Some have called it my mid-life crisis – this obsession I’ve had with the Willy’s jeep for the past two years. Those of us who grew up with one on the farm, learned to drive in one or merely rode in one for our first hunting trip will understand the passion that comes with owning one of these little character-ridden tubs. With a grill and headlight configuration that seems to have its own soul, each jeep could tell you so many stories about where it’s been and how many different people have been for a ride in its “luxurious” seats.
I bought my first 1949 CJ-3A from my good friend’s parents at age seventeen. They used the jeep twice a year to get them and their gear up the hills to deer camp, deep in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. It was ugly! With a face only a mother could love. Hunter green, loads of character-dents and scratches, orange wheels and a square hard top that made it look like a household appliance rolling down the road, but I was a teenage boy, and this was a jeep! I saw plenty of potential for a nifty ride to get me through my high school years, oblivious at the time, of the following these jeeps had around the world. Only later did I develop my own respect for how well this ugly little guy out performed many of the SUVs and four wheel drives it traveled with.
A new metal flake, midnight blue paint job, a “home” paint job by the way, accomplished in my best friend’s garage (we’ll talk about my best friend Richard later) with an exhaust fan in the window that promptly coated everything in reach a soft blue, new chrome wheels, a roll bar made in my high school metal shop class and a soft top from the Sears catalogue. Suddenly I had a ride the girls loved to be seen in and one that could still out-climb most of the rigs in the four wheel drive club at school.
I converted that jeep to a 12-volt system and with a few adapters and some help from Ray, my brother-in-law, we dropped in a V6 motor which finally enabled me to reach the speed limit.
Then came the day I’ve regretted for thirty years. The day when out of the blue, a man on the street offered me twice what I had invested in my little jeep…. and I sold it.
Every day since, when I’d see a flat fender on the road, on a trail ride in Moab or even rusting away in a field somewhere, I would wish I still had my little blue Willy’s Jeep.
Well, that was then and this is now. I’m older, wiser and fortunate enough to have income and time on my hands to finally realize my dream of finding an old CJ-3A and fixing her up just the way I wanted to. Introducing my 1951 CJ-3A “Willy’s Woody”. (PHOTO)
My 12 month labor-of-love started by combing the classified ads, e-bay and magazines until I got lucky and found a somewhat mechanically sound 1951 CJ-3A in a community just north of Salt Lake City. I bought that jeep the next day from Elaine. Elaine is a widower who had purchased the jeep as a gift for her late husband. He was a Vietnam War veteran who suffered through and finally succumbed to the effects of Agent Orange. He and Elaine loved all things military, especially World War 2 era. The couple had even owed an amphibious vehicle at one time. She thought he would enjoy driving and owning his own Willy’s Jeep. The jeep was painted and detailed with military insignia and on it were mounted all sorts of accessories like gas cans, a shovel and an ax. Even the tires were military. This Willy’s jeep had been transformed, given a new identity if you will. Transformed to resemble something from a veteran’s past memories to help him better cope with his situation.
When I handed Elaine the cash for the jeep she expressed how important it was to her that the new owner appreciate and enjoy the jeep as much as her and her late husband had. As I loaded the jeep onto a trailer I shared my vision for “our” jeep. She seemed excited, insisted I send pictures and asked if she could ride shotgun in the jeep’s first parade. I told her she could.
Months later, when I was deep into the body work on the jeep – grinding and sanding through different layers of paint, bondo, welds and lead body patches, work that was obviously performed by different craftsmen, in different time periods – I couldn’t help but think of how many times in the past sixty plus years this little jeep had been repaired or repainted and transformed to meet the new owner’s concept and needs. Much like Elaine had done for her husband.
However, before I tackled any of that body work, this jeep needed a top. Why not a wood top? I had a pile of used red oak I had salvaged from a construction remodel and a best friend, yes, the same Richard from high school, with an auto/wood shop. (See Gamut Design) Richard was fabricating and building four wheel drive versions of the 1940 Woody Wagons. Staging them on Suburban chassis with custom made composite fenders and body parts, then custom building each body cabinet to suit the owner’s specs.
So with my “vision,” no drawn plans, except a few sketches on a napkin, and Richard’s woody know-how we cut and often re-cut, clamped, glued, screwed, sanded, shaped and assembled the hard top and doors you see here, one stick at a time. Did I mention SANDED?! With all the rounded and shaped corners and edges, there is a LOT of hand sanding involved in the making of a wood top Willy’s Jeep. Throughout the project Richard often reminded me that my choice of wood (red oak) was more difficult to work with than most other hardwoods, and harder to SAND!! But I had the wood and loved the wood grain patterns and knots the oak had to offer.
My 1951“Willy’s Woody” is basically a restoration. Except for the removal of the oil bath air filter, to make room for a custom built heater, removal of the tailgate, which was filled in with a quarter inch steel plate and the seats, which were swapped out for a pair of center row buckets seats from a Windstar van, the jeep’s motor, body tub and parts, drive train, chassis and suspension, steering and brakes and 6-volt electrical system are all original. Along with new gauges, signal lights, rubber boots and seals ordered and purchased from the great folks at Kaiser Willy’s Auto Supply. We etched, primed and painted the jeep right there in the middle of the shop, opening the front door and placing an exhaust fan in the back door… just like we did thirty years ago in Richards’s garage.
Huge thanks go out to my buddy Richard who helped me with both CJ-3A restorations and didn’t laugh for too long after I told him of my Willy’s Woody idea. Larry Olsen, jeep expert and owner of On-N-Off Road Haus in Salt Lake City whose expertise and knowledge of the flat fender is unsurpassed, at least in this region. Larry’s shared input, direction and knowledge on this project was priceless. Thanks you old fart!
Honestly, this Willy’s restoration has been more fun than work. Not to mention very rewarding as each process was completed and assembled. I can’t imagine a more fun hobby or project for a father and son, family or just a group of friends.
Finally, I write, record, produce and perform parody songs and jingles for radio and television clients all around the country. So I thought it would be fun to take what I do for a living and share the fun and passion that I have for these little jeeps and pickups with my fellow “Willyites.” Please enjoy “I Get Around…(In My Willy’s),” a parody of the original song by the Beach Boys.