"Track him down and shoot this," was all the email from Cappa said. Attached was a photo of Randy Ellis' recently finished hot rod Willys. Shooting features is part of my job, but sometimes it's easier said than done, especially when you're talking about a couple of dudes with hectic schedules trying to sync a meeting. I missed Randy at the 2010 Long Beach Ink-N-Iron Festival and then again at a Lake Havasu hot rod show, but a month later I found myself about to make an impromptu trip to Phoenix. I called Randy and gave him 12 hours notice to clear his schedule for the next afternoon. The following morning I stood inside the Randy Ellis Design shop in Phoenix, Arizona, with my camera bag slung over my shoulder, gazing at one of the cooler Jeeps I've come across.
To quote Randy, "This is what an off-road Jeep guy does when he wants a hot rod." That probably explains the mud-terrain tires and absurdly overkill suspension. But I'm all about overkill, and this little Willys has it in spades. For some reason, hot-rodded Jeeps seem to fall into an automotive no-man's-land: shunned by traditional hot rodders as unworthy of the name, and seen as wasteful by purist Jeep 4x4 types. Here's the Jp-take on the subject: a ride like Randy's is more traditional hot rod than all those billet-wearing, tarted-up whores built with catalog-ordered components and assembled by a team of $150/hour shop monkeys. And for the off-road purist, it can be argued it's just as wasteful to cut a body tub to squeeze huge tires and smash vintage tin into rocks. In answer to the hot rod crowd, this rig features plenty of owner-fabricated custom parts and cool tricks as well as ample use of recycled components for cost-cutting: two key elements of original hot rods of the '40s. In answer to the utilitarian Jeep enthusiast, this Willys is a reliable driver capable of covering hundreds of miles and carries camping, recreational gear, and luggage for the occupants. So, with that settled, let's check it out.
Randy found himself wanting a hot rod and had a couple of slow weeks coming up in his calendar. As the owner of Randy Ellis Design, he wasn't without skills or in want of tools or equipment to build a complete vehicle in five weeks. He took stock of what he had on hand and got busy. Starting from the ground up, he built a custom frame from 2x3, 0.120-wall rectangular tubing. A '77 2WD 1/2-ton Chevy pickup donated its front knuckles, spindles, hubs, and rotors, which were grafted onto a custom beam front axle built by Randy. The beam axle is a mix of 2-inch-diameter, 0.250-wall tubing and 3/8-inch plate steel. Out back, the donor pickup's 12-bolt axle complete with 3.73 gears and leaky pinion seal was fitted with JK rotors, Randy-built caliper brackets, and a pair of 2WD GM 1/2-ton front calipers. The JK rotors share the 5x5 bolt pattern of the early GM 2WD pickups, and taking Randy's fab skills into the equation, the disc brake upgrade was easier than rebuilding the drum brakes.
With the front and rear axles ready to go, Randy fabbed up the rear four-link using 1.5-inch-diameter, 0.120-wall lower and 1.25-inch-diameter, 0.120-wall upper control arms with standard polyurethane bushing ends. The front received 1.5-inch-diameter, 0.250-wall lower and 1-inch-diameter, 0.120-wall upper control arms with the same bushing ends. A quartet of Air Lift bags was hung off trick cantilever front and rear mounts and attached to the lower links. A pair of Rancho rear and KYB front shocks smooth out the bumps on the 102-inch wheelbase.
The air bags allow the chassis 7 inches of vertical travel, so extra room was needed under the tub for rear axle clearance. Randy accomplished this by creating a special under-tub shelf onto which he mounted the 15-gallon RCI fuel cell, Optima Red Top battery, cheapie Chinese air compressor, polished air tank, and the air solenoids that control the front and rear bags.
At the business end, Randy wanted a way of pointing the tires in the right direction without resorting to a bulbous frame-mounted steering box. With traditional hot rod style, he commissioned a custom steering gear by Benchworks in Scottsdale, Arizona, which he mounted under the cowl with linkages built to clear the driver-side front tire at full-turn and when the bags are slammed. The steering gear uses a vintage Chevy truck case, Ford sector shaft, and Dodge reverse worm gear to get the job done.
With the chassis completed and the GM donor truck just sitting there the choice of engine was a foregone conclusion. The bazillion-mile '77 350 engine was yanked, degreased, and fitted with some polished valve covers before getting stabbed between the framerails. An Accel coil was fitted to the HEI distributor and a Holley 750cfm carb slung between the custom Randy Ellis Design air filter and a swap-meet aluminum intake. Randy fabbed up his own fenderwell headers that dump straight out near the tub sides. He built his own baffles and welded them in after the first test-drive proved too obnoxiously loud.
