Roadkill is a monthly road-trip video diary hosted by staffers of Hot Rod magazine appearing on youtube.com/motortrend. If it’s accomplished anything during its 14-month tenure, it’s been inspiring viewers to hit the road and build lasting memories while in search of cheap fun in vehicles of all sorts. Many folks have taken to heart the Roadkill mantra of making do with what ya got and having fun no matter what the road throws at you. We’ve read their tales of adventure in the comments section of our videos and on the show’s Facebook page (facebook.com/roadkillshow). They’ve searched for the perfect vehicle or bought one that just felt right, ridden ones that were nothing more than transportation to a unique destination, and enjoyed the journey for what it was. Our recent boondoggle was the least planned of any of ’em.
We bought a ’52 Willys Jeep-rod, wrenched on it for a few hours, drove it for a few days, and then passed it on to a fan during the filming of a new episode of Roadkill. We made our memories, had our fun, and then sold the Willys practically for peanuts to a guy who would take better care of it than we did. This is the tale of a good idea, not so good fabrication, and sticking to a plan long enough to see it through, and then sending the good vibe onto the next sucker…err…hot rodder.
David Freiburger has always wanted a bucks-down rat-rod flatfender Jeep, built ’40s-dry-lake-style with Ford wire wheels tucked beneath the body. Per usual, time hasn’t allowed it. But an episode of Roadkill that took us to a bar only reachable via a 5-mile-long dirt trail was a great excuse to buy something close to his vision. Why wouldn’t you pilot a lowered Jeep off-road? He hit a home run when clicking on the “Buy It Now” button on an eBay auction for one originally built by our friend and former Jp Editor, John Cappa. Freiburger knew the history of Cappa’s “Sloppy Seconds” Jeep-rod, and Cappa was more than happy to give him the lowdown, warts and all. The flatfendered euphoria quickly wore off after the realization that he was snookered, and the online auction was bogus. Someone else went home with Freiburger’s favorite new Jeep rod. Craigslist would soon provide a suitable replacement, though.
A week later, on a rare 30-degree night in Southern California, we hitched trailer to truck and struck out to buy another rat-rod Jeep built by a young man who, instead of getting cash, wanted to trade the thing for gun parts, thanks to impending legislation outlawing semi-automatic rifles in California. We paid $500 more than the asking price to convince him to take the green—and because we were in a hurry, and it was the only lowered Jeep for sale that day. Our typical Roadkill deadline meant there wasn’t time to barter or debate, so we bought the Jeep in the dark without test driving it ourselves, breaking several cardinal rules of car buying. Our bad.
As usual, plans changed, and we didn’t film the Jeep-rod episode until three months later. The Jeep sat under a tarp untouched until the day before we were slated to hit the road. Typical. Until then, Freiburger had never even seen it in person. When the tarp came off, we finally saw the Jeep in the light of day.
No matter how long we possess them, none of us will truly own our vehicles; we are merely their caretakers. At some point, whether it’s to a friend, a relative, or a total stranger, we’ll pass along our hot rods to another soul who sees something special in the manmade conglomeration of glass, metal, fabric, and plastic. The next caretaker will instinctively judge our work, examining the modifications made, and will either love or hate the transformation that took place while we were in charge. And so we set out to judge the previous caretaker’s “fabrication” work.
We already knew the Jeep was no longer a 4x4 and that the body sat atop a homebuilt rectangular-tube chassis with a straight axle from an early GM van and a Ford 8-inch rear axle with airbags at all four corners to carry the weight. Until we crawled under it for the first time, we didn’t know the rear ladder bars were held in place by Grade-5 bolts that didn’t thread into Nyloc nuts far enough for the Nyloc to engage. Those bolts were in single-shear, and bolted through an open-channel frame flimsy enough that we could collapse it by tightening the bolts. It got worse. The bag mounts were a mess and so were the welds. There wasn’t a gusset to speak of to keep the mounts from bending under the heft of the Jeep, the shock bodies hit the mounts, and there were zero cotter pins in any of the castle nuts securing the steering and front suspension. It was a deathtrap, but a cool-looking one. Time was not on our side, so we sucked it up, fixed what we could in a parking lot, hit the road, and played Russian roulette, rat-rod style.
