Willys' various Jeep products projected an image of go-anywhere capability, thanks to their four-wheel drive, which was still a bit of a novelty in the mid Fifties. However, with bigger competitors about to move into the 4X4 truck field, Willys had to explore another uncharted niche with the 1957 Jeep.
Independent automobile companies in America always had a tough road to travel. They couldn't afford to be overly conservative with the design of their products or they'd lose the vital advantage of offering something buyers couldn't get in a Big Three brand. Still, many firms learned to their regret that wandering too far ahead of the mainstream tended to run up against most buyers' inherent sense of caution.
Hudson's 1948 "Step-down" design is a perfect example of an advanced design that hit the market at just the right time and sold like nickel cigars. The 1949 "bathtub" Nash is another. In contrast, the Jeep Forward Control trucks are examples of a design that was probably too advanced for its time.
However, while the unusual Forward Control models never enjoyed the popularity for which Jeep officials had hoped, these rare and unusual trucks had a surprisingly long production run that extended around the globe.
Willys-Overland quickly got back to building civilian vehicles at the end of World War II. Unlike other auto manufacturers, though, changing over to peacetime production from military ordnance wasn't that big of a deal for Willys. It took the wartime Jeep MB, added a tailgate, softer springs, new colors, and a few other modifications, renamed it CJ-2A, and started selling it through dealers. Also out for 1946 was a station wagon that mixed a car-like chassis with Jeep-inspired styling. The following season, Willys introduced a panel truck and pickup with styling derived from the wagon.
Available in two- and four-wheel-drive models, the Jeep pickup was an immediate hit. However, management soon noticed that, while the four-wheel-drive pickup sold in decent numbers, the two-wheeler didn't. The reason was simple enough: Willys' two-wheel drive jobs had to compete with every light truck on the market, while the four-wheelers were virtually the only inexpensive factory-complete 434 pickups available. (Another four-wheeler pickup inspired by wartime experience, the Dodge Power Wagon, cost hundreds of dollars more.)
By the end of 1951, the company ceased building two-wheel-drive pickups, except for an occasional special order. The Willys name was becoming synonymous with four-wheel drive. By 1956, more than 90 percent of Willys production was of four-wheel-drive vehicles, with two-wheelers limited to some station wagons and panels, as well as the new Dispatcher commercial series, essentially a two-wheel-drive Jeep CJ.
To this point, aside from minor trim and mechanical updates, the Jeep trucks remained virtually unchanged. Meanwhile, competitors' trucks had evolved, gaining larger, roomier cabs; bigger cargo beds; and more optional equipment, including luxury touches formerly limited to passenger cars. And, inevitably, they began to offer four-wheel drive versions. Clearly it was only a matter of time before rivals would overrun Jeep's entrenched position.
Willys management, realizing it needed to react to the competition, began to set down plans for a new range of trucks with cabs and bodies that were very modern. Set to make their debuts in 1957, they would be the first all-new Jeep trucks since 1947.
Styling was the work of Brooks Stevens, the Milwaukee-based industrial designer on retainer with Willys since the mid Forties. Stevens came up with a bold design that took its styling cues from the big cab-over-engine trucks that hauled freight on cross-country routes.
To give the new trucks a "family look," the front end bore a seven-slot grille that instantly identified it as a Jeep vehicle. Dubbed the "Forward Control," the design was very distinctive and clever. It provided full-size carrying capacity in a small -- almost tiny -- exterior size. Though compact by most measurements, it boasted a roomy cab and a surprisingly large bed. The Forward Control (or FC) series allowed Willys to outflank the competition by offering something completely different from other manufacturers. It must have seemed like the right approach for a small company like Willys.
Engineering was under the direction of A. C. Sampietro. Two series would be offered initially. The smaller FC-150 was built on an 81-inch wheelbase, same as the CJ-5, while the FC-170 came on a 103.5-inch wheelbase. FC-150s mounted a 6.2-foot bed and were powered by the famous Jeep Hurricane F-head four-cylinder engine. Although good for just 75 bhp at 4,000 rpm and 115 pound-feet of torque at 2,000 rpm, the 134-cid Hurricane was dependable and as tough as an anvil.
A lower-compression version of this engine was offered for high-altitude areas where pinging might be a problem. FC-170s were heavy-duty work trucks, powered by the 105-bhp 226-cid Super Hurricane L-head six-cylinder engine and boasting a 110-inch-long bed. Bed width was four feet compared to the FC-150's three feet. (The 150 had considerably narrower wheel tracks.) Willys claimed the FC-170 offered "the greatest cargo area for its length and wheelbase of anything in its class ... 3,510 pounds of payload ... 45 cubic feet of cargo space ... 9 feet of unobstructed floor length."
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Mechanical Changes for Jeep
Other differences between the two FCs were mainly in mechanical specifications related to intended work use. FC- 150s were shod with 7.00X15-inch four-ply tires, while FC-170s rolled on 7.00X16 six-ply rubber. And while the FC-150 made do with a six-volt system, FC-170s apparently came with a 12-volt electrical system. (In later years, both would feature 12-volts standard with, oddly, a six-volt system optional.)
