Why have so few examples of this cast aluminum model of the M-274 "Mechanical Mule" surfaced? Apparently produced for Willys Motors, perhaps as a promotional item, it carries no marks identifying the manufacturer. It has been suggested that it might be one of the Al-Toy Aluminum Toy Jeeps produced for Willys by Toledo Casting in the 1940's, in which case it would be the rarest of them. The large (approx. 1/11-scale) model does have some similarities to the Al-Toys, and Willys and the Army were testing the M-274 in the late 1940's, although the Mule was not put into full production for the U.S. military until 1956.
Phil Bragg wrote to The CJ3B Page: "I have been doing some research on this die-cast M-274 Mechanical Mule. Just this week I acquired another one of these die-casts, and there are about 13 publicly known to exist. I have taken or shown mine at military vehicle shows and though they generate great interest no one knows anything about them. Many of us are afraid that the history of this model will fade away as most have come from estate sales."
"In the larger copy of the photo you can clearly read 'Willys Motors Inc.' on the rear of the model. The undercarriage (100K JPEG) has pretty amazing detail. It clearly shows the four-cylinder engine, transmission, drive train, steering linkage, etc."
"I have located this one photo in a July 1958 issue of the US Marine Corps Leatherneck magazine (50K JPEG) and have spoken with an M-274 Mule parts dealer who relayed to me an account of a person who told him of only 12 of these made for Willys.
"It is 10-5/8" in length and 4-3/4" wide, and weighs just over 3 pounds."
Although perhaps best known for its use by the Marines, the M-274 was first purchased in 1948 by the US Army to test as a cargo carrier, and was also used by the Navy and Air Force (see Marine Mule.) It evolved from a vehicle designed at the end of World War II by Willys-Overland as a medical evacuation litter carrier. There were 11,240 Mules produced between their introduction and 1970, when production ceased (see Wikipedia.)
The Mule was used as a platform for various weapons, and for carrying men, supplies and ammunition during the Vietnam War and into the 1980s. Rated for a load of 1,000 pounds, it was the first vehicle able to carry more than its own weight. There have been several plastic model kits of the M-274, including this 1/35-scale kit from Dragon Models which includes a 106mm recoilless rifle, a weapon vital to the Marines' strategy in the 1968 Battle of Hué.
All M-274 versions were equipped with full time four-wheel-drive, and earlier models were four-wheel-steer. The steering wheel could be adjusted to several positions, which allowed driving from a sitting, walking, kneeling or lying position. The only suspension was provided by the wide, low-pressure tires.
The engine was located under the platform at the rear, protected by a steel
cage. The early models built by Willys were equipped with a 4-cylinder, air-cooled engine, which was replaced in versions built by other suppliers with an air-cooled 2-cylinder horizontally-opposed Continental Hercules engine (see Mule History.)
Robert Wooley sent photos in 2011 of another of the diecast Mule models found in good condition. See also a right side view (60K JPEG).
Al-Toy collector Colin Peabody comments on the possible origin of the models: "The M-274 wasn't built by Willys until the mid-50's, when Toledo Casting and their associate names were supposedly no longer in business. I am thinking that the model was made by either Authenticast or Banthrico, even though the toy is the same scale as the Al-Toy Jeeps. Al-Toy always made their tires with their name on them, and the M-274 model doesn't have that trademark. I suppose that Oglesby or Westcraft could also have made it. One of the reasons I think the model was done by either Banthrico or Authenticast (Comet) is that Comet did a lot of military identification models for the troops, although most of them were smaller than the Mule or the Al-Toys. The last die-cast models, of the Surrey and of a Willys wagon, were done by Banthrico around the early 1960-61 period."
Glenn Byron adds: "I held one of these in my hands at Hershey many years ago. It was on a vendor's table alongside an Al-Toy Jeepster and Station Wagon, both of which I parted with mega $$$ to add to my collection. I found no evidence of Al-Toy being involved with this toy and was not at all impressed with it for the price, as the man wanted just as much for the Mule as he did for the Jeepster and Station Wagon. I do not doubt the rarity, as in all my travels I have only seen this one and I think one was on eBay a few years ago. It is a very unique toy and I'm sure a very historical piece, just not a part of Al-Toy lore. My thinking is that previous owners such as this vendor tried to make the connection to enhance its value."
Phil Bragg responds, "It is true that there are no markings on these tires. There appear to be at least two different sets of tires used (see photo) and neither have markings. Many of us who have been scratching our heads over this believe it was built as a sales tool, not a toy. Hence the detail of the undercarriage and its use in the Leatherneck magazine.
"In Willys News January 1958, an article entitled 'MULE DRAWS BIG CROWDS IN SHOWS ACROSS COUNTRY' states 'One of the most exciting vehicles among the hundreds of 1958 models exhibited at the Chicago Auto Show proved to be the Army's new M-274 Weapons Carrier, popularly known as the Mechanical Mule.' The article also mentions it being used in a TV commercial: 'Millions of other people have also seen the mule on television, as it appeared in commercials on the Maverick show recently.' Even the Leatherneck magazine mentions possible uses by farmers, ranchers and outdoorsmen. This shows that Willys may have had a civilian application in mind with the Mule. Did they make the die-cast models for this market?"
In 2011 Phil also found another Mule: "Front of foot basket and a rear corner of the deck were bent. Wheels were separated from body (50K JPEG) and the usual missing steering wheel and steering column. The wheels are the tractor style, not the non-directional tires usually found. Using a C-clamp I was able to straighten the dents, applying pressure with the screw handle. This worked reasonably well with this soft metal. Tiny cracks did form on the inside of the bend in the metal. Applied Super Glue to these cracks to prevent any further movement. This seems to work. I have an extra steering wheel and getting a piece of plastic or metal rod for a steering column will not be any problem. Discovered that a standard roofing tack pin happens to be the same diameter for the wheel hub and its disc is almost identical to the disc on the other mules with the exception of a small protrusion in the center of the original.
"Being that this Mule model had been damaged and its paint quite rough, I decided to paint this unit. While cleaning the deck of old paint I discovered that one of the screws holding the rear engine cage piece was somewhat loose. Whoever made the promotional models used a self-tapping screw that can only be screwed in and not removed. With a little work I was able to remove both screws and remove this engine cage piece. What I was hoping to find was a casting mark on the inside of this cage piece. Unfortunately there is nothing there."
Anybody have any more details on where, when and by whom this M-274 model was manufactured?
Thanks to Phil Bragg, Colin Peabody, Glenn Byron and Robert Wooley for their contributions. -- Derek Redmond
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