(first posted 6/25/2012) What do the Studebaker GT Hawk, the Excalibur neo-classic, the original Jeep Wagoneer, and our featured CC, the Willys Jeepster, have in common? Well, they were all attractive vehicles in your author’s opinion, and all were designed by the same man, Brooks Stevens. While not strictly an automobile designer – he did everything from Miller Beer ads to toasters and refrigerators – he had a real knack for car design.
The Milwaukee-based industrial designer was well known in the 1950s and 1960s as a miracle worker, and saved Studebaker’s bacon with fresh styling more than a couple of times in the 1960s. But that came later. The Jeepster was meant to expand Willys-Overland’s Jeep line into more carlike versions as the original Jeep 4×4, while certainly tough, rugged and reliable, had a rather limited market.
The Jeepster was designed by Stevens during WWII. After the manufacture of automobiles resumed after the war, work got underway, and the new Jeep drop-top was readied for production. Willys-Overland introduced it on May 3, 1948.
It joined the Jeep Station Wagon, a more family-oriented Jeep that had debuted in 1946. It, too, was styled by Brooks Stevens. Though the Jeepster may be better remembered today, the Station Wagon sold very well and lasted all the way to 1965. But we’re here to talk about the Jeepster, aren’t we?
W-O clearly had an advantage with the Jeep. It had been proven above and beyond the call of duty during the war, and many returning soldiers swore by them. But at the same time, it was a very basic vehicle and had a limited market for civilian production. The Jeepster and Station Wagon corrected that. These were meant for passengers, and could be driven like a regular car. And it had doors!
The Jeepster was basically a phaeton, with a folding convertible top and snap-in canvas and plexiglass side curtains. There were no roll-up windows. It was meant as a snazzy, fair weather roadster. Interest was pretty good for the first year, and 10,326 were made.
1948 models were powered by an L-head 134.2 CID inline four, essentially the same engine used in the original Willys MB. It produced 63 horsepower at 4000 rpm and utilized a single barrel Carter WA1-613S carburetor. All Jeepsters were rear wheel drive, which was somewhat unusual, considering the Jeep’s heritage. At the time, however, most buyers would probably not have wanted a four wheel drive Jeepster. If you really needed to go off road, there was always the CJ.
All Jeepsters (and Jeep Station Wagons) featured a chrome “waterfall” overlay in the center of the otherwise standard Jeep grille. The most common color combination is the one on our featured CC: yellow and black with a red interior. It was also the colors Brooks Stevens used in his Jeepster proposals to Willys-Overland management, if memory serves.
Since this was primarily a fair weather car, chrome steps were provided for back seat riders who couldn’t wait for the driver and/or passenger to get out and fold the front seat for access.
1949 saw two new Jeepsters added to the line, one with an F-head four with 72 horses. This replaced the L-head four cylinder Jeepster starting in July of 1949. A six-cylinder Jeepster was added at the same time. This was a 148.5 CID, L-head mill that also produced 72 horses, same as the F-head four. We can probably assume that the six had more torque, however.
Despite the new engines, sales dipped sharply, to 3,638. Why this happened is not clear, but part of it may have been due to the lack of glass side windows and the less than passenger car-grade noise, vibrations and harshness. That, and perhaps everyone who wanted one got theirs in 1948. Thanks in no small part to the Jeep Station Wagon and Willys Pickup, Willys-Overland did okay for the year, with 32,928 passenger cars, 31,595 CJs and 18,345 other commercial vehicles built.
1950 Jeepsters (along with the Pickup and Station Wagon) received minor cosmetic changes, the most noticeable item being a new grille. Instead of the standard Jeep slotted grille (with added chrome fillip), it was now V-shaped in plan view and sported five horizontal, chrome trimmed bars. Engines continued much the same as the late ’49s. Jeepster sales were not picking up, however. Although better than 1949, production of 4,066 four cylinder and 1,778 six cylinder Jeepsters was not a huge improvement, and W-O threw in the towel on the model.
Technically, you could still get a Jeepster in 1951, but they were leftover 1950 models. No new Jeepsters were built during 1951 model year production. In all, just 19,808 were built in three model years.
Interestingly, these Jeeps found collector interest fairly early on, so much so that the model was reintroduced by Kaiser-Willys in 1966. While not an exact copy, the early ones looked a lot like the original, right down to the two tone paint treatment. They would last all the way to 1973, although it acquired a botched nose job in 1972, thanks to new owner AMC.
I spotted our featured CC at a combined 70th birthday party for two of our neighbors. One of the attendees was driving this ’50 Jeepster, which activated my Neat Old Car Radar (patent pending).
The owner was very nice and had no problem with my taking some pictures. I even managed to get a ride in this beauty. One interesting thing about the Jeepster is that those wind wings on the side work very well. While driving on the highway at 50-55 mph, there was next to no wind buffeting and we could carry on a conversation with no trouble.
This is a really nice car, but it is not strictly stock. For more trouble free driving, a 2.3 liter Ford four cylinder from a 1980s Mustang replaced the F-head four. It can get up to highway speed with no fuss or muss. In an era without airbags and 500 pounds of safety devices and insulation, it works very well in this car. And you’d never know it was modified to look at it.
Despite its short run, the Jeepster was a classic design, and many have survived. My friend K.V. Dahl has a ’48, and about 15 years ago my Uncle Chris had one too, and they were both the same color combination as this one! That these Jeepsters are desirable collector cars today goes without saying. So thank you, Mr. Stevens, for your enduring designs. The automotive world would have been a little less brighter without cars like these.