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1953 Willys CJ-3A: Sharp & Dangerous

Posted in Project Vehicles on August 1, 2012 Comment (0)
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Before the wussification of America, things were made out of steel. Coal was dug out of the Pennsylvania ground and traveled by rail to huge mills in places like Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and other regions of the Midwest where it met up with iron ore mined from the Great Lakes area. It was loaded into open-hearth Bessemer blast furnaces and turned into shiny ribbons of steel to be molded and shaped into things like napkin dispensers, picnic coolers, kids’ toys, and especially automobiles. They were solid, made to last the test of time, and gave no quarter for the sake of safety. If you jabbed yourself on a sharp corner or scratched your wittle finger, tough luck. That’s the price you pay for durability. And that’s why unlike most of the plastic crap that’s pooped out of an extruding machine nowadays, these steel survivors are still kicking around today.

Adam Shultz found one of these steel survivors in farmer’s field in rural Wisconsin. It had sat outside in the rustbelt and, although a little weathered, still has a lot of use to give. Shultz did a mechanical overhaul, added some stuff he had laying around to get it going, and the end product is just hard not to like. It’s held together by rust, tech screws, bailing wire, ingenuity, and a big heaping of hope, but when we first saw it at the 2011 Easter Jeep Safari, we knew we wanted to shoot it. When we found it again with an equally dilapidated trailer at the 2012 Easter Jeep Safari, we laughed, shook our heads, and took a few more pictures.

Big tires? Nope. LS6 V-8 engine? Nope. Rollcage? Surely, you jest. But what it lacks in whiz-bang parts it more than makes up for with more character than a Benny Hill skit and a can-do attitude that allowed it to wheel all over Moab, Utah, two years running. In fact, the spec sheet reads like a what-not-to-do of vehicular repair. And kind of like listening to Howard Stern, we found ourselves just wanting to see what it said next: “Fuel tank = Jerrycan”; “Exhaust = flex tube-to-muffler found on a highway shoulder”; “other custom bodywork = custom-aged hickory tailgate.” Sure, you might contract tetanus just by walking by it, but this little Jeep is a good time on wheels.

Chassis
The stock frame is still present, despite trying to get away from the Jeep numerous times. When we first shot it, it was welded back together at about 18 different spots. That resulted in a somewhat goofy wheelbase spec with the driver-side wheelbase coming in around 81 inches and the passenger-side wheelbase measuring closer to 79 inches. This might be the reason why the tires rub in the rear on the passenger side. The front suspension has the stock rusty springs with newer shocks, while out back equally rusty rear stock springs are helped along with a pair of air-charged shocks good for about 11⁄2 inches of lift. The original body mount felting is long gone, so Adam has a whopping 1⁄4-inch body lift thanks to some 1⁄4-inch-thick rubber. As for skidplating, the factory shovel-shaped belly skid is there along with the factory grass shield on the driveshaft.

Drivetrain
It all starts under the hood with a Kaiser Supersonic engine. It looks (and basically is) just like the flathead four-cylinder Go Devil Willys Overland produced, but was actually made by Kaiser from 1952-1954. Adam hand-honed the engine 0.020 inches over, ground the main journals on the crank 0.010 inches under, and had to go 0.020 inches over on the connecting rods. Once that was all done, it was reassembled with a set of Sealed Power bearings. A hand-honed, three-angle valve job got the valves sealing in the block again. Compression ratio is guesstimated at or near the stock 6.8:1 even though both the head and block had to be decked flat again. The little engine draws air through a Carter carb, the points still are the heart of the distributor, and exhaust exits through the factory exhaust manifold, some flex tube, and a 2-inch-diameter exhaust in front of the rear axle.

The first year we saw the Jeep, Adam had some issues with the transmission and since it was field-fresh, we weren’t too surprised. For the second year we saw the Jeep, the factory T-90 three-speed and Spicer 18 with the 11⁄4-inch-diameter intermediate shaft and 2.46:1 low range were both rebuilt. Just as well too, considering that trailer the Jeep is now dragging around.

Power goes down to the factory rear Dana 44 through a freshly greased driveshaft. The rear axle is still spinning the stock 5.38 gears, but the spider gears have been welded up to create a poor man’s spool. Up front the Dana 25 has a Lock-Right that must be hell to turn with that manual steering. Front and rear drum brakes got the once-over with new wheel cylinders and shoes and a set of N78 Buckshot Mudders put the power to the ground.

