In early 2011, I began asking my dad if he wanted to do a car restoration project with me. I know Jeeps and Willys pretty well, so I thought a project with those types of vehicles would be fun. My dad is just a “weekend mechanic”, and has never done any body work before, so he was pretty resistant to the idea. Then he started thinking that a father/son project might be kind of fun and an experience that we would always remember. As long as the project was not too complicated, he said he would give it a go. We wanted a project where we could do most of the work ourselves so it would have more meaning when completed. I love Jeeps and Willys, and we both liked the looks of the 40’s/50’s flat-fenders, so we started to look for a CJ from that time period. We checked out a few that were really rough, and then found a 1951 CJ3A that was in good mechanical condition and with not too much rust because it was from a dry climate. We sealed the deal on April 30, 2011 and brought her home. It ran real well, so we decided to enjoy it and drive it around our small town for a few weeks. We did, however, set an ambitious goal for completion of the project by early September so we could take the Willys to a big classic car show at the beach. We even made hotel reservations so we would be pushed to make our completion date.
We changed most of the seals and gaskets on the engine and drive train during the first few weeks. We also repaired some loose steering and suspension parts. Then in late May we started taking all the body parts off the frame and we knew there would be no turning back! The Willys had the usual dents, rips and missing parts, so we learned how to do body work as we went. Both of us wanted to keep it as original as possible because we knew that restoring it to original was what would make it more unique. Over the course of a lot of weekends and late nights we took it down to bare metal. I know how to weld, so I had that job while my dad was the in charge of most of the grinding and cutting. We also learned how to do body fill work so that it would come out straight and clean when we had it painted. When one of us was tired and wanted to cut corners, the other one would encourage him to “do it right”, and we did. We kept lists of needed replacement parts and placed several orders as we went. We were both pleasantly surprised at how readily available most of the parts were.
When it came time to choose a color to paint the Willys, I chose a color close to an original that was used on the 1951 CJ3a models but also a bit unique. We found a great painter, and when we saw the painted pieces it got us excited all over again and even more determined to get her finished on time. It was now mid-August and time was running short to make the show! We began the task of re-assembly and replaced every nut, bolt and screw so that it matched the original. Thank goodness we took a lot of photos before and during the disassembly – something I would encourage everyone to do. It really saved us a few times when locating bolts, gauges, wiring, etc.
We finally finished it during the first few days of September, and you have never seen two guys more proud of the finished product! We took it down to the car show and everyone just loved it as it was one of only a few Willys there…and of course we think the nicest. We had a great time at the show and plan to return next year. Later in September, I even won “Best of Show” at a large car show in our local area.
During the course of the project we alternately laughed, argued, got excited, frustrated and experienced all the other emotions that are typical of a project like this. Both of us will tell you, however, that we will always cherish the experience and the finished product, and neither of us would trade the experience for anything. I am sure that we will have the Willys for many years to come, and someday I will show it to my son and tell him our story right before we start our own project together. What a great experience!