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1963 Willys Wagon Project - Dr. Vern

Posted in News on June 21, 2014
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Plans. What was that saying about them? Something about the best- laid plans of mice and men often go astray. Yeah, I can relate to that. The original expression dates back several hundred years, from the pen of Scottish poet Robert Burns. When it comes to Scottish poetry, I’m more solidly in the Ewan McTeagle camp, but nevertheless, it’s a lovely sentiment.

(Editor to Dr. Vern, Editor to Dr. Vern, do you read me?) Sorry, this is a magazine about Jeeps, not the Scottish poetry review. It’s just sometimes those pesky plans have a mind of their own. Lesson du jour: The latest project on my ‘63 Willys wagon.

When it comes to projects, there’s plenty to do. Looking around, the seats really need to be reupholstered. The existing covers aren’t original, so it’s not like I’m preserving anything historic. They’re brittle and ragged, with shards of 70s vinyl just waiting to dig into my tender skin anytime I wear my Daisy Dukes.

Likewise, the weatherstrip around the Willys Wagon doors and windows has seen better days. Despite the scientifically proven benefits of fresh air, it would be nice to keep the weather on the outside of the vehicle where it belongs. Good seals might also help calm the nonstop rattlefest of driving a rig that is 50-plus years old.

"That’s cheaper than a…foo-foo cup of coffee"

I even worked up a healthy dose of motivation to get going. And then in typical fashion, I rested until the feeling passed. Got quite comfy, too, and instead picked something I thought would be simple.

A previous owner of the Willys Wagon had installed one of those spotlights with a control handle that extends inside the vehicle. If you’ve ever run from the police, this is the type of spotlight tracking you while the officer barks, “Face down on the ground, hands behind your back!” (Editor’s note: Not always true, as the nicer cops just tell me to stand still.)

These spotlights are great fun and all, but I don’t really need one. Furthermore, the internal gears were stripped, so the light wouldn’t swivel when twisting the control handle. Judging by the installation workmanship, a small thermonuclear device was used for breaching the sheetmetal. However, I have no way to prove this as I don’t have a Geiger counter. So here I was with a broken spotlight I didn’t really need, but I couldn’t easily get rid of it because it would leave a jagged hole next to the windshield. My easiest option would be to fix the spotlight.

It’s fun projects like these that make it worth getting out of bed each afternoon. With a decent home workshop at my disposal, I knew I’d be up to the challenge of fabricating a replacement gear. Because it rotated at very low speed, it didn’t have to be perfect. I’ve got a metal lathe and am not afraid to use it. Remember the saying, “if your only tool is a hammer, then all problems look like nails”? Well, if you own a metal lathe, every answer is round and threaded. But wait, there’s more since I’d recently picked up a small milling machine and have been teaching myself to use it.

I’ve done all sorts of interesting projects and saved lots of money in the process, too. I’ve turned brake drums and rotors. I’ve trued a warped Powr-Lok differential carrier. Heck, I’ve even turned and splined a set of custom axle shafts. I’ve never made a gear before, but it was time to grind a custom cutter and send metal chips flying. With just a little tinkering on my end (on the work piece that is, not literally my own end), I’d be able to save yet another piece of antique equipment.

While disassembling the spotlight and cleaning up the 50-year-old grease, I wondered if I could find any details online. With plenty of technical documents online for old Jeeps, I hoped I might find something for another item of similar vintage. I was not disappointed, at least at first. There it was, front and center on my screen, a wonderfully illustrated parts list for this old spotlight. Curious about this old document, I poked around to find the company was still in business. Imagine my surprise! (Editor’s note: Okay, I’m doing just that. Let me know when I can stop.)

Not only was the outfit still making spotlights, they even had a parts department. That must be only for newer models, right? After all, my local Jeep dealership doesn’t have anything for my ‘63 Willys wagon. Lo and behold, that little gear was smiling at me online. To add insult to injury, it was less than five dollars. That’s cheaper than a large foo-foo coffee. Why, for a monthly pledge of less than that, I can support a very worthwhile charity that helps keep at-risk teens from becoming magazine editors.

What was I to do? I already had a piece of brass chucked up in the lathe. The challenge was gone. What if life was always this easy? You’d never build any character, which is a code word all parents use with their kids when trying to justify something unpleasant.

This was a tough call as I was ready to play. I’ve invested a lot of time and money for the ability to occasionally save five bucks. Then I remembered some advice my Dad gave me years ago. Okay, technically it wasn’t advice. Rather, it was something he’d mutter while looking at boarding school brochures: “Son, don’t be an idiot.” Add to basket…click. Thanks, Dad.

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