If there's one thing modern-day Jeep loves, as a company, it's their own face. That round-eyed, slotted-grille iconic Jeep face that they love so much, they've even given it a name: Sarge. But here's the dirty truth: that iconic Jeep face wasn't designed by Willys — it started as a Ford design.
I don't necessarily think this is an absolute secret or anything, but it's certainly not something that Jeep's going out of their way to tell anyone. So much of Jeep's identity is wrapped up in that design that to think of it as anything other than Jeep is almost impossible. But it was born in the minds of Ford engineers, and there's even a bit of visual legacy to back it up.
To know where the iconic Jeep face came from, we have to go a little bit into Jeep history here. When the Army Quartermaster Corps put out its list of specifications for a general-purpose "light reconnaissance and command car" only one company actually managed to finish and deliver a prototype in time: American Bantam.
American Bantam's prototype (called the 'Blitz Buggy' or 'Pilot') was pretty close to what the Army wanted, but they knew little American Bantam wouldn't have the resources to produce as many Jeeps as would be needed. So, The Army invited Ford and Willys to come check out the Bantam prototype and then make versions of their own.
Willys delivered the Willys Quad, and Ford came up with the Pygmy. Both were very similar (since most of the key design elements they'd cribbed from Bantam's prototype, anyway) but in the end, the Willys basic design was chosen, in no small part thanks to their robust drivetrain and their excellent (and, at 60HP, the most powerful) Go-Devil engine.
Still, both Ford and Willys were given contracts to build the new General Purpose vehicles (GPs, or, Jeeps) since it was clear the US would need a hell of a lot of them and we'd need Ford's vast manufacturing capabilities. Really, all three cars/companies got the go-ahead in 1940, but the realities of the vast amount of production needed and the standardization required led to a hybrid vehicle based on the Willys MA (a development of the original Quad proto), but with Ford (and, to a lesser extent, Bantam's) details and designs mixed in. Willys retained the license to the basic design, and licensed it to Ford for production (that's what the 'W' in Ford GPW stands for).
One of the most noticeable contributions to the hybrid design was the adoption of the Ford's flat hood and front end. While the final Jeep was being prepared for mass-production (called the Willys MB or Ford GPW, depending on who built it, but screw that, everyone just called 'em Jeeps) Ford realized that the grille/front end could be built much more quickly and cheaply if they used a single stamped piece of steel instead of the iron fence-like construction of the prototype.
And, if you look at the Pygmy's front end, you can clearly see the iconic Jeep face: the headlights are in the same place, the piece-of-bread overall shape is there, and there's vertical slats for the grille. Make everything from a solid sheet of steel, and boom, there's the iconic Jeep face.
The original Willys design doesn't look anything like the finalized Jeep face because Willys never designed the iconic Jeep face.
After the war, when Willys had the rights to build civilian Jeeps, they wanted to trademark their now well-known Jeep face. In order to do this, they had to change it from the Ford-designed version with its 9-slot grille to the 7-slot version we still know today. But that's the only change they made, and, really that fundamental design is still Ford's, clearly based on the design of their Pygmy prototype.
What makes this so ironic is that Jeep is a fierce protector of their front end design, and while there are Jeep licensees who have been building Jeep-faced vehicles for decades, like the Mahindra Thar, other companies have been prevented from making vehicles that look anything like like the iconic Jeep, which is hardly surprising.
In fact, the WWII (and, later, the Korean War) Army Jeep's true successor, the M151, introduced in 1959 and produced by Ford, was prevented from using the vertical-slat grille design because of copyright and trademark issues from Jeep. Instead, Ford used a horizontal-slot design, which I'm sure was just fine, but it's ironic on so many levels that Ford themselves was prevented from using the design they came up with way back in WWII for a new Army vehicle.
So, Jeep, thanks for keeping such a wonderful, iconic bit of car design relevant today, even if you didn't come up with it. That's okay. Adoptive parents are just as loving.