Don Prine saw something special “rusting away” in a field on his way home from a fishing trip in Westport a decade ago.
The Spanaway jeep collector peeled back the weeds and found a prototype for the Army’s first jeep. Its successor became one of the distinctive vehicles of World War II.
“It was a rust bucket,” Prine, 93, remembered of his discovery that day, a 1941 Willys MA. “But it was real precious to those who knew what it was.”
Now restored and road worthy, Prine’s find is a featured vehicle starting this week at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum’s “70 Years of Jeep” exhibit in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Exhibit curators were determined to show an MA because they viewed the model as the jeep’s origin in both military and civilian markets.
Prine was a first-hand witness to those beginnings. He got to drive each of the original three jeep prototypes – one made by Willys-Overland, one by Ford and one by American Bantam Car Manufacturing – as an admiral’s assistant in 1940.
He said he even parked one at the White House so President Franklin Roosevelt’s advisers could take a look.
The jeeps left a lasting impression on the young sailor.
“Oh my God, I’d never had a four-wheel drive,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to have one of these when I get out of the Navy.’”
He made good on that the ambition, buying up jeeps after the war and opening Prine Jeep Service in Spanaway 51 years ago. It’s still in business, and he’s in the office most weekdays.
He has a model of each of the Army’s three jeep prototypes, although he sold the Willys MA he found on his fishing trip.
That particular model cracks open a window not only on the jeep’s history, but also on life at Fort Lewis just before World War II.
The jeep’s current owner, George Hollins of Palos Park, Ill., believes the Willys MA was one of four delivered to Fort Lewis’ 15th Infantry Regiment for testing in July 1941. He tracked down an archived photo of the regiment standing in formation with its experimental vehicles – four made by Willys and four by Bantam.
Myles Grant, director of the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Army Museum, said there’s a good chance it was one of the post’s original jeeps, given that it was found relatively near the base.
Willys-Overland made only 1,550 of the jeeps. Many were delivered to America’s European allies before the U.S. entered the war.
Its successor, the Willys MB, is more common. Incorporating the best features from the Willys, Bantam and Ford prototypes, it was used extensively on the Pacific and European fronts.
For their time, the jeeps were ground-breaking vehicles, Grant said.
“The Army was really horse drawn,” he said. The concept of a jeep “hadn’t really been thought of as a durable, general-purpose vehicle that could go many places. At the time it was a fairly cutting-edge idea.”
Grant said the Willys MA was one of several experimental ground vehicles that the Army tested at Fort Lewis before sending them on to mass production. The Army delivered a prototype of the Humvee – the jeep’s replacement – to Fort Lewis in 1982.
More recently, the eight-wheeled Strykers rumbling around the base follow that legacy of experimentation. They first appeared at Fort Lewis in 2002; now they’re the base’s signature vehicle with more than 900 at Lewis-McChord after having been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hollins is the fourth owner in the last 10 years of the Willys MA that was found by Prine. He wanted one because of its historical significance.
“I had been looking for an MA my entire life,” he said in a phone interview last week.
His jeep is in much better shape today than it was when Prine found it. The farmer who sold it to Prine couldn’t say how long it had been sitting in the field.
Today, Hollins said it’s a fun ride in good-to-perfect condition.
How far can he take it?
“It’s a licensed antique vehicle, and the laws of Illinois allow it to be driven to car shows, maintenance or a gas station. I’ll leave it at that,” he said, laughing.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646