An Army Jeep in a Crate for $50? Is it true?
One of the longest-running myths about Army jeeps is the idea that somewhere, somehow you can buy a jeep in a crate for $50 (or other amount, adjusted for inflation). This idea has been around now at least since WW II. I heard the story off and on throughout the 1950s and 60s when it was about the World War II jeep, the Willys MB or Ford GPW. It was always the same: some guy down at the fire house knew where you could get Army jeeps in crates for $50; they only need a battery and tires. Maybe they're packed in cosmolene. But you have to get your friends together and buy 10 (or 50) at a time.
A Ford GPW Army Jeep in a Crate -- Click photo for larger image.
I tried to track it down several times, but the "guy at the fire house" always was off-duty when I went by, or it turned out it was actually his cousin who knew the details but the cousin was out of town, etc. etc. More recently, I heard that there was a government-owned cave full of factory-new M-151s ("somewhere out west")-- you could buy them for $1500 each, but of course you had to buy 10 at a time. By now its probably the same story about HMMWVs.
Army Jeep Ads Reinforcing the Myth
The "cheap surplus Army jeep" story was reinforced by ads that ran for decades in the back of Popular Mechanics and other magazines. They promised to tell you -- for a fee -- how to buy government surplus. The ads usually featured a headline reading: "Jeeps $50" over a stock drawing of an Army jeep. The text said the publication would open the door on fabulous surplus bargains, including jeeps, trucks, power tools and other desirable goods.
If you actually sent in your money and bought their publication, it was just a copy of a pamphlet -- available free from the U.S. Government -- that explained how to bid on surplus property. Basically a scam that preyed on people's lack of knowledge.
Demand for Army Jeeps Was Always Strong
Near the end of World War II, Popular Science magazine ran a contest in their March 1945 issue. The public was asked to write in with their ideas on "How I'll Use Surplus War Goods." While everything from Quonset huts and B-29 fuselages to carbines and chain saws were mentioned, the humble jeep was the number one item on everyone's mind. Fully one-third of all the letters received by Popular Science listed the jeep, many from farmers and ranchers who saw immediate utility in the small vehicle long before the civilian recreational 4x4 was dreamed of. In an article published in Popular Science in October 1945, reviewing their surplus contest, they said:
And jeeps, of course, are still at the very top of the list, both among men still in the service and among civilians.
Later in the same article they caution:
... most of the surplus jeeps will have taken a beating and will be in considerably less than first-class condition.
No one was discouraged by the warning.
A Military Jeep in a Crate: Was it ever true?
Yes, military jeeps were packed in crates. The top photo on this page and the ones on the Olive-Drab.com page about Overseas Shipping of Jeeps show factory photos of Ford GPW jeeps in crates. Jeeps were produced and packed this way for shipment to U.S. forces and countries like England and the Soviet Union who the U.S. supplied during WW II. At the Ford Motor Company assembly plant in Richmond, CA, about 70% of production was boxed due to their close proximity to the San Francisco port.
Find additional photos and hi-res versions of World War II jeeps in a crate at the Olive-Drab Military Mashup.
Boxing up a jeep was expensive and time consuming so it was only done when absolutely necessary. Jeeps that were crated were complete vehicles, not a box of parts -- windshields were folded, wheels taken off and a few other things done to minimize the cubeage. Very few, if any, of these crated jeeps remained in the United States, even during the war. After more than sixty years, there are probably none left. Several organizations and dealers have had a substantial reward offer for years for anyone who can produce one and no one has claimed the money.
Details of the re-assembly of crated jeeps at an Ordnance Depot in England during 1943 are provided in this article from the MVPA magazine Army Motors, Issue #103: Jeeps in Crates, Every Collector's Dream.
Fate of World War II Army Jeeps
Although the jeep was loved and respected by the GIs during the war, most ended up like this:
Vehicle boneyard at end of World War II. Click here for other jeep scrapyard photos.
After World War II there was a period of time when returning veterans, farmers
and a few other favored categories of people could buy jeeps directly from the
government for $50 or other very low prices. It is not known if any of these
were in crates but if there were any it was very few. Most surplus Army jeeps
in the U.S. were used vehicles from stateside bases.
Richard Koch and his Ford GPW, 1946. Photo courtesy of Dr. Richard Koch.
Richard Koch, a WW II Vet (today Dr. Richard Koch, an esteemed medical researcher) told me that in late 1945 or early 1946 he bought a jeep directly from a shipping facility in Martinez, CA, near San Francisco. He arrived there to find many large crates stacked three high. After paying $500, a fork lift brought one down for him and the workers helped uncrate it, brand new from the factory. He says it had its wheels already mounted, all he had to do was connect the battery and drive it home. He also bought a matching Army trailer for an additional $50.
Manuals and factory photos of jeeps crated for shipping all show partial disassembly with wheels off. Therefore, Koch's Ford GPW (photo, left) was probably boxed, fully assembled, after production to protect it until its disposition was determined by the Army. Based on the hood number, this vehicle was most likely manufactured in June 1945 at the Richmond, CA Ford factory, not far from Martinez. Jeep production ended in August 1945 during the last days of World War II and, lucky for Koch, this jeep never went into active service.
Although there are other stories like Koch's, the jeep sales program dried up pretty quickly as civilian production resumed and Willys came out with the CJ series. Jeeps were given away to Allies and also sold outside the U.S. occasionally, but many were also dumped to prevent their return to the U.S. where it was feared they would glut the market and take factory jobs away from vets.
What is the Military Jeep story now?
On the Olive-Drab.com page about Government Auctions, there is the whole story about how and where to buy military vehicles from the US Government. No matter how many ads you see promising otherwise, there is no other story. There are no intact jeeps for sale, anywhere, for some incredibly low price. Sorry, but that is the truth.
With very occasional exceptions, the U.S. Government hasn't had any jeeps for
sale for years -- the Government Auctions
page has the details about why not. Jeeps owned by private parties come on the
market at the right price: if they are in pristine condition, the price is high.
If they are $50, they are scrap, or half-buried in a field, or something else
is wrong to explain the price.
Think about it for a moment. If jeeps were available super-cheap, legitimate
dealers would be there in 10 seconds with a certified check to buy the whole lot.
They know what a jeep is worth. For their own profit, they would instantly absorb any which were selling
below market. If the government wanted to somehow restrict sales so dealers
could not do this, the government would advertise the fact and it would be easy
to find out where and how to buy. You would not have to pay anyone for a "report
on the secrets that they don't want you to know".
What Others Have to Say About the Cheap Army Surplus Jeep Story
Others have looked into the myth of the $50 jeep, and tell the same story, The $50 Jeep In A Crate Urban Legend for example. Four Wheeler magazine
had a feature story in their December 1968 issue, titled "The Elusive Surplus Jeep" by Charles D. McIntosh which explained the whole system and reviewed the history to that time of the $50 jeep. Finally, Military Vehicles Magazine,
in the March/April 1999 issue (p52), has a great story about Harry Kane, a con-man who travelled the U.S. in the 1950s taking deposits for $150 jeeps and spreading the myth in the process.
Note: For lots of photos of military jeeps, armor, trucks and more, take a look at the Olive-Drab.com Military Vehicle Charts and the Gallery. Many more military jeep photos at our sister site MilitaryMashup.com.
Find More Information on the Internet
There are many fine websites that have additional information on this
topic, too many to list here and too many to keep up with as they come and go.
Use this Google web search form to get an up to date report of what's out there.
For good results, try entering this: surplus army jeep. Then click the Search button.