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She’s A Keeper: The Story Of A Boy And His 67-Year-Old Jeep

Posted in Features on August 6, 2016
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Yep, she’s a keeper. Most people talk about “owning a car” like they talk about “owning” a dog. I think that’s a fairly artificial way of looking at reality. Sure you “own” that two-year-old minivan in the driveway, or your average late-model econobox because neither has a soul and little if any personality. A dog or other beloved pet may get bought, but becomes more than just a mere possession. The same is true for older vehicles that take on a soul and personality because they have survived despite the odds (when many of their kind have been turned into soup cans and the like). It’s a semantic discussion much like one about house versus home.

One such vehicle that I would swear has a soul and definitely has plenty of personality is my ’49 Willys CJ-3A. It’s a Jeep. Technically, according to the state of Arizona, I’m its owner, but if you ask me, I’m just a caretaker for this vehicle. It’s been here longer than I have (I was born in 1976), and I hope it will be here in one form or another after I’m gone. I’ve had the Jeep since 1999, and before that, it passed through more than a few hands. It was bought in North Carolina, the state where I was raised. When I bought it, I was in love with the idea of having a capable, go anywhere, do anything vehicle. I’d seen other flatties in the magazines and saw that they seemed to be one of the best platforms for a truly capable vehicle that could still be driven down the road. Since then, I’ve used a trailer several times, but I still feel that being able to road drive a trail rig is a must.

Getting back to the Jeep, I didn’t pay a huge amount for it—I think I paid $2,000, maybe $2,500, for it. At the time, finding a running and driving flattie in North Carolina was not something that happened every day. That said, it also broke down on the test drive. Still, I had to have it, and I still do 17 years later. Of course that’s not much of the 67 years the Jeep has been on earth, but I feel that the flattie appreciates my love of it. I think we are friends, but it doesn’t talk much. “She” generally does what I want, and I take that as a good sign. I’ve had other Jeeps that resist my plans. I also feel that, like a dog, you should play with your vehicles every chance you get. There is nothing sadder than a dog—or Jeep—that everyone ignores. Also, I’ve touched, repaired, cleaned, honed, and cared about every part of this Jeep with the exception of a few pieces inside the engine and the rear axle. I’ve learned a lot with this vehicle, and I plan on continuing my side of the relationship until I leave this earth.

When I bought the Jeep, it was a bit of a basket case. It had been “restored” at some point and had lots of dubious repairs that made it sub-ideal in hindsight. The frame was in great shape and that’s what, over the years, has really counted. At the time, the wiring was a disaster, the body was basically junk (short of the cowl), and the engine was as dubious as the rest of the drivetrain, but the other parts were, and still are, good. The seats are still in use, and the Kayline soft top has issues but still keeps most of the weather out. The hood, grille, windshield, front fenders, and transfer case are original (as in they were on the Jeep when I bought it) and are period correct to the vehicle. No, the numbers don’t match, but then again, it and most of its parts lack any real numbering system. The rest of the Jeep has been massaged by me to reflect what I want it to be using aftermarket and custom parts.

At the end of the day, as a tried and true 4x4 nut, this is so far my one true keeper vehicle. I’ve had it longer than any other vehicle I’ve owned, with most other vehicles staying with me for two, three, maybe four years at a time. Here is some of our story, a tale about the time the Jeep and I have spent together and some of our adventures.

