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  • Four Wheeler

Classic Willys Builds - The Past Spawns Modern Jeeps

Posted in Features on August 1, 2014
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Photographers: Petersen Archive

We’ve featured plenty of custom 4x4s in these pages, and a lot of them are Jeeps. But here are three rigs that will make your head turn, and hopefully for all of the right reasons. Truth be told, the first one is my own Jeep, and that makes it even more difficult to write about- except from this personal view. It has been eulogized before when David Freiburger wrote a feature on it for the Dec. ’98 issue of this mag, titled “The Ugliest Jeep You’ve Ever Seen.” That was the first time I left 4WOR as tech editor and went on to become the editor of Jp magazine for two years. Now that I have come full circle in 4WOR as former editor-in-chief and now content director, here’s the rest of the story of where my Jeep came from, how it was built, and what it spawned.

The Early Days
One of two words comes up in people’s mind when they see this jeep, either “Cool!” or “Junk!” It depends on your point of view, but any real Jeep aficionado knows the truth. If you think the birth of the Wrangler is when jeeping started, you may not understand the history behind this vehicle and where it has led the sport in design, function, and fun. It didn’t start my career in wheeling, but it was the first jeep I actually owned. My parents bought this bone-stock ’45 World War II jeep for me as a surprise 15th birthday present, for a then-princely $500. And while I had never yet spun a wrench, I was hooked. I immediately took it for a spin and broke a rear axleshaft, which is when the wrenching began, all in the quest of stronger parts and better performance. She was rough-looking at the time, but the running gear was in good shape, so my buddies and I slathered on some garden green paint and made it look like new.

Wrenching Begins
Then I drove it off a cliff. Literally. My first rollover (without a roll bar) ended up with no personal injuries but a seriously accordioned frame. Fortunately that gave me a desire to replace the frame, and the experience that comes with that job. Through the years the jeep was upgraded with a junkyard frame, a Smittybilt roll bar (thanks to my dad), and big, fat 31x10.50-15 tires. Eventually I even rebuilt the four-cylinder engine.

Through the Years
After 20 years of breaking, fixing, learning, and modifying, I decided on a modified build formula for maximum clearance, flexibility, traction, strength, reliability, and power. Of course comfort and speed were important, as these were the days before trailering to an event was common. I would live out of the jeep for weeks at a time while driving a thousand miles. Before the rebuild it had been over many trails too many times to remember: Rubicon, Dusy, Sierra Treks, many Surprise Canyons, TDS, Chile Challenge, Fire Hole, Moab. The jeep still gets out every few years for some fun.

Resting in Piece(s)
For the last few years I’ve slowly started to work on her. The ingestion of rainwater froze a spark plug or two, so I had to drill them out to replace. That meant taking off the fenders and such, but I was able to get it fired up and moving. Since the frame needs so much work, I need to decide which way to go. Back as it was, or maybe modified for the new millennium? It’s kind of hard to change what was a perfect build, but the times they are-a-changing!

Engine Bay
I only used Jeep parts on the build, in one way or another. That’s why the Buick 455 V-8 engine out of my ’70 Estate Wagon is totally legit because Jeep Wagoneers used Buick V-8s. This unit in stock form is rated at 370 hp and 510 lb-ft of torque—and this one isn’t stock. Fueled by a massaged Q-jet, it runs upside-down and can idle at 300 rpm while still pulling stumps. I used the stock A/C compressor to fill the air tank used for the ARB Air Lockers, as well as to fill the tires in a snap or to run air tools. Cooling is supplied by a five-blade mechanical fan and a custom-built brass radiator, so it can easily be fixed in the field. The factory manifolds dump into a single Flowmaster muffler out back, and not onto the ground to raise dust clouds.

Body & Cage
After the jeep’s first cliff dive, I got pretty proficient with a welder and a hammer. The body was once stripped, primed, and painted—everything else is merely trail modification and repair. The ’49 Buick flare on the rear wheelwells was due to tire interference, and the rest of the sheetmetal kept being work-hardened. The original rear roll bar got a front cage added later, which has come in very handy. The big Buick engine only needed one small firewall cut to fit, and the transmission hump was cut and patched as well. Over the years the patina just got better, so much so that it is hard to rattle-can away the beauty. With the frame broken, again, it sits a little cattiwhumpas.

Top Truck Challenge 1993 Years of wheeling led me to appreciate low air pressure, soft springs, more horsepower, and of course safety equipment. Arizona offered sand, rocks, mud, snow, and every type of terrain in between, and the jeep took it all on. The new build was enough to get me into Four Wheeler magazine’s inaugural Top Truck Challenge and win Second Place, even without a winch, as the jeep could go fast, slow, flex, and stop on a dime. It died in the mud pit though, and that cost me the win.

