Why I love my Willys

My '49 Willys 'Jeep' Truck

I used to have a '76 Datsun pickup. It was old and only 2WD but kept on running (over 200k miles). It had a simple little engine, easy to work on and fix, but one day bouncing through the Superstition Mountains of Arizona, I broke the right front wheel off. Yup! That's what I said. The A-arm broke! The wheel was dangling by the tie-rod. Luckily it wasn't in the heat of summer and my son and I only had to walk three or four miles to find a rancher who gave us a ride back to civilization. I went back the next day and towed it home. I fixed the wheel and even rebuilt the engine after that, but I never was really happy with it. I wanted a real truck, not a toy.

I looked at new trucks, just for fun, because you see I work for the State of Arizona, and my salary never quite keeps up with inflation. The governor knows that the state employees are a bunch of lazy bums. Hey, he's a state employee too, so I guess he'd know. As corroborating evidence of his character and judgment, I will mention that he has been indicted for fraud by the feds. [He was convicted since my original writing.] When the state budget is short, he just freezes the employees salaries, and when the coffers get filled again, well he knows that the good people of Arizona deserve a tax break. So in bad years I don't get a raise, and in good years I get a tax break and a piddling raise. Anyway, the price of new trucks made a purchase impossible on my salary.

So I looked at old trucks, but by the time they are old enough to be cheap, they have lots of mechanical problems. And the merely old, not really old, trucks still have pretty complex engines, so working on them would be a challenge. I decided to look at really old trucks, with lots of character and simple engines and other systems I could easily understand. I'm not dumb, but I never had much in the way of mechanical training, not even an auto shop class in high school. Since I like to drive to remote places, I need a truck that is tough enough to get there and back. One that wouldn't tear out the oil pan on a rock, or get stuck in the mud. A Jeep seemed the ideal solution. I remember an old WW2 surplus Jeep my dad drove for his work when I was a kid. It was hard to start in the cold weather, but it was simple, and cheap, and went anywhere. So I looked at Jeeps, but four-wheeling is pretty popular nowadays, and in the Arizona climate, they don't rust much. Old Jeeps retain their value. I was looking at 20 year old Jeeps that I still couldn't afford. And another thing, even if I had a Jeep so I could go anywhere, I wouldn't have room to take much. Once in a while I need to haul tree trimmings to the dump or pick up some lumber. Where do you put a 4X8 sheet of plywood in a CJ? So I knew I needed something as tough as a Jeep but with a bed like a truck.

I looked at Jeep trucks for a couple of years. The Comanche's and J10's I looked at were too expensive or junk, and they don't quite have the class of an old Willys truck. I found several Willys Jeep trucks that had been "improved" with engine and tranny swaps. I remember one that the guy had swapped in a Chevy 350, which put out too much power for the T90, so he replaced it with automatic transmission (I forget which model), which meant he'd had to customize the firewall and the floor and the shift lever came up through the middle of where the bench seat should be, so he put in bucket seats, but they had a sloping back which meant they moved forward, so his belly hit the steering wheel, so he put in a small wheel, like you find in street rods, which meant he didn't have enough leverage to turn the front wheels without power steering. He got tired of the whole project and just let it sit for a couple of years. When I talked with him, he was willing to sell it for $800, but I wouldn't have been able to drive it without major work.

When I found a nearly stock '49 Willys in March of '96, I was ecstatic. I bought it and drove it home! It has needed new brakes, new windows, most of the ignition parts, and a fuel pump. The carburetor is finicky and I've had to get a new float and put a bushing in holes for the throttle shaft. I had to replace the worn out drive shaft and U-joints. But through all the repairs, it has been my daily driver. Well, to be honest, most of the time it's drivable. Occasionally, I get it apart and discover it needs a replacement part that I can't find. Sometimes it has to wait.

But when I take it out into the desert, it crawls over anything, up any hill, wherever I want to go. It is older than I am. It reminds me of the old trucks I rode in as a child. It rattles and hums, and doesn't go very fast, but it goes!

It has an F4-134 four-cylinder engine, which is not original since it wasn't available until 1951, but puts out a little more horespower than the original L4-134; a T90 3-speed transmission (original); a Spicer 18 transfer case (original), the original Timken rear axle, the original Spicer 25 front axle. It's still 6-volt! The axles have 5.38 gears, so top speed is about 45 mph (before overdrive). But low-range low is really low! When I'm down and crawlin', nothing can stop me. And if I have to drive a continuous fixer, or what you might call a piece of junk, I'd rather drive a piece of classy junk.

My truck will run forever! It has already run for almost 50 years and through uncounted thousands of miles. (The gears in the speedometer wore out many years ago.) It's harder to drive than a modern truck, and it takes constant tinkering, but as I chug on my daily commute, I feel that I have escaped from the hectic world of planned obsolescence, glossy advertising, and high-pressure salesmen. I drive past junkyards filled with cars much newer than my truck and feel like I have cheated time himself. And when I go driving off the pavement, I never worry about scratching the paint, or hills too steep, or trails too rocky - 'cause I drive a Willys!

rbg Feb 97

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