Earlier today we had a full-CC treatment of this 1948 Jeep MB. So, what is it like to drive? Well, as my grandma used to say, it’s just like this. . . .
First, you get in. There is no door handle, no door, no roof and no windows in your way, so it should be easy, right? Sort of. Left foot on the outside step while holding onto that sturdy black grab handle that so cleverly doubles as a steering wheel. Then thread your right leg between the seat and the big wheel and sit on down onto the coarse canvas upholstery.
Next, we start her up. The key is on the left, so clutch down and turn and . . . nothing. Bill helpfully suggests to the stupid kid behind the wheel that there is a starter button up high and to the right on the floor. “Well, of course there is”, I think to myself. Nothing in 1948 started with the key, so why wouldn’t there be starter switch somewhere else? But now that we have the hang of the basics and the key is turned to “on”, I put my right shoe onto the starter button. I expect a few labored groans from an old six volt starter motor (as I used to experience on my ’29 Ford Model A) but before I hear anything, the little Willys Go-Devil four fires and reports for duty. What looks to be twelve volts of juice into a six volt starter does speed things along. Still, I am not sure I have ever seen a vehicle come to life so quickly on a cold start. No wonder we won a war with these things.
The shift lever has a very short throw and is all business. The idle is a little high, so all that is necessary to back it out of its home is to let the clutch out. I am used to backing with mirrors, but there is no need here with a 360 degree field of view. Bill lives on a county road that sees a decent amount of traffic, so it is best to wait until the coast is very clear, then off we go.
The shift lever’s throw is so short that you wonder if you have really gotten it into second, but the continued acceleration says “yes”. Then into third, and we are really cruising. The first thing I notice is that the gear spacing is different from what I am used to. Most American three speeds of my experience have first and second spaced closely, then a big hole between second and third. This box does not feel like that, in that the ratios seem much more evenly spaced. I notice the other two levers on the floor (one to engage 4 wheel drive and the other to switch between high and low ranges) but decide that four wheelin’ might go beyond the scope of Bill’s generous invitation.
Next thing is to get away from traffic. No doors and no seatbelts can be a little disconcerting to modern sensibilities, and so is no turn signals. Fortunately, I remember how to signal a left turn with my arm as I head for the brakes to slow down. Bad words form in my mind as I wonder if the really hard brake pedal is actually doing anything, and as I scold myself for not testing them first. Oh well, at least my doctor is sitting next to me if things go bad. But the binders do, in fact, seem to be working. I remember my Model A’s mechanical brakes as being more effective than these hydraulics, but it is also possible that this particular set is not quite right from lack of use. Or, they could just suck. I will leave it to some of the older readers with military backgrounds to help us out here.
Once onto a quiet country road with nothing but cornfields around, this Jeep is in its element. The dash placard warns us not to exceed 60 mph. I possess at least some sanity, so this will not be an issue – 30 mph seems like plenty to me. It is not hard to imagine a Jeep just like this traversing the countryside during wartime. If someone were shooting at us, there would not be much to stop incoming projectiles. But nobody is shooting, and we just get to listen to the comforting drone of the famous Go-Devil flathead and the whine of the gears as we sail along at a pace that feels comfortable.
The thick plate-steel everywhere you look and touch makes for a very rigid structure. The Jeep bounces and something squeaks, but it does so tightly, without a hint of flex in its structure. I also notice that these were not designed for tall people. I am under six feet and averagely proportioned, but those pedals are really close. The throttle on this particular unit is a mite sticky, and either could use a stronger return spring or maybe just a little lubrication and use. It will come down to a normal idle with a quick goose, but otherwise, it makes for a handy cruise control out in the country.
Not knowing how we are fixed on fuel or how long our host expects us to be gone, I decide that the T intersection that we are approaching is a good place to turn around. Steering effort is not bad for a manual setup, and the ratio is pretty quick. The short wheelbase gives this Jeep a very tight turning circle and we are headed the opposite direction in short order.
After pulling over for some pictures, it is time for Doc to take a turn. He was a touch rusty on his shifting technique, but got underway quickly enough. It was then that I realized how foreign something like this must be to someone younger than me. As a kid I spent some time driving a prewar John Deere Model B tractor that came from my stepmom’s Uncle Cal. A three speed stick has been second nature to me for a long time, but is as common as a party line telephone or an old fashioned icebox today. Doc did well to pick it up as quickly as he did.
I also realized that life is different as a passenger in one of these without that big steering wheel to hang onto. Fortunately, the engineers saw fit to provide we passengers with a solid grab handle on the outside at butt level. Not that it would do much if the going got really rough, but it was a comfort nonetheless. That handle is like everything else on this Jeep – thick, solid, and designed in such a way that you would have no hesitation trusting that it would hold in case of an emergency.
I am given the wheel for the last stretch on the busier road, and back we go. I finally make the connection that the shifter feels exactly like the one on Cal’s old John Deere. A quick turn around to back it into the building and all too soon the drive is over. As I turn the key off and the engine goes silent, I sit there for a minute and take in the unique aura of an America from long ago, wondering whether that America still exists today. This Jeep was made for young men who grew up in hard times and were not afraid of dangerous work. This Jeep reminds me how soft we younger guys are. Hush you, – Bill’s presence allows me to classify myself as one of the younger guys on this particular day.
There is no way I would want one of these as a daily driver in 2017. But then I live in the inner suburbs of a larger city, and that environment is about as far as one can get from the conditions which the Jeep MB was designed to tackle. This is because the MB is really a small tractor, but one that seats four and has better road speed. However, if someone told me that I was going to a remote place where the roads were few, where I would be on my own for repairs and where I would have to trust my vehicle to be the one machine I had to rely on, I don’t think I could do better than one of these. I expect there might still be a few old GIs out there who would agree.