Body and Interior
Up front, Adam lists a 1⁄2-inch-thick, 15-holed plate attached to the otherwise-mostly-stock front bumper as a brushguard. The original purpose of the plate was unclear, so he just called it a brushguard. Out back, a 2x4, 3⁄16-inch-thick wall piece of rectangular tubing serves as a rear bumper and there are absolutely no additional lights added to the Jeep. The body armor is custom 14-gauge, circa 1965 and was painted green at some point in time. Adam now credits the rust-and-green color scheme to God. He also credits a blatant disregard for bodywork and paint as the cause for the custom pinstriping where noticeable. The windshield is from a CJ-2A and so it doesn’t sit correctly on the cowl when in the raised position and a pair of steel blocks supports the bottom of the windshield when it’s up. The tailgate is a custom piece of hickory bolted to the Jeep at some point in the past and no one is really sure what the two “mud flaps” under the tailgate are for.

Inside, the party continues. These Jeeps didn’t get a roll cage from the factory, so there is no ’cage in it today. The “sweet A/C” is a bit better than 2-60 A/C but likely not by much. A Harrison heater keeps Adam warm on those cold Wisconsin winter nights. The 23-channel CB resides in a custom Max-Bilt center console and can be heard through an old speaker mounted behind the passenger seat. The seats were originally put in a Jeep in the factory and were later reupholstered and installed in this Jeep by Max-Bilt to match the console. The toolbox mounted to the rear driver-side inner fenderwell looks like it has been there since the ’60s and holds an assortment of spare parts and tools for trail repairs.

You won’t find a fuel tank under the Jeep, or under the driver’s seat. Instead, the Jerrycan in the load bed is the gas tank with the spare 21⁄2-gallon tank called an auxiliary tank; we wouldn’t use it for actual fuel for the Jeep because of how nasty it is. It might be okay to use for fire-starting fuel, but that might be pushing it. Adam tells us that the coolant temperature gauge is way too new, and the other gauges’ origins are not really known, but most of them appear to be stock Willys gauges.

The Trailer
Adam wanted some additional cargo space and heard that expedition trailers were all the rage, so he set out to make one. But, rather than spend a ton of money, he just used stuff that was lying around. The trailer was made by joining an old steamer trunk with what might have been a circa-1900 Fresno Scraper bucket, some old fenders, and an additional flatfender Jeep rear axle. That rear Dana axle is located facing the wrong way under the trailer by a couple pieces of rectangular tubing welded to the 3⁄4 x 3⁄4-inch square frame. Ok, the frame is custom, but it too is properly rusty and nasty to go with the theme of the vehicle. In Wisconsin, rusty metal is easy to come by.

The tires were old, but held air, so they got the tap to go under the trailer. The “hitch,” such as it is, consists of some heavy flat stock and a 1⁄2-inch-diameter bolt while the “safety chain” is an old tow chain that was found lying around. The light on the trailer is a joke. Adam figured that since the Jeep had one taillight, the trailer should have one as well, and added the miniature lighthouse to hold down lighting duties. It is wired into the Jeep’s 6-volt electrical system through an old home lamp cord and household 110-volt electrical outlet.

Good, Bad, and What It’s For
There is so much that is seemingly unsafe on this Jeep, but the fact is that it is in better mechanical condition than many of the project piles we drag home. Would we wheel some of the trails Adam has without a ’cage? No. But we do agree that a new cage would ruin the Jeep and a rusty pile of tube would likely be as unsafe as no ’cage. And, no two ways about it, locked front and rear with manual brakes and steering is no one’s idea of fun—but for some reason Adam always seems to enjoy driving around in this Jeep.

Hard Facts
Vehicle: 1953 Willys CJ-3A
Engine: Kaiser “Supersonic” 134ci four-cylinder
Transmission: T-90
Transfer Case: Spicer 18
Suspension: Factory heavy-duty 10-leaf spring packs (front and rear)
Axles: Dana 25 (front); Dana 44 (rear)
Wheels: 15x6 stock steel
Tires: N78 Gateway Buckshot Mudder
Built For: Fun

Why I Wrote This Feature
On the surface, this Jeep isn’t normal magazine feature material. But the rust, the old and new retro modifications, and the all-around theme of the Jeep make it something that is hard to walk by without checking out. Truth be told, the first time we saw it, we helped unload it and then promptly swiped it for an hour or two. We then tried to trade our project Jeep to him for the rest of Easter Jeep Safari. We can vouch that Sharp and Dangerous, while a workout, is a ton of fun to drive and wheel and a good throwback to when “the Jeep thing” all started.

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