Willys Wagon

The F4-134 bites the dust

After driving my 49 Willys pickup for 15 or 20 thousand miles (these are only estimates since I didn't have a working odometer for the first year and a half) in December of 1998, I burned a valve. I mean burned it bad so I had 0 compression in that cylinder. Another cylinder was already at about 2/3 the compression it should have, due to some deep scars in the cylinder walls. So the engine wouldn't run and needed a complete overhaul, including a sleeve in #4. Total cost was estimated around $1000 - 1200 depending on whether or not it needed a new camshaft, etc.

The dilemma

I had traveled to Mexico to remote beaches with a friend in his 4WD. My son went with us. My daughter also wanted to find the idyllic remote beach in Mexico for a few days of relaxation. We live in Arizona, so the only beaches around here are little sandbars on the side of some man-made lakes. She had seen both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but never had a chance to play on the beach. My wife is not into camping, but with my two children and I, the narrow cab of the pickup for a trip of a couple of days of hot driving is not an attractive picture. But if we take the minivan, we have to stop where everyone else does at the end of the road. With a 4WD, the whole coastline of the Gulf of California is available.

So I could spend over $1000 to rebuild the F4 (and ride to Mexico like sardines), or I could get another old F4 that isn't in quite as bad of shape (and ride to Mexico like sardines), or I could buy another cheap Willys - a wagon! Guess which one I did.

The wagon

About the time I had saved the money for the engine rebuild, I found this 1960 wagon for sale in Santa Fe, NM for $1300. The price had dropped from $2000 due to an impending move and a soft market for Willys in Santa Fe. I'm in Arizona, New Mexico is right next door, and the wagon is drivable.

Let's go

The week before spring break, a rash plan was hatched. I would ride with my 16-year-old son to Santa Fe on Friday night; we would check the wagon and if it looked like it would make the trip home, we'd buy it and hit the road. A quick study of the highway maps showed that Phoenix to Santa Fe was 500 miles, give or take a couple. We left Friday after work on March 12, 1999 in a 1988 Chevy Sprint (the Suzuki-made pre-Geo speck). We made it to the New Mexico border by midnight and it started snowing soon thereafter. It was my son's first chance to drive in snow. The hypnotic flow of the snowflakes in the headlights was all too familiar from my years of living in snow country. The rushing white spots put Star Trek openings and Windows screen savers to shame. We were down to about 25 mph at times but we kept on driving. We reached Socorro in the wee hours of the morning and checked into the only open motel. In the morning, the snow had stopped, but sections of the interstate were still snow packed. We were in Santa Fe by about 9:30 a.m.

The Score

The wagon had a little rust around the rear wheels, and looked like it needed better care. It was clean and close to stock (except for the Ford 302 V8) but it needed a tinkerer to put it back in good condition. I filled the bill. Money changed hands. It had no tags, so we found our way to the DMV - CLOSED. Oh, well, what could we do? I had a bill of sale and title but no license plates and we're 500 miles from home. We checked all the fluids in the parking lot of the DMV, filling the transmission, transfer case and rear axle. A few squirts of grease in the wheel bearings, a full tank of gas and let's see how fast this thing will go. We took it slow for the first few miles, me in front and my son behind in the speck. We grabbed some burritos in a little taqueria in Albuquerque and on we went. The odometer was working, but not the speedometer. With hand held CB's we discovered that the red line on the 2" tack set at 3, was about 60 mph. The right front wheel had quite a hop in it. My son drove along side and said it was about as bad as any he had seen on the highway.

Flying down the highway

After filling up the tank again and checking all the fluids again, we decided to see how fast the wagon had to go to get beyond the frequency of the hop. Knowing that a V8 will turn up to 4000 rpm safely (at least if it is in good condition) we figured the engine was good for 80 mph, even if the rest of the vehicle wasn't. We finally settled on a speed of between 70 and 75 which made us neither the slowest, nor the fastest, on the road.

And so we rolled on, up one hill and down another, through the mountains and valleys of Western New Mexico and into Arizona. There was a little apprehension approaching Showlow (a town named for a version of poker) since the odometer showed that I had exceeded the range of the gas tank. I was getting between 13 and 14 miles per gallon, and the tank was taking about 12 gallons at each fill up. We had gone a little over 170 miles since the last stop for gas. We coasted down the hill into Showlow in the last fading light of the day. After gas and a burger, we were rolling again. We had now gone almost 800 miles in the last 26 hours, and had 200 more to go. We could almost feel the nice soft beds at the end of the drive. We would be home by midnight if our luck held.

