If Willys built trucks in 2006 in cooperation with Jeep, it would probably look some- thing like this, but it probably would be more mild-mannered and sensible for use on the road. By that we mean it would not be tucking 42-inch tires, running a healthy 360 ci V-8, or have locked 1-ton axles. What you see here is a modified version of what might have rolled off the Willys assembly line if it were still mass-producing trucks in 2006. At least that’s what we’d like to hope. This ’49 Willys truck has a mix of good parts from what is old and what is new. With a Dodge-based 360 ci V-8 with multi-port fuel injection and a relatively modern boxed frame, it is the culmination of lots of experience building and driving Jeeps. You see, Chris Durham of Pickens, South Carolina, is known for building some sick and twisted Jeeps. Many remember his iconic custom CJ-10 from many years back, but over the last 13 years he has built several different TJ-based rigs that kind of rewrote the book on the low-slung method of building a TJ. While this Willys may not look or sound too much like a TJ, it does share many of the fundamental ideas that originated with the first fully coil-sprung factory Jeep Wrangler. Add in the coolness of a touch of Willys sheetmetal and a retro mini-bed and you have an awesome rig with looks to match. We ran into Chris out in Moab in 2012 and followed him around on the Pritchett Canyon Trail one day. Follow along as we tell you more about this unique Jeep truck.
The building of the Willys started with an old, rusted out ’49 pickup and a spare TJ frame. Once in hand, Chris tore both apart in his Pickens, South Carolina shop to build a TJ-based ’49 Willys. The modifications to the TJ frame started by lopping off the back of the framerails at their highest point, just over the stock axle location. To make up the length of the chassis and create a base for the bed of the truck, Chris then grafted in two lengths of 2x4-inch, 0.188-wall rectangular tubing. This allowed Chris to place the axle where he wanted front-to-back rather than where the factory wanted it and also provided a stout square frame. Finishing this off is a high-clearance rear bumper and a custom-built fuel cell.
Up at the front of the chassis Chris massaged the placement of the steering box to suit his liking, rotating the mounts to flatten out the pitman arm and avoiding steep drag link angles. A Warn RC9000 sits in front of an original ’49 Willys grille bolted to the TJ frame. Just behind the grille some tubing makes up a stout radiator mount ready to save the cooling system in the off chance of a flop. The front suspension is a three-link with a track bar. Springs are 3-inch Zone coils while custom-built, custom-length control arms are made from solid 2-inch 7075 aluminum stock. The ends of the control arms use 3⁄4-inch rod ends with a 7⁄8-inch shank. Front shocks are also from Zone and mount in the stock location on TJ front coil buckets. Out back aluminum control arms similar to the front make up a four-link with triangulated upper control arms. Rear springs are stock TJ coils with stock TJ upper coil mounts mounted flat on the rectangular tubing that makes up the new rear portion of the TJ frame. The rear shocks, again from Zone, are placed outboard of the frame with custom-built frame-side shock mounts. Chris tells us that none of the frame-side control arm mounts are factory, as he has his own ideas of how the link suspension on a TJ should be set up. All mounts are double-sheered and made from 1⁄4-inch plate. The end result keeps the Jeep low and stable even when on the throttle, big rocks, or slick Southeastern trails.
Reliable power for the Willys is poured from a 5.9L Magnum V-8 out of an ’00 Dodge R/T. Factory Dodge multi-port fuel injection keeps the revs coming despite angles. Exhaust gasses exit the back of the Willys via a set of tubular ceramic coated headers and a 21⁄2-inch single exhaust system (after the Y) and a Flowmaster 40 Series muffler. Bolted to the back of the 5.9L is a Chrysler TF904 and bolted to an Advance Adapters Atlas II with 3:1 gearing. The whole drivetrain is tucked up high to allow the Willys to run a flat 1⁄4-inch steel skidplate.
We all know big tires are hard on drivetrain parts, and Chris ain’t afraid to use the skinny pedal in the rough when the time is right. To keep things together come what may, axles are of the 1-ton flavor with the front kingpin Dana 60 axlehousing sourced from a ’90 Ford F-350. The rear axle is a GM 14-bolt shaved for clearance. Both axles spin 5.38 gears, Detroit Lockers, Superior axleshafts, and Solid cast differential covers. The front axle also spins chromoly CTM U-joints and Dynatrac DynaLoc hubs.
Body and Interior
The body of the ’49 Willys is mainly formed out of a TJ tub. The hood is a Chris Durham Motorsports high-clearance part for a TJ with a modified front profile to match the shape of the ’49 Willys grille. The back half of the TJ tub was lopped off to form the pickup cab. The rear corners of the tub were then grafted to what was left of the tub and a center fill plate bent up to make up the gap left by the tailgate. Next a custom mini bed was bent up out of 1⁄8-inch aluminum plate complete with hat channels, a rolled lip and a tailgate reminiscent of a ’49 Willys truck. Angular rocker protection finishes the lines along the bottom of the pickup cab/TJ tub. Those custom high-clearance rear fenders also have a trick up their sleeves with two mounting positions. Narrow for narrow trail work to keep them out of the rocks or trees or wide to cover up as much as those 42s as possible and keep the fuzz off your back. For safety’s sake, Chris modified the factory TJ rollbar, adding a front hoop and fully tied the rollcage to the frame using 13⁄4-inch, 0.120-wall DOM. At the time of shooting these photos the Willys was running seats from a late model TJ but the cage now houses a set of MasterCraft seats. Covering the cage and finishing the pickup truck look is a stock modified TJ soft top built by Bucket Stitch in Greenville, South Carolina. The faux patina’d paint was done by Chris’ paint guy, Gus Johnson, with a brick red primer base and a custom blue top coat. Add in a few other layers and a bunch of time wet sanding the paint (without the sanding block…the finger marks are good), and you have a nearly vintage-looking Willys truck.
Good Bad and What It’s For
Chris built this custom Willys truck to handle any and all trails around the country and then some. To borrow a phrase, this thing is built like a brick outhouse. Truly a Jeep we can admire, featuring an anvil-simple design, vintage look, and hammer’esque reliability. Chris has also been known to swap in some 4.10s in the 14-bolt, buzz at highway speeds from South Carolina to Washington for an event, swap back to the 5.38s for a week of wheeling, and swap back to the 4.10s for the ride home. That’s the kind of dedication to wheeling a rig we like to see.
Vehicle: ’49 Willys Truck with some TJ parts
Engine: ’00 Dodge 5.9L V-8
Transmission: Chrysler TF904
Transfer Case: Atlas II
Suspension: Three-link with track bar (front); triangulated four-link (rear)
Axles: Dana 60 (front); 14-bolt (rear)
Wheels: 17x9 Walker Evans beadlock
Tires: 42x14.50R-17LT Wrangler MT/R with Kevlar
Built For: Come what may
Why I Wrote This Feature
If I have to tell you why this Jeep is cool, then we are never gonna agree about its level of coolness. If so, please just accept the fact that you are wrong. The low stance, retro looks, and ample performance make this Willys truck one of the coolest custom Jeeps I have seen in 12 years in this industry. Add to that Chris’ experience with building Jeeps, his driving ability, and we promise you will have a good time watching this rig while it is sitting still, buzzing down the road, or hitting tough trails in one shot.