How many of you have a project vehicle you started when time and money seemed abundant and that now sits waiting for the next allotment of spare time and spare change, which never seems to come? Well, I do to. Many people know of my old 1986 Toyota rockcrawler Clampy, but let me introduce you to Grampy. Grampy is a 1950 Willys Jeep CJ-3A that I’ve been dragging around for a few years and have finally resigned myself to finish. Since I started this build I have had other more pressing projects and work assignments take my time away from it. Not to mention personal life changes, moving to a new house twice, dogs, cats, goats, and so on. Basically, Grampy had a bunch of work done to it and then was pushed in the corner and ignored.
No one puts Grampy in the corner! It’s time to make this Jeep a priority, or just something that I stop ignoring. And since I have most of the parts already, it shouldn’t be too hard to finish. If I just make the time for it. And I’m hoping this recap gets me motivated to put in the time because you will be looking for a follow-up.
The idea of owning a flatfender Willys Jeep started when I was in high school (decades ago) and read an article about a Jeep built by Jimmy Nylund in an issue of Four Wheeler magazine (“Ugly,” Sept. 1989). This Jeep didn’t have a fancy paint job and really worked off-road, both attributes that I could appreciate as a poor kid in high school. I even had a substitute teacher with a Willys that I would talk to about my Jeep obsession, and I decided I would own a flattie. Then other things happened. I bought a CJ-5, sold it, bought a CJ-7, and then sold it to go to college. I moved away from home. I traveled around the country and I ended up at this magazine. I had other Jeeps, other trucks, Clampy, built a rock buggy, ran this magazine, started a web show, and so on. But I didn’t own a flatfender. One summer I was home in Pennsylvania driving around the woods with my mom and I realized that it had been years since I dreamt of owning a cool old flattie and I still didn’t own one. Upon returning to California I found a CJ-3A I could afford on Craigslist and drug it home. I had finally realized my dream! I would soon realize the truth of the notorious saying “A Jeep is never finished”
Before you know it, I had torn into the little Jeep to “fix a few things,” and I had it fixed all the way down to a pile of parts. I am tarnished with a reputation for being late with everything. I really wanted to have this Jeep fixed and ready to wheel for the 75th anniversary of the Jeep brand in 2016. I’m not holding my breath to have it done, but the second best thing to wheeling a Jeep is working on a Jeep, so I have that going for me. Here is a quick recap and an idea of where old Grampy is headed.
This is how I found my 1950 CJ-3A when I bought it. It had a Chevy V-8, an SM420 transmission, a Spicer 18 transfer case, and stock axles and leaf-sprung suspension. The body was painted a brown color with a tint of gold speckle. The low-back seats were from some car and were covered with matted sheepskin. My friend, 4WOR Editor Christian Hazel, told me, “Just leave it alone.” I tried, but not very well.
The first upgrade was a proper rollcage. I took the little Jeep to Dave Chappelle at his Kustoms fab shop. This was the very first project he and I did together. Since then we have built tons of stuff, gone on adventures, and gone wheeling. He has even been my co-host on Dirt Every Day. Chappelle and I built the cage in one day, and I then had it powdercoated. In the years that the Jeep has sat, Chappelle has retired from fabrication and closed his shop. I hope I finish the Jeep before he and I are in wheelchairs or walking with canes.
This is the Jeep article that put the flatfender idea in my head. It was in a Four Wheeler back in the late 1980s (a magazine that, ironically, the owner Jimmy Nylund worked for). I was drawn to the cheap beater style it had way back then. Under that dirty brown sheetmetal is a well-thought-out Jeep with a Rover V-8 engine. Since then I have been drawn to these cool little Jeeps, like the ones owned by such other magazine stars as Rick Péwé, Ned Bacon, John Cappa, Christian Hazel, and Verne Simmons. You can imagine my excitement when I brought home my Grampy Jeep, but oddly it has been sitting for the last five years!
After I built the ’cage I decided to fix a problem with the front harmonic balancer, but the old GM V-8 needed the crank drilled and tapped in order to install a new balancer. This meant removing the grille, which meant removing old wiring, so I planned a complete rewire with a Painless Performance kit. I figured now was a good time to fix some steering slop and put in new gauges. The downward spiral of the Jeep project had begun.
