Most of us know something of the Jeep's origin story, with the military sending out a list of requirements and an insane 49-day deadline, and only plucky little desperate American Bantam actually got a vehicle in by the deadline. But what's less known is the insane vehicle that inspired it all: the Belly-Flopper.
Well, technically, it's the Howie-Wiley Machine Gun Carrier, but everyone called it the Belly-Flopper, for the obvious reason that you drove and rode in it flopped, on your belly. That's plenty weird, absolutely. But it's not even the strangest part about this car. The strangest part is that the Belly-Flopper used a layout that I've only ever heard of on two other (also bonkers) cars: the legendary rear-engine, front-drive layout.
Aside from the Belly-Flopper, only Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion and a crazy one-off Gregory I saw at the Lane Motor Museum are the only cars I can think of to use this insane, ass-backwards layout. In the case of the Belly-Flopper, there's sort of reasons for it, though to understand them, we should look at how and why the Belly-Flopper came to be.
Around 1936, Captain Robert G. Howie and Master Sergeant M. Wiley of Ft.Benning in Georgia realized that some sort of standardized light reconnaissance vehicle (and machine gun carrier) would be really, really useful, and could help simplify the army's then chaotic mix of horses, random automobiles/trucks, and motorcycles.
Using a chassis and drivetrain 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, laying 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. It's not clear about the throttle from what I've read, but I suspect it's hand-operated, 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 I bet 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 propshaft. 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 I 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 maneuverable, and it impressed the Army enough that in 1940 auto manufacturers were invited to come check it out.
The strange car made an impression, though not always a good one. 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.
... which I guess was taken as a negative?
The Army's Quartermaster Corps weren't so impressed with the Belly-Flopper as it stood, but it did get them thinking. A lot. So much so that they had decided they needed a vehicle to fill the Belly-Flopper's role, but with some more strict and detailed criteria, which they published on July 7, 1940:
- A driving front axle with 2-speed transfer case including provisions for disengaging the front axle drive.
- A body of rectangular design with a folding windshield and 3 bucket seats.
- Increased engine power (presumably in respect to the Belly-Flopperprototype).
- Means for towing.
- 30-caliber machine gun mount.
- Blackout lighting.
- Oil-bath air cleaner.
- Hydraulic brakes.
- Full floating axles.
- Wheelbase of 80".
- Maximum height of 40".
- Maximum weight of 1275 lbs.
- Approach and departure angles of 45 and 40 degrees, respectively.
- Must reach 50 mph on hard surface.
- Special bracing for a pintle hook setup.
- No aluminum to be used for cylinder head.
- At least 4 cylinders.
- 8 of the 70 vehicles had to be four-wheel-steer
Of course, the resulting vehicle was very different than the Belly-Flopper. But, that crazy old skateboard was the only real military-built precursor to the Jeep, and, if it hadn't been for the Belly-Flopper, the Quartermaster Corps wouldn't have had such a great frame of reference to know what they didn't want, which directly led them to what they did.
Not too bad for a crazy, ass-backwards skateboard with a gun.