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1951 Willys CJ-3A - Project Colonel Mustard

Posted in Project Vehicles on January 1, 2008 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Ken Brubaker

Somewhere in Nebraska, with Brubaker rattling on about finding a homestead along the Platte River for the umpteenth time, it hits me-as if locking myself in a yellow H3 just months ago with Brubaker wasn't enough, here I am again with what, a little under 1,500 more miles to go? But this trip was different-we're on our way to Hollister, California, from Detroit, with precious cargo in tow: my brand-spanking-new (to me) flatfender.

It all started this past April at the annual Moab Easter Jeep Safari, when I mentioned to a Jeep guru friend of mine, Jim Repp, that I was looking for a flatfender, and he mentioned that he might know of one in real good condition that was in need of a new home. Phone calls were made and e-mails exchanged.

The Willys in question was a 1951 CJ-3A, number 46 off the production line, originally sold in California. The second owner was a family member tied to Rancho Suspension (from 1959 to 1996, as I know it), where it was used as a mule for various projects. It was then sold to a Jeep executive in October '96, which is whom I bought it from. Back in 1997, some of the guys at Jeep-you may know some of the names: Dave Yegge (now at AEV), Jim Repp (still at Jeep), and Jim Frens (of Nth Degree) among others-helped to complete a frame-off restoration in a matter of weeks. Since that time, the Jeep has had less than 500 miles put on it and has lived a privileged life in a heated garage, away from the Michigan elements.

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Knowing the cool history behind the '51, I couldn't pass on the chance to own it and keep it in the four-wheeling family and community. With excitement building, I hopped on a one-way morning flight out of Orange County's John Wayne airport, and arrived in Detroit at 5:00 p.m. with Ken and the Land Cruiser (and his oldest son Dave along for the ride) waiting, apparently not having enough of cross-country trips with me yet. It didn't hurt that Ken was already headed out to TTC from the Midwest Bureau to exchange our Long-Term Land Cruiser for the Power Wagon.

Before picking up the flattie, we had to first stop by the local U-Haul to get our one-way trailer rental. After arriving to find the Willys ready for a new adventure, we went over the details of the little Jeep and what bits might need attention. I was surprised to find out that both differentials had lockers in them already and was equipped with turn signals. The Willys also sported a trick one-off Bestop bikini top and seatbelts.

The triumphant first drive of the newest Four Wheeler project has our Tech Editor excited.

The 60-horse, 134ci flathead started right up, sounding much like a well-tuned sewing machine. Ken snapped the first pictures of me in the driver seat as I left for a several-mile testdrive. The brakes were what I expected for non-power drums of that vintage. There were a couple of paint chips that need touching up, the parking brake works, but the ratchet doesn't always hold, the toolbox needs a new seal, and the parking light sockets need to be replaced. Other than that minor stuff, it is a runner and I can't wait to get started on it.

After an exchange of money for title and a handshake, we loaded my new Willys up on the trailer for a quick trip to Jackson, Michigan for the night. We wanted to be well rested for the drive ahead, as a major spring storm was moving right through our corridor of travel, complete with tornado and flash flood watches.

It was another long day behind the wheel when we arrived in Omaha, Nebraska, with a downpour in the air and steak on the mind. However, the only thing open, easy and close to the hotel was a local Arby's. Of course, it was after dining-room hours, and just the drive-thru was open. Being as hungry as we were, the fact that we were towing a trailer was no obstacle in our minds. So through the drive-thru we went, Land Cruiser, Willys and all, giving the Arby's late night staff a good laugh. This is not the first time I have had to tow through a drive-thru and I was not afraid. I also pulled RangeRunner with the Power Wagon through Jack In The Box once, tearing out some bushes (oops). All I can say is when a man is hungry and on a late-night road trip, there is nothing that will stop him from getting food before bed-not even a curvy driveway and a 45-foot long rig. You guys who tow a lot will understand.

The next day we were back on the open road, and the torrential rains continued as we drove right through the brunt of the storm while continuing west on I-80. However, much to the delight of Ken, the rain subsided and beautiful views had taken over by the time we reached the Platte River area in western Nebraska, causing Ken to pontificate on the benefits of a Nebraskan lifestyle for the next several hours. As you might have guessed, Brubaker has some strange sort of fascination with this region of the country. Excitedly awakening me from a sound copilot slumber (hey, the Land Cruiser had Nav, and there weren't a lot of turns coming up in the next several hundred miles), Ken wanted to be sure I saw it, and that I clearly understood why he threatens his family to move there. So all of you in Nebraska, consider this your warning. Ken snores loudly, carries a Mega Blanket when he camps, and has no tolerance for bad Mexican food north of Texas. He also drinks a gallon of OJ before bed every night (no joke). This period of travel will forever be known as the Nebraskan Harangue, and reaffirmed my belief that Brubaker is at least one click off.

With 70mph speeds and continual soakings, the Willys didn't seem to care too much, or show that it was any worse for the wear. Ken laughed at me as with each passing torrential rainfall I turned around to apologize to the old Jeep for ripping it from its dry garage home and subjecting it to an organic cleansing mixed with a touch of road spray. But hey, what can you do? I guess I was just sensitive because I feel fortunate enough to be the Jeep's current caretaker, and I want it to last 56 more years.

By the end of the trip we had covered some serious ground, including a nearly 1,000-mile day, and running through the lovely states of Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. Too bad we didn't have enough time to stop and investigate the scenery or roadside attractions, like the biggest truck stop in the world and the Gateway To The West archway. However, we did have the pleasure of pacing trains, dodging road closures, and battling truckers. Sometimes I forget how much of a challenge the open road can present.

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Road food is often a challenge and we were met with a wide spectrum, ranging from lunch at Hardee's to a steakhouse selling seafood in Wyoming. This particular steakhouse advertised "Salt Lake Shrimp" on the menu, and in the menu description under the entre name it read, "Not actually from the Great Salt Lake, thankfully." So it appears the people in Wyoming have a sense of humor against their neighbors to the west, and you should know by now that Ken and I do enjoy the funny.

After days of driving, we finally made it to Hollister in time for TTC, but we weren't the ones to win the long distance award-TTC had teams from the Carolinas, Canada, and Florida in attendance-but we appreciate the trek of our competitors a little more this year.

With the Willys off the trailer, it became my Hollister runabout during TTC week. Everyone responded amazingly well to the little yellow 3A. Old vets appreciate it, little kids wave, and everyone who sees it seems to smile. Even the TTC guys were checking it out. This is a vehicle that just seems to make people happy. And we are happy to include it as the latest addition to our project vehicle stable.

As for the buildup, we see some 30-inch tires, new suspension, steel wheels, an overdrive, and a winch in this project's future. We want to showcase some old tech, and some modern tech, and do some things that will modernize the Jeep and make it more reliable, but without taking away from the charm that is an old Flattie.Don't expect it to tackle Helldorado, but don't be surprised if it you see it out on Mojave Road.

Who knows where the boss will send us next-perhaps cross-country in the Colonel?

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