Axles were another area where big differences showed up; the FC-150's Spicer front axle was rated at 2,300 pounds and the rear was rated at 3,000 pounds, while the FC-170's front axle -- also Spicer -- was rated at 3,000 pounds and the rear at 4,500 pounds. Both FCs carried a side- mounted spare tire. Although it looked fine on the 170, the 150's short wheelbase made the spare tire mounting look somewhat awkward.
A Warner Gear three-speed manual transmission came standard, with a four-speed optional. Perhaps having learned from prior experience, Willys made dual-range (Hi-Lo) four-wheel drive the sole driveline configuration on FCs. The transfer case could be shifted into four-wheel drive at normal road speeds without having to stop the vehicle. Both series came standard with Bendix 11X12-inch hydraulic brakes (with power assist optional) and cam-and-lever steering.
Both series could be ordered in pickup, stake-bed, and cab-and-chassis models. Actually, the chassis models came four ways: a stripped chassis (frame, engine, running gear, and steering wheel), a chassis with flat-faced cowl and windshield, an open cab and chassis, and a closed cab and chassis. The various chassis models were aimed at buyers who required specialized equipment and/or work bodies offered by specialty manufacturers. These included wrecker and dump bodies, even fire-apparatus bodies, as well as special equipment such as backhoes and street sweepers.
Not surprisingly, it was Brooks Stevens' "Safety View" cab styling that grabbed the most attention. Willys saw many advantages to the FC's design, claiming it offered "Maximum cargo space on minimum wheelbase ... go-anywhere maneuverability ... greater visibility." Visibility was excellent, thanks to a big wraparound windshield that offered almost 1,200 square inches of safety glass, plus a rear window with another 628 square inches. Willys claimed the FC's forward visibility was nearly 200 percent better than in conventional vehicles.
Seven standard colors were offered the first year, with another seven attractive optional "Tu-tone" choices available. In the two-tones, the the grille face, wheels, and window frames were painted a contrasting color from the body and roof.
As in most Fifties trucks, the FC cab interior featured lots of painted metal surfaces, but overall it was a pleasant enough place to spend a workday. Standard features included dual windshield wipers, key locks on both doors, a "dispatch box," color-keyed interior, "Plasti-Strand" upholstery, ash tray, sun visor on the driver's side, dome light, and an adjustable seat. The Deluxe cab option included dual sun visors and armrests, acoustical trim on doors and headliner, foam-rubber seats, front kick pads, cigarette lighter, and rear-quarter windows.
The instrument panel was a simple and rather stark design that grouped the few instruments and gauges (a large speedometer dominated) directly in front of the driver. The steering wheel was a bus-like, nearly upright, three-spoke unit; Ralph Kramden would have felt right at home behind it.
Of course, the interior also had a rather substantial "doghouse" situated between the seats. That's one drawback of cab-over design: The engine is nestled within the cab just inches from the occupants. However, the Jeep FC's engine cover was insulated with a thick layer of fiberglass to keep out engine noise and heat. There were two floor shifters, one for the transmission and one for the transfer case. Modern suspended pedals were used.
Getting in and out of an FC was different from most other vehicles because one exited right over a wheel -- an awkward step with a high potential for dirtying trousers. A concealed step like that found on many vans of the
day eased entry and egress. To safeguard against snagging clothes on the front-wheel openings, FCs had rubber fender extensions.
Stevens had created a marvelously compact vehicle. The length of the cargo bed on the smaller of the two models was 74.25 inches. Yet, amazingly, the FC-150's overall length was just 147.5 inches, a full two inches less than Nash's tiny two-seat Metropolitan. The diminutive size and four-cylinder engine might lead one to expect the FC-150 to be a lightweight. However, due to its heavy frame and sturdy construction, the FC-150's curb weight was 2,925 pounds and its gross vehicle weight (GVW) rating was 5,000 pounds, meaning the 150 could handle one- ton payloads. In addition to its standard 7,000- pound GVW rating, the FC-170 could be equipped for 8,000- and 9,000-pound GVWs.
Beyond the Deluxe cab, two-tone paint, and four-speed trans, Willys offered a comprehensive list of optional equipment: radio, fresh-air heater, windshield washer, power brakes, seatbelts, double passenger seat, front bumper guards, E-Z Eye tinted glass, oil filter, and oil-bath air cleaner.
Severe-service options included a locking rear differential, heavy-duty rear axle, heavy-duty springs and shocks, draw bar, "hot climate" radiator, and power take-off unit. There were also two governors offered -- variable and constant speed -- and a variety of optional tires, along with lock-out hubs that disengaged the front drive for reduced tire and front-end wear. Task- specific gear ran to bulldozer blades, snowplows, bed- or front-mounted winches, and wrecker equipment.
