Four Wheeler and Me: 50 Years Later
Fifty years ago I was 18 years old, had bought my second of many Jeeps—a brand new CJ-5—and along with several others had started the Drifters Jeep Club in Pomona, California. A small publication called Four Wheeler magazine had just come out and I was ecstatic over it. It listed itself as “The Magazine of Back Country Driving and Camping.” That said it all, and not much has changed over the years. Yes, I wore out that first issue of 30 pages reading it from cover to cover over and over again, and somehow managed to hang on to the second issue, as well as most of the early years. The cover price was $.50, while a year’s subscription was $4.50. I’m not sure if it was that year or the next that I actually got to meet the editor/publisher Robert Ames while on the Hemet Jeep Cavalcade. I thought what a great job he had, four wheeling and writing about it—but me actually writing for Four Wheeler was the least of my thoughts at that time.
Let’s back up for a bit. As a 15-year-old I was camped with some Boy Scouts in the Borrego Desert of Southern California. The driver had struggled with deep sand and with boy-power pushing a lot, we finally managed to get a two-wheel-drive pickup up a sandy wash to our camping spot. That evening a Jeep driven by a big heavy-set guy easily drove up to our campsite. Right then I vowed that I was never going to push again, but would drive a 4x4 (guess who now laughs at that idea of never pushing?). I talked with the driver for over an hour about the area, but mostly about his Jeep. Oh, and the driver was none other than explorer/writer Earl Stanley Gardner, whose books, such as “The Land of Shorter Shadows,” I was growing up with. Little did I know then how this chance meeting was just one of the events that would change my life—or what would follow next.
That summer I worked at a camp where we had had two surplus military jeeps that we used for transportation. Now I was really hooked and just had to have a Jeep. With my summer savings and a part-time job at an auto parts store, plus the money I had from selling a racing go-kart, I somehow managed to convince my dad that I should have a Jeep instead of building a hot-rod like most of my friends had. I am sure he figured I would get in less trouble with a four-cylinder Jeep than a V-8-powered hot rod. Little did he realize. Before long I was driving a well-used ’43 MB for which I had paid $350. That jeep became my automotive teacher along with what I learned from working on various friends’ cars and hot rods. Within the year we did an engine swap! Granted, it was only the F-head version of the four-cylinder motor, but it had some aluminum high-compression pistons, a re-ground cam, was balanced, and sported a Holley carburetor.
In 1962 I bought a new CJ-5 that served me well through my college years as well as my first couple of significant jobs. It somehow survived several engine swaps and a couple of crashes. Almost every weekend found it in the California desert, Pismo Beach, the Glamis dunes, or in the local mountains. The Jeep just might have had something to do with my being on academic probation most of my college years.
In from 1967-1968 the Jeep went up on blocks as Uncle Sam called and I spent some time in beautiful Southeast Asia. I got to drive a Jeep, this time with a .30-caliber machine gun mounted on it. I picked up the moniker “Wild Willie” from my driving style that emulated a famous drag racer of the time, and it stuck. Four Wheeler magazine was forwarded to me each month and every issue was devoured. Unfortunately, the first Baja 1000 off-road race took place while I was in Viet Nam, but the next one found my wife and I pitting for NORRA in El Rosario, Baja California. The CJ-5 came off its blocks and got transmogrified into a tube chassis off-road race car followed by a succession of race buggies.
In November, 1970 my wife and I visited Charles Manson’s hideout in Goler Wash in Death Valley, California, and I figured I should try writing a story about it for Four Wheeler. It was published! I was living a dream!
In 1972 we had a new Bronco, a new baby, and exploring Baja and the southwest deserts became a passion.
I felt some of the modifications that we had done to the Bronco were worthy of Four Wheeler’s pages. I dropped off a couple of articles with then-Editor Bill Sanders at his office, but never heard back from him. In 1973 we were at the awards banquet for the Baja 1000 in La Paz, Baja, and I was able to talk with Sanders. He said that he liked the articles, was planning on using them in the future, and wanted more like them. Great! Unfortunately, I didn’t keep copies of those magazines and can’t remember exactly when they were published.