The 1941 Willys MA, “M” for “Military”, model “A,” were sturdy jeep prototypes built for testing prior to US participation in WWII.
Production began on June 5th, 1941 and around 1,555 Willys MAs were built and delivered to the Army Quartermaster Corps. Out of this number, 50 were built with four-wheel steering. Few remain, as most of those produced were subsequently sent to Russia or England under the Lend-Lease program.
On July 23rd 1941, after much controversy and behind the scenes maneuvering by the bidders, the War Department awarded the 1/4-ton truck production contract to Willys-Overland based on their Willys MA design and their low bid of $738.74.
Out of approximately 45 known 1941 Willys MAs in the world, an estimated 27 are restored. Of the 27 restored vehicles, eight are thought to be in the U.S.
The 1941 Willys MA seen today is the rarest of the Jeep Collection.
- Headlights on top of fender
- Willys embossed on top of grille
- Windshield folds down
- Vertical slats
- 3 speed transmission shifter on column
- Parking brake is in dash rather than on floor
- Two circular instrument clusters on dashboard
|Engine Options||Go Devil engine, 60 hp & 105 ft./lbs. torque|
|Transmission Options||T84J, 3 speed manual transmission|
|Transfer Case||Spicer 18|
|Rear Axle||Spicer 23-2, 4.88 ratio|
|Front Axle||Spicer 25, 4.88 ratio|
|Height||65 in., with top up|
|Curb Weight||2,150 lbs.|
The Other Model A
by Jim Allen
Willys-Overland couldn’t claim to have “invented” the jeep, even though they did occasionally in the early days, but after 1941 they had the most influence on its evolution. Willys was the second company to become involved in the development of the 1/4-ton 4×4 truck we now commonly know as the jeep. In order to describe how Willys got to the MA, we need to sketch the full history a little and a talk about two of Willys’ biggest competitors in the project, Bantam and Ford.
American Bantam Car Company, of Butler, Pennsylvania, was the first to design and build a jeep. They helped the Army turn their rough ideas for a light reconnaissance vehicle into a design concept and won the contract to build the first prototype jeeps. Willys-Overland was one of 135 other manufacturers invited to bid on that contract and the only other company to make a bid.
It was no surprise Bantam and Willys were the only bidders. It was a tricky contract, with only 10 days to submit bids and almost impossible demands for a short delivery schedule, not to mention the contract being contingent on the first pilot model passing the basic performance tests. For the bigger companies well-equipped enough to meet that schedule easily, the first contract was chump-change and hardly worth breaking a sweat. Better to adopt a wait-and-see stance. Bantam and Willys were the two companies desperate enough to submit bids.
It’s well known Bantam was nearly at the bottom of a steep decline in corporate fortune. Less known is that Willys was on a similar slope, just not quite so far down it. Not so many years before, Willys-Overland had been one of America’s largest auto manufacturers. By the end of the ’30s, the line of stylish Willys cars was off the American public’s radar and the financial outlook was grim.
It’s clear both Bantam and Willys wanted to establish themselves as the foundation of what promised to be a large vehicle contract from the government. That first $171,000, 70 vehicle contract was a lifesaver for Bantam, whose factory was essentially mothballed. Willys was less desperate but knew it was a lead-up to something better. Other companies were waiting to jump in when, or if, things looked more lucrative. Ford Motor Company’s later involvement is evidence of that.
So, why did Willys fail in their first attempt for a bid? Willys was many developmental steps behind Bantam. They submitted the lowest monetary bid but with the short bidding period, it was not very detailed. Plus, they couldn’t match Bantam’s short delivery schedule commitment. Bantam had been on the project for months, had a lot of the preliminary design work done and hit the ground running.
While a vehicle like the jeep was not a particularly difficult engineering puzzle, it was certainly a new way of packaging existing technology and components. The two main challenges were the drivetrain and an almost impossibly low weight requirement. The drivetrain was ably handled by the Spicer Corporation of Toledo, who developed a compact front driving axle and transfer case from existing designs and did so in a very short period. Spicer axles and transfer cases appeared in all jeeps, no matter who built them. The weight issue was the biggest challenge, even for Bantam, who was most accustomed to “thinking light.”
Bantam delivered their pilot model on September 23, 1940, for testing to determine whether it was generally suitable for military service. The Bantam Pilot Model passed all those tests, the contract was validated and Bantam soon completed and delivered the 70 units for testing with Army units.