Not too long after buying “the flattie,” as it’s always been known, I got a job as a feature editor at Jp Magazine in Los Angeles. I packed my ’97 XJ and moved out West without the flattie. It sat in my parents’ garage until I talked the Jp editor at the time, John Cappa (or he talked me), into a road trip to go get the flattie from my parents’ house in North Carolina. I was supposed to drive the Jeep back from North Carolina, but it never ran right. Something in the ignition system fought us the whole way. Our shenanigans are recorded for all time in the May ’01 Jp story “Timing, Timing, Timing.”
In the same issue of Jp (May ’01), I did a story (“Overdriven”) on rebuilding the Saturn overdrive with Advance Adapters. Remember how I said the Jeep broke down on the test drive when I bought it? That was because the Saturn overdrive had been modified and installed in the Jeep incorrectly. John Cappa and I rebuilt and installed it before the trip across the U.S. That rebuilt Saturn overdrive is still in the Jeep, although I did go through it again in 2010.
For the July ’01 issue of Jp we installed a 2 1/2-inch Rancho suspension lift and 32-inch Goodyear MT/Rs on the flattie out at Tierra Del Sol’s Desert Safari. One night at the event, I rolled the Jeep while attempting a hill and destroyed what was left of the original steel tub. It was basically all rust with lots of fiberglass and bondo thrown in for the mix. In the same issue of Jp, I also did a story on upgrading the L-head using a Solex carb and a Pertronix unit in the distributor. The Jeep ran much more reliably afterward, but the L-head still left a lot to be desired.
In the Sept. ’01 issue of Jp in story titled “My First Locker,” I gave my impressions on an install of a Detroit Locker and a Warn full-float kit for the Jeeps rear Dana 44.
Using some tech I’d picked up from Cappa and Wilson Boyd while in Tennessee when we “drove” the flattie cross-country, I wrote an article about swapping disc brakes onto the flatties front Dana 25 axle. The story was called “Drum to Disc,” and it was published in the Nov. ’01 issue of Jp. I still occasionally get questions about it and/or the conversion. It used off-the-shelf parts and greatly improved the braking performance of the old Jeep. In the same issue I worked on an interior upgrade story where I re-covered the CJ’s original seats with canvas from Beachwood Canvas Works. I also hand sewed a bikini top (with help from Calin Head who was then with Sport Truck magazine) out of more canvas. That bikini top is tattered but is still on the Jeep, and I replaced the seat covers just before Moab 2016.
In the Jan. ’01 issue of Jp, Cappa and I installed a Holley one-barrel throttle-body fuel injection system on the L-head in the flattie. Cappa made the adapter to bolt the throttle body to the L-head’s intake manifold, and I wired it and figured out most of the rest. It ran no matter the angle but seemed to always be rich.
The next major modification I did on the flattie was adding Saginaw power steering using a pump and box from UMP (“Steering Power,” Jp, May ’02). I added a Saginaw box using an Advance Adapters plate and used a Hobart MIG welder to build a bracket to mount the power steering pump on the L-head. All those parts are still on the flattie today, and the thing steers like a dream even when the 35s are aired down.
Somewhere around the end of 2002, I decided I wasn’t cut out to live in Southern California. I quit my job at Jp and headed back to North Carolina. I left the flattie with Christian Hazel until I could figure out a way to get it back East. Somewhere in there, Christian decided to go to Massachusetts to gather his high school-era muscle car. He then voluntarily towed the flattie to North Carolina on his way from San Diego to Massachusetts. I’m not sure I can ever thank him enough for that. So the flattie was back in my parents’ garage. We’ve come full circle.
During this time of my life, I decided to go back to school. I also decided to fully rebuild the flattie. I was tired of the tired L-head, I wanted a granny four-speed and a bigger engine, and the Jeep needed bodywork and a new wiring harness. Also, every one of my peers had spring-over suspension on their flatties using YJ springs. I wanted to join them. I continued writing during this time as a freelancer and was able to write an article on one of the first Aqualu Industries aluminum body tubs for flatfenders. I boxed the frame, found an even-fire Buick V-6 and a Ford T-18 transmission, and built the Jeep for YJ springs and a spring-over. A Dana 44 front axle inherited from Christian was shortened a bit and has lived under the Jeep ever since. Unfortunately, the local photo film developer lost a couple rolls of film from the rebuild, so photos are few and far between. I then bought my first digital camera. I also dabbled in different paint schemes but came back to tan.
Fast forward a few years and the flattie followed me around the country. First to Ohio for a few years and then to Peoria, Arizona. During this time, the Jeep’s undergone a few minor upgrades (and I met and married a wonderful woman). While in Arizona, I bought a used Warn 8274 and rebuilt it for flattie. I also acquired an offset Dana 44 from a FSJ from John Cappa for the rear of the Jeep, which I mounted spring-under using 4-inch YJ lift springs to help fight axlewrap. The single-barrel Holley fuel injection made its way to the Buick V-6 during the rebuild but left a lot to be desired. At some point, I ordered a Howell TBI fuel injection system that is still on the Jeep. It’s seamless. I also reconnected with my friends and colleagues at the magazines and began entertaining the idea of coming back to Jp full-time if I could weasel my way in—and work remotely for the company. I took the Jeep on lots of trails around Arizona and Southern California.
In 2011, I got to take the flattie on 4-Wheel & Off-Road’s Ultimate Adventure with my pal and long-term Ultimate Adventure attendee, Trent McGee. The Jeep received some Champion beadlocks, new 35-inch BFG KM2s, chromoly axleshafts for the rear axle, a T-case rebuild, and some cage work. The little Jeep did great, going just about everywhere the big trucks went with ease…except one big mudhole.
In 2012, Christian Hazel talked me into returning to Jp magazine as a feature editor full-time. Since then, the flattie has gotten a few upgraded parts to heal the weak links like Synergy Manufacturing steering and more. During Tierra Del Sol’s Desert Safari, I broke the FSJ Dana 44 rear axlehousing in half. Somehow I talked Jim McGean from Dynatrac into building me a one of a kind new rear axle using a JK centersection to build a Dana 60-strong Dana 44 with an ARB Air Locker.
I brought the flattie to Moab for Easter Jeep Safari 2016 and the old girl performed nearly flawlessly. The pinnacle of my trip was running Pritchett Canyon in the old Jeep where I drove many of the tough obstacles (although I did take the winch on a few). Later in the week I broke one of the front YJ leaf spring’s main leaves winching a big heavy Willys truck up a hill. In short, Moab took its toll on the old Jeep. All in all, I love what the Jeep has become, and I doubt I’d do a thing to change her (I’ve contemplated painting her red, which I believe to be the original color), but she does need new tires and some love. There are more than a few issues that come as a result of using a rig off-road for close to 17 years, and the flattie is due for some downtime and love.

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