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July 2011 Dr. Vern

Posted in Features on July 1, 2011
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Contributors: Dr. Vern

I belong to quite a special club. I’m not talking about the Could Pass for Walter From the Big Lebowski Club, even though that is a source of pride for me. No, I’ve become a card-carrying member of the Willys Daily Driver Club.

There is a wonderful reason I’m driving my ’63 Willys wagon every day now. Several years ago at my day job, a lady from headquarters flew out for a visit. To the best of my knowledge, she flew on a plane, not a broom, even though the latter seemed more fitting because she was handing out pink slips. The powers that be had decided the business could function more efficiently with wholesale outsourcing of the maintenance department. Cut to the present day, and the new powers that be decided that the old powers that be had it all wrong, and promptly unleashed the pink slip lady on them.

Shorty after this, the company put me back on the payroll. I soon found myself once again walking around with tools on my belt. I could have done so at the office job I’d worked in the meantime, but people would have tended to laugh. The only hitch with the recall was my purchase of a new house many miles away, having figured I’d never be back at my old job again. Our new abode, a stunning antique farmhouse on a huge fenced property, is the perfect place to start a Jeep ranch. It’s well worth the commute to my new/old job.

In the interest of being more earth-friendly (’scuse me while I gag from political correctness), I’ve even tried public transportation. Sadly, a 30-minute drive turns into a two-hour slog via subway and bus. Plus, you always meet such interesting people while riding public transportation. It was time for a decent commuter vehicle. My wife had dibs on the family car, so I had to come up with something for my commute.

We did plenty of research. I needed something economical, safe, and practical. Then I said heck with it and decided to drive my ’63 Willys wagon. I bought it about three years ago and had been working on it ever since. Age and previous owners had taken their toll on it. I rewired it from top to bottom. I cleaned up the details of what could hold the record for the world’s sloppiest engine swap. The list goes on and on, and there is still plenty more to be done. But it is now somewhat mechanically sound, even if the cosmetics still leave something to be desired. I made the command decision to get her back on the road, and then take care of the remaining issues as I go. Just to be specific, I won’t be literally making those repairs as I’m driving. I mean I’ll drive the wagon and make note of what items need attention during my next wrenching session.

You may wonder about my decision to commute in a Willys wagon, but my life has never been a slave to logic. In an era of sky-high fuel prices, I’m driving a boxy vehicle with the aerodynamic properties of a giant brick. One thing I will say for the designers is that they sure didn’t skimp on headroom. As a tall guy (I’m 5’-15”), I have to scrunch down in most vehicles. I switched from ’80s hair to a flattop just to gain a little extra headroom. This isn’t an issue with a Willys wagon, and I’m finally free to wear my Viking helmet while driving.

Now that I’m driving one of the coolest vehicles on the road, I wonder how many other people are also driving Willys vehicles on a daily basis. There can’t be many of us. Although there are plenty of Willys vehicles around, most aren’t driven on a regular basis. My ’48 CJ-2A, for example, is more of a weekend toy. My ’63 wagon, however, is well suited for daily duty. Thanks to the V-8 and overdrive, it keeps up with traffic. The brakes are fair at best, so maybe I should carry a boat anchor as a backup. I should fix the fuel gauge instead of employing a giant dipstick (Editor’s Note: How much does this pay?). I really wish I had rebuilt the transmission, as the synchromesh action is only a distant memory. In the meantime, I’ve become very good at double-clutching and will continue to do so until I rebuild it or scatter transmission pieces on the road, whichever comes first.

If you’re thinking of driving a prehistoric vehicle like this, please be forewarned. Without any power amenities, you’ll get a solid workout in the driver’s seat. Despite all these shortcomings, this rig is a blast to drive. Even though an enthusiast can spot an old Jeep from a long distance, for most civilians a flat fender CJ doesn’t look much different from a newer model. With a Willys wagon, however, there’s nothing remotely similar on the road and it gets people’s attention. Folks are always waving, and not just with a single finger. Guys driving minivans seem to wave the most enthusiastically. I hope they can forgive me for not waving back. I need both hands on the wheel to avoid randomly changing lanes.

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