In 1943, the world was at war. Tensions were escalating in multiple theatres. The Second World War was in full swing when this ’43 Willys Jeep entered U.S. Army service at Camp Cooke (now known as Vandenberg Air Force Base) in California. It proudly served in support of the armored divisions that went on to fight in the North African campaign.
By 1948, WWII was done, the Army was downsizing, and this particular Willys was honorably discharged and sold at a military auction. A family in San Diego bought it and used it as a ranch hand for just over 20 years. By 1969, the vehicle was pretty worn out and had various faltering parts, so it was simply parked in the back yard at the ranch. And it sat there for the next 22 years, until retired Lt. Col. Fred Humes found it. Fred had retired from his service as an armored unit commander, and he was on a mission to find an old military flatfender.
Fred has restored, customized, and rebuilt quite a few cars and trucks, so he knew what he was doing. When Fred got the Jeep in 1991, the Internet was in its infancy, so Fred hunted for parts the old-fashioned way: by carefully watching the classified ads and attending car-parts swap meets. At one of the biggest swap meets in San Diego (at Qualcomm Stadium where the San Diego Chargers play NFL football), he found a military Willys for sale. However, the seller was nowhere to be found. He waited, and waited, and waited some more. Apparently, the owner was touring the entire swap meet. It just so happened that a guy who was standing nearby sensed Fred’s impatience and offered, “I’ve got a ’43 Willys at home I’ll sell you.”
That offer led Fred on a road trip to the ranch where this ’43 Willys was parked. So much time had passed that a hedge had completely grown up around the perimeter of the back yard and impeded the exit of the Willys. But while the homeowner was getting out the tools to cut a pathway through the hedge, Fred had to come to grips with the condition of the vehicle. It looked exactly as you would imagine a ranch truck would that had spent the past 22 years sitting in a back yard. It was rough. Lots of metal had disappeared into the atmosphere thanks to rust so there really wasn’t a lot to work with. This would be a project with a capital P.
However, it had a solid frame, good grille, and a valid title, so Fred took a liking to the vehicle and handed over a very reasonable amount of cash for the privilege of moving it from the ranch yard to his garage. Over the next six months, he worked on it every evening and weekend and vowed to have it ready for the Jeepers Jamboree in July 1991 on the Rubicon Trail in California. Since the Willys was so far gone, he abandoned any thoughts of resorting it to original. He figured he might as well have fun with it and upgrade some key things like the body, engine, and brakes. Retired Lt. Col. Humes brought the Willys back to life with some carefully chosen modern parts.
The frame has not been modified from what the factory provided, but the leaf springs (both front and rear) have been changed a couple times to get things just right. The leaf springs were first replaced with aftermarket two-inch lift springs. Those springs were never flexible enough and were eventually replaced by custom springs based on the weight of the vehicle. They were ordered and installed by M.I.T. in El Cajon, California.
After adapting a Malotte Manufacturing fiberglass body onto the original frame, one of the biggest changes was the powerplant. Fred put a 4.3L V-6 Chevrolet engine into the Willys and added a Holley Commander TBI fuel injection system to boot. An Edelbrock intake and Mallory ignition serve the V-6 well. Driven HR 15W-50 High Zinc Petroleum Hot Rod Oil by Joe Gibbs Racing lubes the engine. A TH350 automatic transmission with a Dana 300 transfer case was another upgrade. Advance Adapters had the right parts to make everything fit.
The axle assemblies and transfer case came from a CJ-7. The Dana 300 was clocked up for more ground clearance, and a Powertrax Lock-Rite was installed in the front Dana 30. The AMC 20 rear received an ARB locker and Moser axles. Both axles run Kendall NS-MP 80W-90 Hypoid Gear Lubricant, extreme-pressure, API GL-5. With the help of M.I.T., Fred installed 4.88 gears. While drum brakes remain on the rear, Fred added front discs and a double diaphragm booster, helping it drive a lot nicer than when it was original. CJ-7 power steering was also added to the Willys.
A set of 15x8 inch Bassett wheels were mounted with BFG KM2 31-inch tires for just the right look and traction. And, actually, the tires were selected for a more practical reason too. They are just the right size to make it easier for Fred’s wife to get in and out of the Willys. When it had 32s on it there was a bit more of a struggle for her so Fred made the change. “I don’t go Jeeping without her,” Fred said earnestly while explaining.
Body and Interior
As mentioned earlier, Fred didn’t try too hard to keep the Willys all original, so the really rough body was jettisoned in favor of a fiberglass version from Malotte Manufacturing. To stay safe, Humes installed MasterCraft Rubicon seats, Deist shoulder/lap restraints, and a full rollcage. Just like the original, the interior of the Willys is still pretty sparse.
Good, Bad, and What it’s for
After the work was done and the Willys was back on the road, Fred had the pleasure of being included in Four Wheeler magazine’s 2nd annual Top Truck Challenge as one of the Ten Best Four Wheelers. In fact, he won the Ramsey winch that’s on the front bumper at the event. The honor of being in the Top Truck Challenge was a testament to the functionality of the little Willys. This Jeep has been on a variety of famous trails, the Rubicon Trail, Black Bear Pass, Holy Cross Trail, Ouray, Moab-area trails, and various Jeep Jamborees.
This Willys is equally at ease on the Rubicon Trail as it is being valet parked at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego. The old flat fender is now performing recreational duties on various trails and sand dunes throughout the Southwestern United States with the only armament being a Super Soaker.
Why I wrote this Feature
When I met Fred and his wife Laura Lee on the Horse Thief Flats trail in Big Bear, California, during a Jeep Jamboree, I couldn’t help but notice how much they loved what they were doing. Both love to talk about their Willys and know every detail about the vehicle and its history. I appreciate the fact that they don’t baby the Willys in any way. Some of the trails they’ve had the Jeep on can get hairy. Part of our photo shoot was on Blow Sand Hill at Ocotillo Wells, California, where Fred kept asking if he could let ’er rip a little. Look at the photos—They are smiling all the way! —Bob Carpenter
Vehicle: 1943 Willys Jeep
Engine: Chevy 4.3L V-6
Transmission: TH 350
Transfer Case: Dana 300
Suspension: M.I.T. leaf springs (front and rear)
Axles: Dana 30 (front), AMC 20 (rear)
Wheels: 15x8 Bassett
Tires: 31x10.5R15 BFG KM2
Built for: Trail fun