The Willys reminded us of the Hot Rod “Sailor Jerry” Model A sedan (the one we compared with a Lamborghini in the Hot Rod September ’12 issue), minus the roof and lack of visibility. The same yoga-style driving position was required to operate the gas and brake pedals, and we are nearly deaf from the sound of the uncorked small-block’s headers exiting directly below the firewall. Amazingly, it drove fairly straight when we could avoid bump-steering potholes, and when we found the right balance between air pressure in the bags and carpet padding atop the seats, it rode well enough to prevent us from slipping a disc. The no-seatbelt thing was even more of a concern than the complete lack of a windshield, since we sat more on the Jeep than in it. We got used to the severely limited turning radius (the tires hit the front fenders) and thoroughly enjoyed driving it 380-plus miles from El Segundo, California, to Parker, Arizona—until we encountered the dirt trail.
Our goal was to get to the Nellie E. Saloon, also known as the Desert Bar, built 12 miles outside of town and 5 miles up a rocky trail in the heart of the Buckskin Mountains. The solar-powered bar was built by an old man who doesn’t appreciate the press poking around with cameras, but it’s a favorite scenic watering hole of locals and off-road vehicle lovers. A smallish 6-gallon gas tank, a broken shifter, and a transmission that leaked more fluid than we can drink in 45 minutes slowed our progress. Stuffing the front end into a dirt berm delayed our arrival until sundown, just an hour before closing time. The Jeep had its tongue hanging out; the rut-filled trail and a heavy right foot had caused one of the front airbag mounts to rip clean off the frame.
At the start of this trip we made the decision to sell the Jeep to whomever would pay our bar tab, and that’s just what we did. Hot Rod reader John Cabotz paid $407 for the Willys and limped it on home, vowing to rebuild the suspension properly and hit the road on a similar journey. Good on ya!
Roadkill goes off-roadin’ in a lowered Willys and sells it to pay a bar tab
Go to youtube.com/motortrend and search for “Roadkill Episode 15” to witness our suffering.
In the late ’30s, the U.S. military was in need of a 1⁄4-ton-capacity 4x4, and the only company to supply a prototype on schedule was American Bantam (the same company that built the ’32 Bantam roadsters that were often the basis for AA/Fuel Altereds). The design was considered to be government-owned, and the blueprints were shared with Ford and Willys-Overland (maker of the Americar, later a popular Gasser platform). All three companies altered the design a bit and provided prototypes for testing in 1940, leading to short production runs in early 1941. Standardization was soon required, and the government chose the Willys design, but by late 1941, there was concern that Willys could not meet volume demands, and that its single plant in Toledo could get bombed, halting production. Ford was then asked to build vehicles virtually identical to the Willys and with totally interchangeable parts. Ford identified its early Jeep bodies with a Ford script on the left rear, and even after the government put a stop to that branding, nearly every part on a Ford-built Jeep carries a script F. They are even on the heads of the bolts.
Jeeps in Hot Rod
It isn’t new. In the ’50s, HRM had quite a few engine-swap stories on Willys wagons, flatfenders, and CJ-5s. The transplants included Y-block Fords, small Chevys, and small-block Fords. There were also a few Jeeps drag-raced in the ’60s, most notably the Funny Cars called Secret Weapon, Destroyer, and Holy Toldeo. The latter was owned by California Jeep dealer Brian Chuchua, who in 1965 also ran a CJ-6 (long-wheelbase CJ-5) with a swapped-in overhead-cam Tornado inline-six. The Jeep in the photo is a CJ-5 stretched in the nose and running in the Modified Sports class at the ’65 Hot Rod Magazine Championship drags.