Then I had to move to a new house and my Jeep was drug there as well. One day I got the idea that I didn’t like the brown paint, and I especially didn’t like the Bondo that was slathered all over the body. I strapped on a dust mask and went at the Jeep with a big grinder. I removed pounds of Bondo and found a rust-free body underneath. It wasn’t straight, but that didn’t matter. Dents are cooler than rust. I hate rust.
After grinding all the body filler off I figured I might as well get it sandblasted so that it would be easier to weld to if I needed to change anything on it. Off it went to the blaster at my local powdercoater. When it came home I sprayed it down with army-green primer and stood it up in the corner for the time being.
All my favorite flatties are on 35-inch tires, so I decided mine needed 35s as well. To spin 35s, I wanted bigger axles. I built a Dana 44 front and an offset Dana 60 rear. The front has an ARB Air Locker; the rear has a spool. I now believe the Dana 60 is blatant overkill for 35s and a 44 would be lighter, but it’s too late. Grampy is getting a 60.
Once I saw how clean the body was I figured the frame needed the same treatment. I stripped it down and sent it to get sandblasted as well. I left it on the stock axles so it would be easy to move around, but they eventually got sold.
Willys frames are notorious for being twisty and flexible, and I’d prefer to have the suspension flex and not the frame. Most people who really wheel their flatties do one of three things: Leave the frame alone until it cracks, box the frame, or build a new frame from rectangular tubing. I opted to box the frame with 1/8-inch steel plate. I first made inner plates to match the contours of the frame from the engine area (which is already boxed) all the way to the rear bumper.
Next I cut holes in the plate panels with a hole saw. I did this all the way down the panels to reduce weight and allow dirt, sand, and mud to escape and the keep the frame from rusting from the inside out.
I then dimple-died each hole in a press. This makes the inner patch panel very stiff by giving it more effective thickness.
The dimple die works by pressing the two heavy dies together with the sheetmetal in between. You can use a hydraulic press or hand bearing press to form the metal dimple. Some dimple dies allow you to run a big bolt through both and tighten it until they press together.
I then clamped the plates to the frame and tacked them in place. Note the half-moon lower holes, which allow for dirt and water to escape and give me access to the inside bottom of the frame if I need to bolt anything to it, such as a crossmember.
It is time to weld when everything is fitted and clean. I took my time and stich-welded the frame all over instead of burning one big, long bead down the top. I did this to reduce the heat and keep the frame from warping.
I wanted to weld a bumper straight to the rear frame crossmember, so I made one out of rectangular tube. But first I drilled holes in the end.
The hole was then sleeved with a piece of tubing that was welded in place. The tubing was just shy of the thickness of the rectangular tubing width.
I cut a curved end of the bumper and wrapped it with steel before welding it all in place. To do this, I tacked the plate and slowly hammered and clamped it around the end. Since I am not the best welder in the world, I took my time and ground all the metal down for a clean finish.
The holes in the end of the bumper are more for looks than function, but they could be used as recovery points if need be. I then attached the bumper to the rear framerails and cleaned everything up.
The factory Jeep frame had a four-hole pintle hitch, but I wanted to add strength to it for recovery duty if need be. I put a plate of 1/2-inch-thick steel behind the bolt holes and added a dimpled gusset plate to the rearmost crossmember so I wouldn’t have to worry about yanking hard if need be.
I mimicked the rear bumper with a similarly designed but narrower front bumper that has an integrated narrow steel and aluminum hawse fairlead. I added my signature front towhooks/shackle hangers for when old Grampy gets stuck in the mud. I’m planning on using a narrow-drum Warn winch with synthetic rope for Grampy. I trimmed the framerails so the bumper would be closer to the grille, which will require a custom steering and linked suspension . . . in the future. Leave it leaves. —Ed.
And that was five years ago. Since then, the parts have piled up around it and I moved again. The sad little Jeep just sat gathering dust. I have a built transmission and transfer case, but I am not sure what engine it will get. I sold the Chevy V-8 and have a couple different ideas for a powerplant. The suspension is still 100 percent underdetermined. But with the days of 2016 running out quicker than I can keep up, I’m hoping to get it closer to finished before the end of the year. Or maybe in time for next year’s Moab Easter Safari, but don’t hold your breath.
Clackamas, OR 97015