Submitting a prototype meeting a minimum suitability standard was a requirement and knowing there would be more contracts for the 1/4-ton coming up, Willys went ahead with building two pilot models to be ready for the next round. In the industry, when a manufacturer built a test prototype without a prior agreement, they were called “courtesy models.” Often, a courtesy model was a “wink-and-a-nod” type deal without paperwork but with an “understanding” that a certain level of consideration was being given. When complete on November 11, 1940, two Willys courtesy models were given to the torture experts at Camp Holabird, Maryland, the Army’s vehicle test center. Willys called them Quads.
The Quads were tested through November and deemed generally suitable. Willys powered the Quads with its recently developed 134ci, 60 hp 441 engine, known as the Go-Devil in advertising. The more powerful engine was a big plus but there was one big problem: the Quad was way, way over the Army’s weight limit. More than 500 pounds over a recently raised limit and it nearly cost Willys a place in history. Based on the excess weight, the Quads were declared not suitable for service. Willys argued the extra power made up for the extra weight and that was true. The Quad’s power-to-weight ratio was the same as the much lighter 45 hp Bantam’s. The Army was adamant and it took some political intervention to get that ruling reversed. Willys assured all parties it could meet future weight limits.
The Army’s weight expectations were unrealistic and controversial. They had been as low as 1,200 lbs. in the conceptual stage and had risen to a whopping 1,275 lbs. by the time the first contract was issued. Bantam was uniquely qualified in the area of building light but even with that experience, their pilot model debuted at around 1,840 lbs. dry. The first Bantam’s very successful demonstration was a graphic lesson to the Army gearheads that their weight limitations were unrealistic. As a result, the limit was largely ignored in that first case and shortly rose to around 2,050 lbs.
It’s interesting to note that Bantam originally designated a much more powerful 133 ci Hercules Model IX four. Since it had become clear that weight was going to be an issue, even with Bantam’s extremely light boxed u-section chassis, they opted for a smaller and lighter 112 ci Y-Series Continental engine. Both Bantam and Willys knew the weight limits would eventually be raised. They had to be! After all, the beef you get out of a vehicle is directly proportional to the beef you put in, but their approaches to dealing with the Army on the issue differed. Bantam had done a better job in designing a lighter body and chassis than Willys and the Continental engine kept them well under the limit and away from much controversy.
Willys wanted their larger engine in the lineup right from the start. That had as much to do with keeping their profit margin up by not diverting funds to an outside source than producing a better product. The Go-Devil was roughly 100 pounds heavier than the Continental and was approximately 25 percent of their overage. It was clear they needed to do a better job on lightening the rest of the jeep. They tap-danced, trying to run out the clock until the Army came to their senses and bumped the limit to one they could potentially meet. It was a gamble that paid off after it rose above 2,100 lbs. but they still had a lot of work to lighten their next prototype to meet the revised limits.
The jeep story is fraught with back room politicking and after Bantam, Willys and Ford had all submitted pilot models, it reached a high pitch. We’re not going to talk about the sharp knives that were drawn at that point by politicians trying the “bring home the bacon” to their respective districts and high ranking staff officers with an agenda. Let’s just fast forward to that point in early 1941 when the government issued contracts to all three companies for 1,500 improved test models each, the 1941 Bantam BRC (commonly but incorrectly dubbed the BRC40), the 1941 Ford GP and the 1941 Willys MA. The MA designation was the start of the lettering tradition for Willys, the “M” indicating a military contract and “A” for the first in the series, the Model A.
The good news around this time was that the weight limit had been raised again to 2,160 lbs and this had opened the door for Ford and Willys to stay in the game. Yes, the Ford Pygmy pilot had been over the weight limit as well. The Ford juggernaught was the first to begin fulfillment of the 1,500 unit order, with its first GPs appearing in February of 1941. The Bantams followed in March. Tic, toc, tic, toc…. where was Willys?
The first Willys MAs didn’t appear until June of 1941. Why the delay? That is not crystal clear, though the delay was the source of irritation within the Army. Some was attributed to parts suppliers but likely, again, it was weight. Willys really had to work to make the 2,160 lbs. limit. They even experimented with installing the same Continental engine used in the Bantam. They finally achieved 2,160 lbs. with the Willys engine by using the thinnest body sheet metal possible, shortening bolts and cutting back on everything they could to the point of even weighing the amount of paint applied. The old joke was that if the MA had gotten dusty before its final weigh-in, it would have been overweight.