Lost a gear

But it seems our luck was wearing thin. An hour or two later as we were heading down a winding road into the Salt River canyon on about an 8% grade, I was behind a large semi trailer rig going 20 miles per hour. I was in 2nd gear when suddenly I was freewheeling! I tried to shift back into gear. Nothing! I had no gears. A semi in front and two dozen cars behind, when we hit the bottom of the canyon in another couple hundred yards, I would coast to a stop on the narrow bridge. I quickly darted out onto a scenic pullout and stopped. My son missed the turnout and continued on in the parade. I had brakes so stopped OK, but I had no parking brakes, and no gears. On a 5% slope, what keeps the wagon from rolling? I found a position crossways to the slope that seemed to be stable, then jumped out and frantically searched in headlights for a rock, a beer can, anything to block the wheels. You drive by tons of roadside garbage but where is it when you need it? I finally found a couple of rocks and blocked the wheels. It was about 10 p.m. I had a flashlight and few tools, but this was not ideal tinkering conditions. My son came back, and we messed around long enough to figure the transmission had gears, we could feel them with the shift lever. The unsynchronized 1st ground with the engine running, so we had power into the transmission. Likewise, the transfer case had gears. We must have broken the drive gear for the transfer case. Everything was too hot to touch and we had no place to drain the oil except the pavement. Even if we were so callous to the environment as to dump our oil, we would have to lie in the oil to see anything, and how would we fill it again? We had already used most of our gallon of gear oil to fill the boxes in Santa Fe. We decided to go find a phone to call Bubba. He'll know what to do!

Bubba Help!

The next phone was 60 miles down the road in Globe. We called him and he said if you leave a vehicle with no plates at the side of the road, the first highway patrol that sees it will have it towed and you'll never get it back. On the bright side, the patrol of lonely roads in the middle of the night is pretty infrequent (as in never) and of the 20 towing services that he knows, most will not tow out of the Salt River Canyon - too far, too steep, too sharp of corners. So at least we could hope it would be there when we got back. The few towing outfits that will tow in the canyon charge by the mile - $20. Do the math. A tow out of the canyon to home would cost as more than I had just paid for the wagon! Bubba was on his way and would tow us if he had to, but we ought to see if there was any alternative. We bought a gallon of gear oil, and a couple drain pans. (Thank goodness for that late night Wal-Mart.) We drove back to the canyon.

McGuiver to the rescue

It was now after midnight, and we had managed to get only a few hours of sleep the night before. It was pitch black. There was no traffic on the road. At least the transmission had cooled down to where you could touch it. With a flashlight, I drained the transfer case. Then I pulled the transfer case pan. There on the pan was a 1 1/8" castle nut. Looking up into the case, I could see the input gear lying sideways against the intermediate shaft. Jonathan wanted to see it. I crawled out and he crawled under. With his more agile hands, he was able to put the gear back up on the shaft, put the washer back on, and the nut. "How tight does this have to be torqued?" "Well the splines carry the load, so it doesn't have to be tight, it just needs to stay on." "Where is the cotter pin?" "I never saw one." Apparently the previous mechanic had not bothered to put a cotter pin through the nut. "Have you got a cotter pin?" After a little searching in the toolbox, "Negatory." "How about a nail or piece of wire?" Once again I searched the roadside for the trash that is always there, except when you need it. Finally it dawned on me that I had my coveralls over my clothes, and a large safety pin held each side vent closed. I gave my son a safety pin and he "McGuivered" the transfer case. Bubba pulled up as Jon was putting the pan back on. Bubba was glad not to have to tow out of the canyon, even though he had managed to come up with a real tow truck! Never underestimate the power of a Bubba.

Into the night

The three of us headed out of the canyon. We gassed up in Globe and on through the hills toward Phoenix. We pretty much had the freeway to ourselves as Bubba pealed off in Mesa about 3 a.m. Through glazed zombie eyes we watched the familiar exits slip past to the steady drone of engines. At last, it was hard to believe, we were finally home. Over a thousand miles in a day and a half, with nothing more than the biggest snow storm of the season and a lost gear to slow us down.

Owning a wagon

The wagon had made it home, but it didn't take to the roads again for a couple of weeks. We missed the spring break trip to Mexico. It needed a new rear pinion bearing, a balanced drive shaft, a new right front hub and drum. I had new ring and pinion put in the rear too. Jon was so disappointed with the spring break trip failure; he has never liked the wagon since. Amanda and I made it to Mexico in May, for the idyllic beach camping trip she had always dreamed of, except for the sunburn! Jon hiked the Grand Canyon that week.

Bubba and I have welded new floor pans into both sides. I rebuilt the carburetor, put a spacer on the water pump pulley so it would line up with the crank pulley, swapped on the better front hubs from my 49 pickup, fixed the seat so it would adjust forward and back.

I modified a luggage rack to go on the roof.

I have had the transmission and transfer case apart for repairs. There is always something more to do.

More pictures are in the Gallery.

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