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Backyard Wheeling: Supersonic DED Tour

Posted in Events on October 1, 2010 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Rick Péwé

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.

Here's the '51 CJ-3A as we found it, rotting next to an old Buick parts car that, sadly, lent us no hardware. We slipped up there.

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.

Check out the weirdo Kaiser Supersonic flathead-six under the Jeep's hood! You'd fire it up and drive it home, wouldn't you?
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That's more than you needed to know, and also more than we knew at the time that we were trying to fix the Jeep. Thankfully, the engine itself was the least of our worries. We rebuilt the carb (with mismatched but forced-to-fit Holley parts), made a fuel-pump fix out of virtually nothing, changed the oil, and fired it up to discover a nice purr-but not until we had rewired the entire Jeep front to back, then somehow internally welded together the stock generator, forcing us to convert the engine to use a Delco alternator. But no matter how thrilled the Supersonic was to be alive, it wasn't going to party with locked up brakes. And when we rebuilt the brakes (from the master cylinder all the way out to the wheels), we found other happy things, like jacked-up endplay in the Dana 44 and front wheel bearings and races that were so scary-destroyed that you'd call us superheros for driving on 'em. Of course, mangled bearings love it when you install the very used, 33-inch-tall Swampers that you bought from the local llanteria. Oh yeah, we had to weld the frame back together too. And we decided that the one lonely bolt holding the body to the frame was at least half as many as we needed.

During the tire hunt we found this incredible vintage relic: a Gates Commando whitewall! Sadly, there was just one at the llanteria, but for $20 we had to own it.

So this was a wrenching-heavy DED, but it was real living. And you know the best thing about drowning in suburbia during your vacation? It feels so good when you leave and finally hit the road.

After the five-day overhaul, we were dirt-bound, heading northwest outta Dodge (Peoria, whatever) and headlong into denial about the brutal overheating problem. Ignoring it served us fairly well. We found the Supersonic to have precisely 3 more horsepower than an original 134ci flathead-four, but we split gears with the Jeep's ancient Warn overdrive to make up for gutlessness. Yeah, this thing had a Warn O.D.! We cheated death a few times on the backroad journey home, but really, the worst thing that happened on our way back from the DED was the new traffic roundabout in Wickenburg. Fail.

Sooner than later, we hit dirt. And broke down. Repairs are virtually a goal of a Dirt Every Day jaunt.

Follow our travails in the photo captions, spend a few minutes wishing you were us, and then go do this kind of stuff yourself. Meanwhile, we'll be back with another Dirt Every Day adventure as soon as we can find an even more freakish, more abandoned cheap Jeep to play with. Got one? You know who to call, or email 4wheeloffroad@sorc.com.

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