Before finally getting hauled away, the '77 Chevy pickup puked up its TH350 three-speed auto, which was installed into the Willys chassis in as-found form. It leaks a bit of fluid, but don't all Jeeps? Randy built his own shifter linkage and topped it off with a dummy grenade. The rear driveshaft angle is a bit odd when the Jeep is slammed, but with the suspension pumped up to ride-height (about 5-7 inches ground clearance) it works at freeway speeds without coming apart. For all the drivetrain knows, it's still in the Chevy pickup and just as happy to spin 60-70 mph all day long.
To cool the beast in the sweltering Arizona summer, a Ron Davis radiator was hung behind the genuine '45 CJ-2A grille. Randy fabbed up a trick full-fitting aluminum shroud into which a Spal electric fan was mounted. The Spal fan keeps things cool at low road speeds. Hinged doors in the shroud open up at faster road speeds, allowing full-flow through the radiator. The result is a cool-running engine with no overheating issues. And if it ever does heat up, overflow collects into the U.S. Army canteen mounted astride the front shock.
Body and Interior
It looks genuine, but the tub is actually a fiberglass replica with the rear tub floor filled in between the tops of the rear wheel tubs. As mentioned previously, this was necessary for rear axle clearance when the Jeep is lying on the frame. The fuel tank, battery, and air system are accessed via a hinged trunk door weighed down with a surplus military medical container. Thankfully, the container now carries Randy's camping gear to and from car shows and not bodily fluids.
Perched on the low-back Bestop CJ seats, your eyes begin to take in more and more tricks. The air-height controls for the front and rear bag system are tucked between the driver's seat and tub. But you'll probably be too busy eyeballing the crazy flat-steel beadlock-themed steering wheel Randy built to notice 'em. It's a theme that carries onto the world's most heavy-duty glove box door and air cleaner lid.
Like we said, the Jeep was built to actually drive a couple of hundred miles to shows, for events, and just for fun, so interior appointments include full tunes, a bevy of vintage-style Stewart Warner gauges, and air conditioning in the form of a fold-out windshield.
Speaking of that windshield, it's one of the only genuine Willys components in the rig. We've already mentioned the '45 CJ-2A grille. That wasn't a misprint-it's from a rare early-production '45 CJ-2A. The headlight buckets and original radiator mount were chopped out of the grille and it was treated to some beadlock-esque headlight trim rings that carry the theme. The windshield frame is from the same rare '45 and Randy chopped it a total of 9 inches, taking 4 inches out of the sheetmetal on the bottom and 5 inches out of the glass. He removed and retained the "Willys" stamped into the lower sheetmetal and made sure the fold-out feature still functions.
Rounding out the miscellaneous external trinkets are the military-grade paintjob complete with white stenciling, repop rear-view mirror, and super-cool use of the cowl as a carrying spot for Randy's camp chairs wrapped inside a military canvas cover.
Good, Bad, and What It's For
We've already mentioned how Randy was given precious little notice before our arrival. We've also talked about how he built the Jeep as a driver. So, despite the 118-degree summer temperatures, we jumped in and hit the road for our photoshoot location about 30 miles away. The exhaust gasses get a bit thick coming out the headers right near your face, but the collectors do their job and we could carry on a normal conversation over the wind noise. Although wide white-wall tires would be more period-correct, the Pro Comp pseudo beadlocks go with the theme Randy wanted to carry throughout the Jeep and the red-letter General Grabbers are way more wallet-friendly. Sitting in those Bestop seats, the rear tire is whirring by your ear just under head-level. It's a funny sensation at first, but you get used to it. The air bags deliver a pillow-soft ride. We've spoken with many who have seen this rig and the general perception is that it'd work your kidneys over like a baseball bat to the body: It doesn't. There's a fair bit of driveline buzz on deceleration, but otherwise it drove straight and true with no crazy play in the wheel, shimmies, or shakes, and absorbs bumps like a Caddy. Actually, the biggest issue you have to deal with in this hot rod is all the attention you get. We don't think we could have gotten more comments or stares if we had Anna Nicole Smith's moldy corpse strapped across the rear tub like a deer carcass.
Vehicle: '45 CJ-2A
Engine: Chevy 350 V-8
Transfer Case: N/A
Suspension: Four-link, air bag (front and rear)
Axles: Custom 2WD beam (front); GM 12-bolt (rear)
Wheels: 15x8 Pro Comp steel
Tires: 31x10.50R15 General Grabber MT
Built For: To be a driver
Why I Wrote This Feature
Yeah, the boss man told me to run this Jeep down and shoot a feature, but I'm totally on board. Given the time, this is very much in line with something I'd want to build and own. Randy got the lines right. The windshield chop is on the money. The axle locations are bang-on. It's proportional, innovative, and holds your interest. I like that Randy used recycled drivetrain components where he could, wasn't afraid to incorporate vintage tin where he had it, and was able to make a fiberglass tub look good enough to be steel up close. Most of all, I appreciate that he'll use it as a long-haul driver. In short, it's a very well executed example of a hot rod, which just happens to be a Jeep as well.