The Willys Forward Control trucks were introduced for the 1957 model year in two phases, starting with the FC-150 series, which arrived during December 1956. The FC-170 series had its formal introduction in May 1957. According to published reports, dealers received these new products with a great deal of enthusiasm, and expectations were high that the trucks would be strong sellers.
To ensure that dealers were up to the job of selling the FC, Willys offered training sessions on how to merchandise Jeep vehicles. This involved hands-on training in how to demonstrate the myriad (and complicated) work accessories that were offered. Willys salesmen were taught to emphasize Jeep's rugged design and go-anywhere capability. "Jeep tough job traction can take your full payload up and down hills impossible for conventional 2-wheel drive vehicles" noted one sales brochure. Jeep claimed the FC could climb grades of up to 60 percent.
For the most part, the automotive press liked the new vehicles. Jeep had a
well-earned reputation for toughness and reliability, and the FCs benefited from that. Tom McCahill told his Mechanix Illustrated readers, "The four-wheel drive, which I first tested up a mountainside during a rain squall, has all the surefootedness of a telephone lineman going up a pole." Response to Jeep's new styling approach was mostly enthusiastic, too. Motor Trend, which opined that the cab looked like a whirlybird's bubble cockpit, dubbed the FC's styling the "helicopter look."
The overall market for commercial vehicles was down in 1957. Willys suffered along with the rest, selling 60,500 vehicles, roughly five percent fewer than the previous year. For the year, Willys (since 1953 a unit of Kaiser Industries) earned a bit over $5 million on sales volume of $140,676,000. The company continued to shine in overseas markets and was the largest U.S. exporter of vehicles in the 10,000-pound-and-under GVW category that year, as well as the third largest U.S. exporter of commercial vehicles of all types.
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For 1958, a year in which Willys Motors profits rose to $6.8 million, the Jeep FC-150s got wider axles and revised springs for improved handling. In 1959, the company added the Ottawa backhoe to FC's optional equipment offerings. The device could be mounted on an FC at any of Ottawa's three facilities or could be ordered as a dealer-installed kit.
During the year, the FC's engine doghouse was revised to address some cooling problems. Also appearing in 1959 was a new heavy-duty FC-170 DRW with dual rear wheels. With a beefier rear axle and six-lug split-ring wheels, the DRW could haul a two-ton load.
The FC was put to the test in numerous ways. Aircraft manufacturer Boeing purchased a 150 "Fire and Rescue" truck for its Wichita, Kansas plant. Some companies purchased FCs for yard engines to jockey trailers around storage facilities. Several owners had camper bodies installed on their FCs, and there were even fleets of FC-150 ice cream trucks!
During 1960, a railroad ordered a fleet of Forward Control trucks outfitted to ride both on and off the rails. To attract the attention of farmers and ranchers at a livestock fair, one San Antonio, Texas, dealer loaded up a 170 with 84 bales of hay weighing 4,600 pounds.
At some point, Willys investigated offering a Ford V-8 as an option. The V-8 promised greater hauling capability; in one Jeep styling sketch, an FC was pictured as an over-the-road truck pulling a large trailer. The company also reviewed a proposal by Brooks Stevens to create a small van on the FC chassis. To demonstrate its versatility, Stevens commissioned the building of a lovely concept vehicle. Although it was very attractive, Willys choose not to put it in production. Apparently a midrange FC-160 model was also considered but not produced.
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Four interesting M-series military applications appeared around 1962. The M-676 was a pickup similar to a standard FC, M-677 was a four-door crew-cab pickup, M-678 was a window van, and M-679 was an ambulance with a closed van-type body. Motive power included the Willys six or a three-cylinder Cerlist diesel engine. Most were purchased by the Navy and Marine Corps.
Beginning in 1964, the FC-170 DRW was offered only in cab-and-chassis form. Not that it mattered very much; the FC was nearing the end of the line in America. With the debut of all-new Jeep Gladiator trucks in 1963, Jeep buyers had a more modern (and prettier) alternative to the FC series. Then, too, FCs never caught on with casual users the way that more mainstream trucks did. Forward Controls were seen as purely work trucks. A farmer might buy a Ford F-Series pickup for hauling supplies during the week, then use it to take the wife out to dinner on Saturday. But it wasn't that way with FCs. They were purchased mainly for heavy jobs.
Domestic FC production ceased by the end of 1964. Some 1965 models may have been produced before the end, or the occasional 1965 model one hears of nowadays might simply have been a leftover 1964 that was sold during the following year. Either way, it wasn't the end of the Forward Control trucks.
In March 1965, the company reported that Mahindra & Mahindra, a Jeep licensee in India, had purchased tooling, dies, and equipment to manufacture trucks. Although the type of truck wasn't specified, it seems likely that what Mahindra bought was the FC tooling. What is certain is that Mahindra produced FC trucks into the Nineties, including a 160 model on a 92-inch wheelbase. (Even today the firm catalogs a minibus with grille clearly meant to resemble the FC.) So although the Jeep Forward Control wasn't a big hit in its native land, it eventually did find fame and fortune overseas.