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Meticulous - Custom 1949 Willy's Jeepster

Posted in Project Vehicles on August 17, 2006
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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.

PhotosView Slideshow


Before: Parts-Jeep Number Two

Ron started with a really rough Jeepster tub and spent quite a bit of time cutting out rust, installing new panels, and learning how to weld sheetmetal. The rear wheelwells were opened up a bit to allow the tires to stuff fully without rubbing, and the firewall and floor received much attention to better fit the new drivetrain. Up front, Ron extended the bottom of the '49 grille about 4 inches to allow the fitment of a larger radiator.

Ron found out the hard way that much of his bodywork had to be redone (doors wouldn't shut properly). Paul Pitzonka from Performance by Paul in Riverside, California, took care of the final bodywork and alignment. Tory Franks from Pinstripe by Tory took care of the graphics, marbleized rollcage and bumpers, and other detail paint work. Both Paul and Tory worked together to come up with the paint design, color selections, and multiple masking and back masking.

With the paint done, Ron sourced friends, junkyards, and The Jeepster Man in Howell, New Jersey, for windshield and wind-wing rubber, taillights, latches, springs, handles, and other miscellaneous trim parts. The original Willys trim pieces are made from stainless steel, so they polished easily.


Inside is where you really notice the attention to detail in Ron's Jeepster. The paint theme continues here, and one-off billet parts grab your attention as much as the modified and airbrushed dash. For seating, Ron installed two MasterCraft Pro 4 seats with removable headrests and a MasterCraft bench seat for rear occupants. He also did his own upholstery work using black and gray carpet that can be easily removed for cleaning. Since Ron is a semi-retired electrical contractor, he spent some extra time on the wiring -- the easiest part, he says. The switches, turn signals, high beams, emergency brake, and transfer case levers have LED status lamps in the dash. A Momo steering wheel directs the Jeepster and features right and left tabs to activate the self-canceling turn signals. Auto Meter gauges let Ron keep an eye on what the Jeepster is doing under the hood, and an Art Car gated shifter lets him pick the gears. Oh, and of course, the marbleized DOM cage protects the occupants in the event of a roll.


Ron built the Jeep around the 35x12.50R15 BFGoodrich Mud Terrain tires. They tuck up perfectly into the carefully trimmed rear fenders. The wheels are 15x8 aluminum Ultra Type 164s. They were sent to OMF to have real bead locks installed. OMF Domes give the wheels a unique look.


Ron learned that he should have supported the tub better before welding in the new replacement panels. With this bit of experience under his belt, he recommends starting with a clean tub. Ron is currently having a factory-looking soft top made for the Jeepster and is installing a stereo. The full-hydraulic steering was a little twitchy at first and took some time for Ron to get used to. Changing the spring rate helped make it more predictable. Ron plans to change the shock valving and add a rear sway bar to improve the handling even more. This will also help him achieve the smoothest ride possible over the desert roads and trails which he frequents in Ocotillo Wells and Anza Borrego, California. Other possible changes include the addition of a selectable front locker and possibly slightly less gearing (3.0:1) in the transfer case.


Ron's Jeepster reminded us of a meticulously clean hot rod at a car show, and it's no coincidence that Ron used to own a hot rod. The attention to detail is unbelievable. The fact that it can really scoot down desert whoops and washes all day long without beating the snot out of your body is a real bonus. The chassis is perfectly rigid, thanks to the well-built cage that makes the Jeepster squeak and rattle free. Ron figures the value of his Jeep is $55,000 if you include his own labor at $1 an hour. Whatever the cost, Ron's Willys is clean, tight, fast, and probably more of an attention-getter than Ron had originally planned. But we doubt you'll hear him complaining. At only $1 per hour, we're thinking we might just have Ron build us a Jeepster.


Vehicle: '49 Jeepster
Engine: '03 GM 5.7L LS1 V-8
Transmission: '87 TH700-R4
Transfer case: Advance Adapters Atlas II
Suspension: Three-link front and rear with coilovers
Axles: '87 GM Dana 44 (front), Currie Ford 9-inch (rear)
Wheels: 15x8 Ultra Type 164 with OMF bead locks
Tires: 35x12.50R15 BFGoodrich Mud Terrain
Built For: Desert running
Value: $49,000

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