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Ben Gregory, age 82
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Fast forward to 1946——the dawn of helicopter warfare————————-
One of the requests for the March Military Campaign that I fielded this year came from Myron Vernis, who asked if we’d yet written about the Mighty Mite. I searched our archives to find out that not only had we not written about it, but also that I was frequently confusing the Mighty Mite with the Mutt.
It’s not that difficult to confuse the two. Besides the similar names, both were quarter-ton, four-wheel-drive replacements for the Jeep, the timelines for the two overlap, and both feature independent front and rear suspensions. But the differences between the two are substantial.
So let’s start with the Mighty Mite, above. With a development history that dates back to 1946, it predates the Mutt by several years. Engineer Benjamin F. Gregory, to pursue his concept of an ultra-light jeep, formed the Mid-America Research Corporation (MARCO) to design and build the MM100, recruiting four of the engineers who worked on the original Bantam BRC jeep. When MARCO debuted the MM100 in 1950, it used an aluminum body, a 52hp 91.5-cu.in. Porsche flat-four and sat on a 64-1/2-inch wheelbase (the Willys MB rode a 90-inch wheelbase). The unusual independent suspension used a combination of swing arms and cantilevered quarter-elliptic springs at all four corners, aluminum differentials and inboard brakes.
It performed exceedingly well in tests run by the Marine Corps, which was looking for a jeep that was light enough to be carried by helicopters to the front lines. However, it couldn’t enter production due to the foreign-sourced engine. Thus, in 1954, MARCO turned to the newly formed American Motors, which had already begun developing its own air-cooled four-cylinder engine, a 50hp 95-cu.in. V-4. AMC enlarged the engine to 108 cubic inches and in January 1960 began to fill the Marine Corps’ order for the Mighty Mite, now designated the M422. Total production over the next three years – including the lengthened M422A1 – is estimated at less than 4,000; as MARCO and AMC developed the Mighty Mite, helicopters grew strong enough to lift a standard M38 or M151, thus negating the need for an ultra-light jeep.
The M151 Mutt, on the other hand, was built to replace the M38 entirely and to introduce new vehicular technologies, such as unibody construction and coil-sprung independent suspension. Ford actually began designing the Military Utility Tactical Truck in 1951, inspired by the DKW Munga, a jeep-like vehicle that used a three-cylinder two-stroke engine. Actual production didn’t begin until 1959, with production contracts awarded to Ford, Kaiser and AM General. The engine, a typical water-cooled four-cylinder, came from Hercules and put out about 65hp (though Crismon does include a couple pictures of a turbine-powered version). The MUTT remained in production through 1982 through several iterations, including the M151A1, designed to increase load capacity; the M151A2, which corrected the infamous rear suspension design flaws that caused rollovers; and several ambulance, firefighting and gun-carrying versions. Its direct replacement was the AM HMMWV.
Mid-America — April 2006
Recalling a Kansas City pioneer
On New Year’s Day, in his weekly automotive feature in The Kansas City Star, Tom Strongman featured a unique sports car built by Ben Gregory. The car, completed in the 1950s, had many innovations, including a center-point steering setup and front wheel drive, both unique in its day. Bob Chinnery of Independence, MO now owns the car and plans to restore it.
The article brought back memories of several interviews I had with Gregory in 1970 when I was researching my book Aviation History in Greater Kansas City.
Photo of Ben Gregory taken in May of 1926. (photo courtesy of Aviation History in Greater Kansas City)
Gregory died in 1974, after a long life full of adventure. While he spent much of his life tinkering with front-wheel-drive roadsters and a miniature Jeep-like vehicle for the Marines called the Mighty Mite, Gregory was once known in Kansas City as a barnstorming pilot.
Although he helped test a biplane in Overland Park in 1910, Gregory’s flying career started in 1921 when he bought a Lewis Bennett, a modified Curtiss “Jenny” biplane.
“With oversized wings and a control wheel that replaced the stick, the Lewis Bennett made a good barnstorming plane,” Gregory told me. “I bought it from Frank Stanton, sales manager of the company. There were only three built, and I eventually owned all three of them.”
In 1924, Gregory was flying near Joplin, MO, hopping rides to lead miners in the area. Nearby was a children’s tuberculosis sanitarium. Gregory asked the hospital director if his flying disturbed the younger patients. “Gosh, no,” the director told him. “Your airplane is the best therapy these kids have ever had.”
Gregory had an idea. He made a few phone calls. Soon a Joplin tent and awning company had erected a tent with a carpeted floor. A local dairy brought ice cream by the 5-gallon drum. A gas company donated enough gas to keep the Lewis Bennett flying a month. Before the weekend was over, every child in the hospital went for a ride in Ben Gregory’s airplane.
In 1925, after giving hop-rides in a variety of aircraft, Gregory helped organize an airline between Kansas City and Wichita. The enterprise failed when the owner of the engines the airline planned to stockpile was killed in a crash in Ohio.
In 1929, Gregory began a career that established his reputation as a big-plane barnstormer. Flying the venerable Ford Tri-Motor, Gregory could haul up to 14 passengers per hop. In the Depression years, Gregory had to work hard to keep his barnstorming business going. Unable to get passengers for the going rate of $1.50, Gregory reduced the price to 50 cents, advertised extensively and toured the Midwest with his “Tin Goose.”
In San Antonio, TX, 8,000 persons came out to “Fly With Ben.” The entire population of Lawton, OK did the same, as did the entire university enrollment at Norman. Joplin went mad for flights, with 12,000 persons paying for a ride. Gregory had similar success in Davenport and Waterloo, IA.
A new wrinkle developed. Some couples wanted to get married in mid-air. So Gregory hired a preacher by the hour, supplied licenses and got local jewelers to furnish wedding rings for publicity. In all, 96 weddings were performed in the rattling tri-motor.
Ben Gregory’s Ford Tri-Motor, the “Ship From Mars.” (photo courtesy of Aviation History in Greater Kansas City)
In 1936, Gregory came up with a unique aerial act, the “Ship from Mars.” He replaced the tri-motor’s seats with a generator, which powered several searchlights and about 250 feet of neon tubing on each side of the plane. In addition, a device created smoke that poured from all three engines.
For the next six years, Gregory’s “Ship from Mars” thrilled fairgoers and townspeople throughout the Midwest. According to Gregory, many a breathless reporter turned in a story of a “flaming holocaust” only to have his editor laugh him out of the newsroom.
When I talked to Gregory in 1970, he was in his eighties but his mind was still sharp. I often saw him driving his red sport car in North Kansas City, and would see him at meetings of the OX5 Club, a group of veteran pilots. He told me he still felt young.
“I enjoy the company of younger folks more than these old birds,” he said.
Ken Weyand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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