'49 Willy's Jeepster, Hot Rod, and Desert Runner All Rolled Into One
The bright paint scheme on Ron Schoonard's '49 Willys Jeepster is the first thing to smack you upside the head. Upon closer inspection, you realize it's a relatively uncommon early Jeepster that actually began life as a two-wheel drive (with A-arms up front!). And, finally, when you move in closer, you're overwhelmed by the attention to detail that can be found throughout the entire Jeep. From welding to wiring, Ron's Willys is impeccable. Ironically, Ron had originally planed to build a slightly less remarkable Jeep. He didn't want to attract too much attention.
When Ron was eight years old, his cousin had a '49 Jeepster, and he remembered how much fun they had tooling around in it. So the search was on for a '49. Ron actually used three rigs to build his Willys. The first basket-case '49 Ron scooped up had a '51 grille, hood, and fenders, so it was immediately apparent that he would need more body parts to get the look of the '49 Jeepster he wanted. The second '49 had the useable front clip he needed. And the third vehicle to relinquish its parts was an '87 Chevy Blazer.
Ron started by slinging the Blazer frame under the number one Willys tub and number two Willys front clip. He found that it was surprisingly easy to mate the Jeepster body to the GM frame. He needed to cut off part of the front and rear frame horns, move the rear axle forward, and weld on body mounts. The engine, tranny, and transfer case were mocked-in as well. Originally, the plan was to use the Blazer's leaf-spring suspension and steering system, but it didn't quite work out that way.
Since the rollcage was beyond Ron's expertise, he began looking for a builder who could do it right. He found James Fisher at Custom Metal Creations. After seeing the project, James recommended that they remove the leaf springs and replace them with front and rear three-link suspensions, complete with coilovers and nitrogen bumpstops, as well as install the rollcage. Shortly after Ron finished the replacement of the rusty body panels, the Jeepster was pushed into James' shop in Riverside, California, where he built the rollcage, suspension, tranny girdle, trans cooler mount with skidplate, steering column, seat mounts, tube bumpers, gas tank skidplate, and so on. He also replaced the front portion of the frame (forward of the motor mounts) with DOM tubing. Out back, a 20-gallon Fuel Safe fuel cell was stuffed under the floor. Up front, a double-ended Howe full-hydraulic steering ram was used to direct the Jeepster.
Once the sparks settled, the Jeepster was sitting on a 104-inch wheelbase, four Fox 2 1/2-inch piggy back pro series coilover shocks with dual-rate springs, and Fox nitrogen bumpstops all around. James, being a machinist as well as fabricator, whittled out a one-piece billet aluminum brake pedal, shift knobs, and other trick knick-knacks.
The Jeepster then found its way back into Ron's garage so he could run the wiring and plumbing. He also had to figure out how to get a big enough radiator behind the grille.
Obviously, Ron wanted a little more oomph than what the original Jeepster engine produced, so he made a call to Turnkey Engine Supply in Oceanside, California, and picked up one of the company's all-aluminum GM LS1 V-8s. Over-the-framerail headers were custom made by Richard's Performance Mufflers in Vista, California, and dual 2 1/2-inch exhausts from Vista Muffler & Auto send the spent gases to the rear of the Jeep.
The engine is mated to the GM 700-R4 four-speed automatic that came from the Blazer. However, it was sent to Mogi Transmission in Riverside, California, for a heavy-duty rebuild and a few upgrades. The power is split through an Advance Adapters Atlas II transfer case with a 3.8:1 low-range and Inland Empire Driveline driveshafts. The front axle is the Dana 44 from the '87 Blazer. It's stuffed with 4.56 gears and a Detroit Truetrac limited slip. The Currie Ford 9-inch prerunner rearend sports 35-spline axles, 4.56 gears, a Detroit Locker, and Ford Explorer disk brakes, complete with a working emergency brake that is activated via Lokar cables and a trick adjustable lever pirated from a forklift.