So you want to buy an old Willys...


I have received many email messages from people saying they enjoyed my web pages, are considering the purchase of an old Willys, and would like my advice. I have tried to reply to each of these people, since I like Willys, and like to talk about Willys, and by extension, like to talk to people who like Willys. But to provide my advice, whatever it is worth, to those who are too timid to email me, and to ensure someone doesn't get short changed because I am busy the day they email me, I have decided to write a page of advice to whoever is foolish enough to read it.

The first piece of advice I give everyone who has a Willys, or is thinking of getting a Willys, is get a service manual. There is a reprint of a manual published by Willys in 1956 that is available in many places. It is called "Service Manual for 'Jeep' Utility Vehicles". It is available from several of the parts sources listed on my page. Turner 4WD even has a picture of the manual. It costs about $30. Check at your local 4WD specialty shop if you are lucky enough to live near one. I bought mine the day after I bought my truck, which may have been a little late.  

The second piece of advice is to enter into this venture with a realistic expectation of doing some mechanical work. My truck is approaching 50 years old, and let's face it -- parts wear out! If they have not already been replaced (or if they were replaced 20 or 30 years ago) they will need to be replaced (again) soon. I know a man who bought a Willys truck and then paid a mechanic to restore it. It is beautiful! He obviously has a lot more money than I do. If you can afford to pay someone to do the work for you, by all means do it. But make sure you've got a good mechanic who is honest and will do it right. For the rest of us, our old Willys is a labor of love that in our dreams might someday be one of those shiny show vehicles, but in the mean time it is just another old beater. The simplest way to say it is: "You have to love to work on old trucks to drive one."  

The third theme I find myself saying over and over is if you are not an expert mechanic, find a friend who is. I never took an auto shop class in high school. I didn't go to trade tech to study auto mechanics. But I have a brother-in-law who lives close by (20 miles) that was trained by GM and worked as a mechanic at a dealership. He also raced at the local tracks when young and has been tinkering with cars for 40 years. He works as a driver at an automotive test facility. His advice is as valuable as the manual and usually a lot more reliable than the guy at the parts counter. He is "Uncle Bubba" to my children. Find a Bubba of your own.  

Another theme is some parts are hard to find. That's why I put all the parts sources on my web page. I have ordered parts from places coast-to-coast. I like to pick them up locally, and I do have a couple of good 4WD shops close by (4 Wheeler Supply & Statewide, Phoenix); but sometimes parts aren't available locally. Amazingly, sometimes I have been able to buy a part from someone in another state and have it shipped to me for less than the price at a local supplier! If you are talking to an old Jeep specialty shop, they will know what you are talking about when you ask for a part. If you go to the local general purpose auto parts place (like Checker, Autozone, or NAPA), they will usually have a hard time figuring out whether or not they have, or can get, the part you need. They all have computerized parts listings that cover all vehicles back for over 30 years. And there is the problem -- Your Willys will not be in their computer! Always take the old part with you when you go to the parts store. It can be a help in finding the right part.  

Another universal truth is good tools make any job easier. I broke many sockets and ratchets before I started paying more for better quality tools. Get tools that have a lifetime warranty, like Craftsman, Crewline, or Husky. Once in a while I brake a socket, but I take it back and get a free replacement. Good tools are cheaper in the long run and make the work so much more enjoyable. Basic tools that you will need include:

Other specialty tools will come in handy as well. Some places rent such tools, but if you are going to keep working on your Willys, eventually it will prove to be cheaper to own them instead of renting. I pick these up as necessary. They include wheel puller, pulley puller, pitman arm puller, and bearing pullers. You'll need some large sockets for specific nuts like the steering wheel nut (1 1/4"), axle nut (2 1/8"), crank pulley nut (1 5/16" or 36mm). If you have a hard surface to work on, get a rolling floor jack (it will save you lots of time and effort) and a creeper. I probably have hundreds of dollars worth of tools, but if I don't have the right tool, sometimes I just can't fix the Willys. Music is nice while you are working. It helps me to stay calm when things are not going well.  

As you may have detected from the Why I love my Willys page, I have a truck that is pretty near stock. I like it that way. Occasionally I meet someone who, though they don't own a Willys, is sure that the best thing to do would be to plop in a small block V8 with a four barrel carb, some headers and dual glass pack mufflers, an auto transmission, stereo, light bars, a 6 inch lift, chrome wheels, and 38" mudders! While I'll admit such a truck would be pretty wild, it is not what I'm after. If I wanted a monster truck, I would start with something other than an old Willys. I know some people have monster Willys, and I don't mean to put them down. They have built some awesome rigs, but for me, my Willys is an escape from high glitz, from the world that quests for power, from the never-ending hunger for the latest-and-greatest toy, to a world of simple functionality. Yeah, an old Willys has a distinctive style, but it is a style born of genuine character. These were tough trucks when new, and with a few long-overdue repairs and regular maintenance, they are still tough trucks. My Willys will never be the fastest, or biggest, or shiniest. That's why I like it. So my advice for those who want to build a monster Willys: find a vehicle without an engine, or even axles. Take the sheet metal and graft it onto the frame of some more contemporary truck or even a custom frame, with a super drive-train. Leave the stock trucks that are still in drivable condition to those who love the true character of a Willys.  

