synonymous with that type of vehicle. When the war was finished, the brand produced civilian versions of the vehicle, and by 1950, ‘Jeeps’ were officially on the market. While Ford’s Pygmy eventually faded, there’s no denying that it was the inspiration for the Willys-Overland and (vicariously) all future Jeeps.
“The jeep was pivotal during WWII; became an indispensable part of the U.S. Army efforts for decades; quickly transitioned to civilian use; and became a global icon for America,” retired U.S. Army (and president of the Army Historical Foundation) Lt. Gen. Roger C. Schultz said. “GP-No. 1, the oldest known jeep, is worthy to be recognized as an important American cultural treasure.”
For the past four months, the organization has compiled as much historical information on the vehicle as they could. This included gathering photography, 3D scans of the vehicle, and extensive information on the vehicle’s origins.
The Historic Vehicle Association’s National Historic Vehicle Register is affiliated with the Historic American Engineering Record, which is connected to the Library of Congress and the U.S. Department of the Interior. The vehicle has been honored previously, as Henry Ford II donated the vehicle to the Henry Ford Museum, and the vehicle was later sold for a large chunk of change at auction.
While the vehicle’s evolution and inclusion on the prestigious list may not impress drivers seeking the newest models, we can still appreciate the history of the iconic vehicle and brand.