New Build Parameters

Frame & Suspension
A stock factory M-38 frame is the strongest factory flattie frame, so I found a good used one for the build. I converted it to YJ Wrangler leaf springs for their great flexibility. I used rear hardtop-spec springs all around for the added weight carrying ability, and then added a stock main leaf to each pack. A shackle reversal in the front was for the combined strength of an integral winch mount—a nice solid front with no moving parts to break. Adjustable Rancho 9012 shocks with 14 inches of travel on extended shock towers were the best tech available before the turn of the century, and they still work great. The frame as shown has been field fixed more than once.
Axles & Brakes
The front axle is a Dana 44 with 5.89 gears and an ARB Air Locker. A ’72 Dodge 3⁄4-ton housing was used because the axletube is a small diameter for maximum clearance but 1⁄2-inch wall for superior strength. After cutting and narrowing the housing to 60 inches I used stock-length Dana shafts for easy parts availability. A combo of five-lug Dodge and Ford hub and rotors was fitted to stock GM calipers—nothing was commercially available, but I researched and tried many parts to make it all work together without custom machining. The factory Dana 60 flanged five-lug 35-spline rear axle came from a mid ’70s J-truck. I cut the housing to size and fitted the same disc brakes as the front. A local machine shop cut down the one axleshaft that needed shortening and splined it back into shape. I also liked this axle for the smaller-diameter tube that gives more ground clearance. I fitted it with 5.89 gears and an ARB Air Locker to match the front. Although all the components seem custom, they are all
Transmission & Transfer case
The lowest-geared, shortest, and strongest manual tranny available is the GM SM420 with a 7.05:1 First gear. I used the shortest Advanced Adapter kit with a replacement mainshaft when I rebuilt the tranny, and coupled it to the Dana 18 transfer case. It sports stock internals but a 20 case, and of course a Warn (now Saturn) overdrive on the back. This gives 16 separate gear speeds and, combined with the axle ratio, gives a crawl ratio of over 100:1—while still able to hit 80 mph on the freeway.

South American Wonder
I first met Sebastian Varas after the Raid Atacama (2008) in Chile. He had an LS-powered Wagoneer that he let me drive in the dunes, which was impressive to say the least. His first Willys, the LS came on the 2012 Ultimate Adventure. His second build was after he sold that, and he dubbed it the LSX. I asked him how he decided on his two Jeep builds:

The Great LS & LSX Builds
After owning more than a dozen 4x4s, including several CJs, I got a Wrangler TJ. I put on that Jeep all the high-end bolt-ons that you can imagine. It was a really nice Jeep, but all of a sudden I realized that I did not need rolling windows, A/C, a CD player—yeah, there was no MP3 by that time! I wanted something simple, with a unique look and powerful.

Searching for ideas, I found an old Petersen’s mag that had Rick Péwé’s jeep upside-down on the cover (Whoops!, Sept. ’96). I said, “This is it!” All I need is a flatfender with a big engine. The idea of a beaten Jeep that can handle pretty much everything was very appealing—the true Jeep teaching its heritage to the modern 4x4s. I had been following Péwé’s flattie for years. For any Jeep lover, it is an icon. Any single smash on that body is a scar that represents a story. The reproduction body of my current MB is clean and straight. That means I have a blank book to start writing my wheeling stories. I hope my son can continue adding his own stories on the same book.

Living in a country like Chile, where we have all types of geography, the main goal on both builds was to have a Jeep that could perform well in every type of terrain, from the massive dunes of the Atacama Desert to the muddy forests of the south. On both projects I used LS engines because of their potential, reliability, and aftermarket support.

My builds are centered on three big ideas:

After years of wheeling and owning a lot of different rigs, I got to the conclusion that weight is a key factor on a 4x4. Less weight means less mass to move, less mass to brake, and less mass to carry on through that off-camber section on the trail. Also, a lighter 4x4 will be less prone to breaks, since the stress that you put on every part of the drivetrain is limited. My first Willys weighed 3,300 pounds, and the current Jeep reached 3,680 pounds with the heavier components. If you combine a light vehicle with a powerful engine, you get a win-win formula.

Capable Off- & On-Road
Between family, work, and all kind of activities of the daily routine, sometimes it is difficult to have the time to go wheeling. If I’m going to spend money on a project, I want to be able to use it every day, not only for that monthly trip. For this reason, my Jeeps are always dual purpose. For me, on-road capability is as important as off-road performance. I love to commute to work or drive around with the family in my MB. My Jeeps are always street legal, and I have no fear of letting my wife drive them.

