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Backyard Wheeling: Supersonic DED Tour

Jeep Front Ground Shot
David Freiburger
| Contributor
Posted October 1, 2010
Photographers: Rick Péwé

It's Another Dirt Every Day Tour, This Time With A Freak Powerplant

You can't know contentment until you've adventured in your flatfender Jeep on a far-flung Arizona dirt road, sun low and peeking through the saguaro, all the while playing mechanical Russian roulette with an oddball flathead-six that, prior to that day, had not run in 15 years. Ahh, the joys. If only this most recent DED Tour was all that kind of fun. But, no-it had quite varied entertainment.

You probably know of our trademark Dirt Every Day treks by now: We find a derelict vintage Jeep, hack it into running order in improbable locations, then hit the road with only a vague compass bearing to guide us home on what turns out to be mostly dirt roads. Optimally, those two-tracks are intersected by civilization that need hold nothing more than a gas station-or not-and a greasy spoon that serves biscuits and gravy of the precise formula to satisfy our ironclad yet picky palettes.

This time, collecting a long-abandoned '51 CJ-3A brought us to the fuzzy demarcation between Glendale and Peoria, Arizona, a beige-toned urban bog that harshed our adventuresome mood with chain stores by the mile. There were three respites: the Peoria Café with grade-A white goo on the biscuits, three O'Reilly Auto Parts outlets staffed by guys who knew what they were doing, and the expansive backyard of Al and Mary Snyder. Those folks turned out to be our gracious hosts for five long days, allowing us to nearly restore our new ride on their concrete pad and sleep in their above-garage apartment.

Todd Zuercher is a wheeler who we'd run across here and there some 20 years ago, and who had contacted us-who better?-because he and friend Sam Snyder had an old Jeep to unload. That Jeep had been a dream that was shed in favor of an Early Bronco fascination, and it had been sitting aside Sam's dad Al's '55 Buick parts car for at least 10 years, untouched except by the flood of weekly irrigation. We pulled about 30 pounds of pine needles out of it. That's a lot of pine needles.

Here's the best part: This stock-appearing Willys was long ago the recipient of an oddball engine swap. It runs a Kaiser Supersonic flathead inline-six. In case you're not familiar with this engine-and you're not-it's quite unique. The flathead Kaiser-Frazer Supersonic 134ci four-bangers and the 148ci and 161ci six-cylinders, circa 1949-1954ish, were built by Willys. They were used in a number of Kaiser cars, the most memorable and latest of which is the Henry J. Most importantly, these same basic engines were also used in the '47-'51 Willys Jeepster, so we can still call it a Jeep engine. The design of these engines can be traced back to late '20s Whippets. They were used in the '30s and '40s Willys cars most commonly built into Gassers. The engines carried the name Lightning when used in Willys Aero-series cars and early Jeepsters, trucks, and wagons. Willys engineer Barney Roos also created F-head versions (intake valves in the head, exhaust valves in the block) of both the four- and six-cylinders, and they were renamed Hurricane, which was quite generous. They too ended up in the early Jeepster. Around the same time, the Supersonic name was applied to the 226ci flathead-six seen in Kaisers and Jeeps, but that engine had a different design based on the old industrial Continental Red Seal engine.

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