What should you do first? If you have the luxury of time and money, take the whole thing apart, and replace or repair every worn out piece. A frame-up restorations is great! I'm guessing this should take two or three years and about $10,000.  

And now for the rest of us. If you are going to drive it, fix the safety features first. Don't get it rolling until you know the brakes can stop it. I had to replace all four wheel cylinders and the master cylinder, also all the rubber brake lines and most of the metal lines. New shoes were nice too. Make sure the steering is OK. I've had a couple of problems and believe me, it is really scary when you need to turn and can't.  

Make sure it is legal before you go on public roads. This means head lights, tail lights (early trucks had only one), signal lights (early trucks didn't have any), windshield, seat belts (weren't mandatory on cars until after the end of production of the Willys), horn, and current registration.  

Next I would start working on performance issues. Performance can best be judged by driving, so this phase can last for months or even years. When you first get the Willys (or even before you buy it), it would be a good idea to check the compression. This will tell you how good the engine is. Uneven compression (more than 15 or 20 lbs. difference between cylinders) indicates a problem. The solution may be as simple as adjusting the valves or as costly as rebuilding the engine (up to $1500).

It is nice to be able to start it up easily. I had to replace or repair a lot of things to achieve this. A new battery (650 CCA), rebuilt generator, repaired starter, new plugs, wires, distributor cap, rotor, condenser, coil, and repair to the lower end of the distributor, new fuel pump, new float in the carburetor, and various carburetor adjustments. When everything is right, it starts up on about the second or third turn of the engine. Some people say you have to convert to 12V so it will startup easily. Don't believe them. There are advantages to being 12V, like electric winches, radios, and other electrical add-ons, but a well tuned 6V system starts easily.

An old radiator may need to be boiled and rodded to perform satisfactorily. An old gas tank is often rusty inside. Make sure you have a fuel filter in the gas line before that rust gets into the carburetor. Worn out bearings cause noise, vibration, and lower fuel efficiency. I have replaced wheel, differential, king-pin and engine bearings. Worn out U-joints make a lot of vibration. My drive-shaft slider was worn out and caused terrible vibration until I got a new drive-shaft.

If a vehicle has been sitting for more than a few months, you should replace all the fluids. That means engine oil, gas (don't use that nasty old gas), radiator coolant, brake fluid (a complete flush of the system), and transmission, transfer-case and differential gear oil.

Unless they have been replaced by someone recently, all rubber parts will need to be replaced: tires, brake lines, water hoses, fuel and oil lines, body mounts, belts, wipers, door gaskets, and a bunch of seals. The seals are usually oily so the rubber doesn't rot as fast, but they wear out from the friction of turning shafts. If there is any original wiring left (it is the rubber and woven cloth shielded stuff) the insulation can crumble and the bare wire can cause an electrical short. Even plastic insulated wires that replaced the original wires and are now twenty years old may have to be replaced.

I'm sure there are dozens of other things that need to be done to improve the performance, but that's enough to give you the picture. Remember, you have to really love to work on old trucks to drive one.  

And lastly, at least for me, are the aesthetic issues. If it is safe, legal and performing OK, it's time to start working on the way the thing looks. I've worked on a few aesthetic issues while still working on performance, but if there is ever a question of whether to spend my limited time and money on looks or a performance, I have to go with the performance issue. What good is a great looking truck that won't run? There is lots of aesthetic work to be done on an old truck. Sanding off loose paint, replacing scratched and cracked glass, new upholstery, pounding out dents, and getting rid of rust. You can sand off surface rust, until bare and shiny metal is showing, then paint it; but on those places you can't sand, or places where you don't want to sand, like the under side of the bed, use a rust converter, like "naval jelly". Phosphoric acid pulls the oxygen off iron oxide molecules and converts them to iron phosphate, a black hard compound that inhibits further oxidation. You've got to use rubber gloves to protect your hands, and it ruins any paint it touches. Most old Willys could use a liberal dose of phosphoric acid.

And my last advice, if the previous list of possible repairs hasn't totally scared the "willies" out of you, go for it!

Please feel free to email me, Rick Grover, to ask specific questions. If you think your Willys needs one of the repairs I have mentioned, I can tell you my experience. Yes, I have really done all those things over the last year and a half.

- Rick
Fall '97

For more ideas about resurrecting an old Willys, check out Rick Stiver's WHERE DO I START page.

© Richard B. Grover 1997 to 2006. Last updated: Thursday, March 1, 2001