Nice Looks
If you park your Jeep and walk away without turning your head to look at her one more time, you built the wrong car. What I mean with this is that a 4x4 has to perform and look good. There are lots of examples of functional rigs that look like crap. I prefer a 4x4 that I`m proud to use as the screensaver on my computer or phone. Also, I really like the combination of an old-style car with modern technology.

Willys LS
For my first jeep I just chose what was on hand. Dana 44s were light and strong enough for the weight and tire size of that project. The TH350s are easy to find, and it’s one of the shortest auto trannies out there. With 89 inches of wheelbase, the length of the drivetrain was an issue! I used a Dana 300 transfer case because it is a compact and strong case for the power of the original engine. Then I swapped in a 6.0L, which put the transfer case to its limit—actually I had to rebuild it twice. At first I built that jeep with leafs springs on the four corners, but the wheelhop in the rear was too much, especially when I was climbing dunes. I tried different things to get rid of that, like ladder bars and more leaves, but had no luck. Finally I decided to go with four links and coilover: problem solved. The 36-inch Iroks were picked because they are excellent all-around tires—they do very well on sand because they’re rated as Load Range C. Since it’s a 3,300-pound Jeep, I did not want a stiff tire. Sizewise, 36 was the maximum size I felt secure with in combination with Dana 44s.

Willys LSX
After I sold my first MB LS, I decided to build the Jeep of my dreams, which was basically an upgraded version of my first MB. The three main ideas around the project were the same (weight, on- and off-road capability, and nice looks), but this time there was another ingredient. Following the trend of off-roading in the U.S., I got sick with the same disease of a lot people, Ultra4 fever!

I decide to build this new Willys based on an Ultra4 car but still respecting my three main guidelines. I searched and came across a lot of info, and I also talked to several people and came up with the components I needed to have.

PhotosView Slideshow

If you analyze U4 cars you will see that a lot of them are using a proven formula: LS engines, TH400, Atlas transfer case. I decided not to reinvent the wheel and took that route. In the axle department, there were a lot of options too. I went with Currie F9 axles because they are strong and light at the same time, and pricewise they were reasonable.

On tires, my first choice was to use Iroks again, but unfortunately the 37x12.50-17 Irok is rated as Load Range E. That sidewall would be too stiff for my application. For the sand, the tire needs to deform. I chose 37-inch BFG Krawlers, which I think are really good all-around tires and have sharp looks. I still think about going with 39.5-inch Iroks (Load Range C) and buy a set of paddles for the sand. We will see.

All in all, I am very happy with the final result. The Jeep was built in a rush for the 2013 Twisted Andes Adventure [“Twisted Andes Adventure,” Mar. ’14]. This project could not been completed in six months without the dedication and commitment of Patricio Montenegro of S.O.S Metalworks and Vito Betti, one of the best car/engine builders of Chile.

At the end of the day, I have the same-looking Willys but it is brand new and faster, it handles better, and the components are OK to handle a healthy LS3 engine (over 500 hp). Did I say that it’s ready to race KOH?
—Sebastian Varas

Tech Specs
1942 Willys LS (No. 1)
Engine: ’07 LY6, 6.0L
Transmission: Built TH350
Transfer case: Dana 300
Front Axle: Wagoneer Dana 44 with ARB, 4.11 R&P, chromoly axleshafts
Rear Axle: Wagoneer Dana 44 with Detroit, 4.11 R&P, chromoly axleshafts

Springs & Such: (Front) SOA using Wagoneer springs mounted backwards, Fox shocks; (Rear)4-link with 12-inch FOA coilovers
Wheelbase (in): 89
Tires & Wheels: 15x10 Allied beadlocks, 36-inch Iroks
Other Stuff: 1942 Willys MB Body, from a re-exported jeep from Europe to South America after the war, custom 2x4-inch frame

2013 Willys LSX (No. 2)
Engine: Built ’13 LS3, 6.2L
Transmission: Rossler TH400
Transfer case: Atlas 4-speed
Front Axle: Currie F9 with ARB, 4.11 R&P, 35-spline axleshafts
Rear Axle: Currie F9 with Detroit, 4.11 R&P, 35-spline axleshafts

Springs & Such: (Front) 2-link plus radius arms plus Panhard; 14-inch Fox coilovers; (Rear) 4-link with 12-inch Fox coilovers
Wheelbase (in): 100
Tires & Wheels: 17x8.5 Walker Evans beadlocks, 37-inch BFG Krawlers
Other Stuff: Technically a ’13 Willys MB. All parts were bought new. 2013 reproduction Willys MB body, stretched 16 inches, custom 2x4-inch frame

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