Curbside Classic: 1951 Willys Jeep Truck – The Antidote To Modern Life

(first posted 12/9/2011)

Twittered-out, over-Tumblered, hyper-texted and on-line OD’d? Get an old truck – the older the better – and go haul something with it. Just make sure you don’t bring your Android along. The more our modern lives spend punching keys and swiping screens, the more powerful the need for an antidote, one made of old, cold steel. I’m kinda stuck with mine, but if I were looking, or someone wanted a recommendation, this one would be sky-high on the list.

Isn’t this why we’re here? To remind ourselves what an automobile really is in its most elemental form: frame, wheels, brakes, a burbly old motor, some levers and gears to crunch and munch, and to experience each of them simultaneously and yet (sort of) in harmony. Ok, you want a floating pod for the commute, one that has to talk back electronically, because otherwise it hardly creates any sensations. But come Saturday, what you want is this: a Willys Jeep truck.

It’s about as elemental as it gets. Yet it’s perfectly suited for the job at hand; you’ll be looking for excuses to drive it. ” I think I’m gonna haul that old rotted door to the dump”. “What about….

The six volt starter grinds the little four cylinder to life, drowning out the competing demands of domestic life. It doesn’t really matter if your Jeep truck has the 60 hp “Go-Devil” flat head or the 75 hp “Hurricane” F-head. It’s going to be slower than hell either way, which is pretty much the point. If someone stuck a Buick V6 under the hood, you’re just going to get back home that much quicker.

Worried about not having enough power to get on the freeway for a couple of exits to the dump? Big trucks have faced the same problem since freeways were invented. And they still manage to get on. So will you. How else are you going to get control of your life, if you can’t insinuate yourself into traffic with a sixty-year old sixty-horsepower truck?

A little antsy about safety? Ok, a few minor concessions won’t totally ruin the experience. A modern collapsible steering column and three-point belts, if you must. I’m a purist, but I hope I don’t live to regret it. Or did I not say that right? Anyway, just don’t get rid of those levers to play with; the more the merrier. I wish I had a few more. And my doubts about there being an original engine under the hood of this one are only increasing. Maybe it’s a 2.5 liter Jeep four; that would be an acceptable compromise, if it really has to be. The Jeep truck’s unalterable ride will still give a good accounting of itself.

(image source

The Willys truck appeared in 1947 as a natural evolution of the military Jeep. Wilys-Overland knew that given the flood of war surplus Jeeps, a brand extension was a necessity. The Jeep truck, the brilliant Jeep all-steel wagon, and the less-successful Jeepster all arrived in short order. An excellent move to capitalize on the Jeep name.

Actually, the four cylinders were a bit too little, even for the the nineteen-fifties. So by 1954, the good old Continental 226 cubic inch flathead six arrived, to supplant the Hurricane four. With a 3.3125″ bore and a 4.375″ stroke, the six was a torque-fest. Given that its other main application was in Kaiser-Frazier automobiles, the Hurricane was much more at home here. I’ve had the pleasure to make its acquaintance in a similar truck, and it will always have a spot in my heart. Perfect for the job at hand.

That doesn’t apply to the final engine choice also offered in the Jeep trucks last couple of years, from 1962 through 1965. That would be the ill-fated Tornado OHC 230 six, an engine that finally found its proper place in the Argentinean IKA Torino.

No matter what was up front, backing it was the venerable Warner T-90 three speed. No need for a four speed with granny gear low, when one had low range just a lever away. Assuming one had four wheel drive, of course.

Axles were Danas, except for some early Timken rears. Ratios? 5.38:1 standard with the fours; 4.88:1 with the six. If that wasn’t low enough, a 6.17:1 was an option. Well, maybe there was a reason some folks slipped an overdrive into their Jeeps. And maybe you need to rethink my freeway driving recommendations after all. I’m a bit prone towards imaginative thinking.

It doesn’t really matter what’s under the hood; what counts is to be behind the steering wheel, peering out at the world through those little flat windshield panes, one hand on the jerky tiller and the other on the that vibrating shift lever. That leaves no hands left for phones or other electronic devices. Your mind will be too engaged anyway; which is exactly the point.