Mechanically, the MA was very much like its ancestor, the Quad. Willys had benefited by seeing both the Ford and Bantam prototypes and adopting some of the features seen on them for the MA. It was a natural evolution but the end result was that Willys’ gamble on the big engine had paid off. The MA had impressive amounts of power and torque. Being of equal weight with the Ford and Bantam, but having 15 more horsepower and 20 lbs-ft more torque, put it well ahead in the performance department and that made a big impression. Some figures of the period listed the MA with a 74 mph top speed and it could reach 52 mph in 15 seconds. Nearest to that was the 45 hp Bantam, which was still very light at 2,026 lbs. It had a 64 mph top speed and took 16 seconds to make 48 mph. The 2,160 lbs., 46 hp Ford took 19 seconds to reach 48 mph and had a 59 mph top speed.
The Willys extra power wasn’t an advantage in terms of getting the contract. Many people have the impression winning the contract was a three-way “duel to the death” testing process where the “best man” won. Because it appeared so late, the MA had very little operational testing or use with Army units. The only three-way testing of the updated prototypes occurred at Fort Benning, Georgia, starting at the end of June, 1941. This was partly to run the upgraded Ford and Willys units through the same full battery of field tests the Bantams had endured earlier and it was partly to finalize a list of desirable specifications to incorporate into a future standardized unit. While the MA won some important rounds in these tests, namely due to its spirited performance, some of its features were panned, one of them being the column shift transmission and another a notoriously uncomfortable seating position. The testing was completed in July, not all that long before Willys was actually awarded a 16,000 unit contract. Willys’ was about $40 per unit lower than Bantam and $34 lower than Ford.
The contract for a standardized jeep was issued to Willys within a month of the MA debut and some of the last MAs were completed as the first MBs were being built. As a result, the MAs saw very little use with Army units compared to the BRC or the GP. By this time, the U.S. Government was deeply involved in the Lend-Lease Program, whereby American military equipment was loaned to friendly countries. The pre-standardized jeeps were perfect candidates for this, once their operational testing was done. Of the 1,555 Willys MAs built, most were shipped overseas under Lend-Lease. The majority of the Lend-Lease MAs went to the Soviet Union.
Of the pre-standardized jeeps from 1941, the MA is the rarest and, by far, the most valuable. Around 30 complete, or semi-complete, MAs are known to remain, with a few more that are little more than a collection of parts. The MA is also the least well-documented of the pre-standardized jeeps. With a Ford or Bantam, there are lists by serial or U.S. registration numbers that give some hints at where and when the vehicle was used and to which service they were issued. Many of the Fords and Bantams stayed in the U.S. after they were field tested and were the first jeeps sold surplus. With the MA, few such clues have been unearthed and very few of the surviving MAs have anything close to a history of their life available. Many of the surviving MAs are in the region of Eastern Europe that was once Czechoslovakia. In an odd quirk of fate, around 60 MAs were given to a United Nations relief agency and were used mostly in Czechoslovakia. When relief work tapered off in the late ’40s, these MAs were sold locally.
The military history log of the Omix-ADA MA is just about blank. We know it was delivered to the Army on July 9, 1941, only weeks before Willys was granted the standardized jeep contract. There have been undocumented, unprovable and unlikely stories told about this jeep’s past. Most likely, it never left the United States while in military service and was sold surplus out of the San Francisco Bay Area with a couple of other known survivors. While the Omix-ADA MA is currently painted Navy gray, some involved in its restoration many years ago report finding no original grey paint, indicating it was not likely in Navy livery. What little is known about the disposition of MAs by serial number seems to bear that out. We know it passed through several collectors before ending up in the hands of the late Mark Smith, of Jeepers’ Jamboree fame, who had the jeep painted rather fancifully to represent his World War II service in the USMC.
A small number of MAs saw use by the Navy Department, though not in frontline service. One batch of 50 was taken from the Army order to go with the construction units building naval bases in Iceland, Scotland and Northern Ireland but the actual disposition of these units is not generally known. As far as can be determined today, the farthest west MAs can be documented to have gone is Hawaii. Much information remains to be discovered about the disposition of MAs in military service.
The MA is proof that the jeep story ended as it should have. The standardized production jeep of WWII porked up to just about the same weight as the Quad and the more powerful Willys engine, a proven design that was tooled up and ready to go, gave it adequate performance at that weight. It’s almost a given that even had Willys not won the contract for the standardized jeep, whoever did get it would have had to field a larger engine of equivalent power.