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However, very few of us know about the wild vehicle that served as an inspiration for the creation of the Jeep Wrangler.
Allow The Chelsea Truck Company to enlighten you.
In June 1940, with World War II on the horizon, the U.S. Army solicited bids from 135 automakers for a 1/4 ton light reconnaissance vehicle. Only three companies responded - Bantam, Willys, and Ford.
Forty million miles of test drives later, Willys who remarkably completed the design in just 75 days, won the contract. Later, Ford was subcontracted to build some of the Jeeps using the original Willys design.
During the war, around 600,000 Jeeps were produced, and they saw action in many battles. Whilst a vast number were shipped to Russia and the United Kingdom where they became popular for their rugged versatility.
What is less known is the crazy vehicle that inspired it all: the Howey-Wiley Machine Gun Carrier, otherwise known as the Belly-Flopper.
Entitled the Belly Flopper because you drove in it flopped, on your belly. This however, was not the only weird and wonderful aspect of this car. The Belly-Flopper used a rear engine and front drive layout.
There are a plethora of reasons as to how the Belly-Flopper came to be.
Around 1936, Captain Robert G. Howie and Master Sergeant M. Wiley of Ft.Benning in Georgia were of the opinion that a standardised light reconnaissance vehicle (and machine gun carrier) would be of particular use, simplifying the army's chaotic arsenal which consisted of horses, random automobiles/trucks, and motorcycles.
Using a chassis and drive train from an old American Austin, and funded mostly out of Captian Howie's own pocket, the two built the Belly-Flopper by hand. The design was extremely unusual: it would carry two soldiers, lying prone, one driving and one manning a machine gun.
The driver steered with a small lever-arm, and operated the clutch and brake with his feet, although since moving your feet from pedal to pedal while laying on your stomach seems tricky.
The car was designed with the four-cylinder, 13-14 HP engine at the rear, driving the front wheels. I get why the engine was placed at the rear: with the driver laying down, that's the only way he'd be able to see ahead, and not having a running engine inches from your face was considered a pretty big plus.
You would think rear-drive would have made more sense, taking advantage of the extra traction provided by locating the engine over the drive wheels and saving the weight of a long prop shaft. But, that's not what they did. It's possible that just to keep things easy; they just reversed the Austin's chassis and left the final drive system in place. You could hardly blame them for that, since this car was built with just two guys.
The Belly-Flopper had no suspension to speak of beyond the fat pneumatic tires, so we can only imagine the ride on your stomach must have been pretty punishing. The unusual layout did offer the pretty substantial benefit of making the car so low that it would be hard to shoot at successfully, which is nothing to sneeze at in a military vehicle.
Unfortunately, the wildly low height also meant minimal ground clearance, which limited the 'Flopper's off-road abilities. Still, it was quick (well, 28 MPH, but on your tummy that feels pretty fast) and very manoeuvrable.
The Belly Flopper certainly made an impression. Several manufacturers viewed the vehicle in 1940. Barney Roos, chief engineer at Willys-Overland (who later went on to mass-produce the first Jeeps) said of the car: “That Belly Flopper looked like nothing any automobile man had ever seen before, a cross between a kid's scooter and a diving board on wheels.”
Tellingly, the Army's Quartermaster Corps were not impressed with the Belly-Flopper as it stood, but it did convince them to fashion a vehicle to fill the Belly-Flopper’s role, albeit with a strict and detailed criteria.
For a while after the war, there was a brisk business in surplus Jeeps, and the story comes full circle back to agriculture. In August, 1945 – before the war had officially ended – the Nebraska Farmer magazine ran an article about the "Post-War Jeep."
The author wrote, “Among the farm uses demonstrated were: plowing; disking; drilling grain; shelling and grinding grain; threshing wheat; elevating grain into bin; pulling pick-up baler and hay wagon; spray painting buildings; digging post holes; and crop spraying." All for the ceiling price of "$1,090, f.o.b. Toledo.”
Unfortunately for Willys, the Jeep never caught on as a farm implement. But, it went on to establish the new civilian 4x4 market and, eventually, the SUV.