From 1948 into 1951, Willys-Overland offered a curious hybrid: the half-car and half-Jeep Jeepster. Though not equipped with four-wheel drive, the Brooks Stevens-designed VJ Jeepster was an attempt to appeal to a broader segment of the market by leveraging the brand recognition that Jeep established during World War II.
It wasn’t a sales success--only 19,132 were sold in four- and six-cylinder versions--but it spawned two spiritual descendants: the 1966-1973 Kaiser/AMC Jeepster/Commando and the Jeepster concept vehicle of 1998, which was possibly a precursor to a new-generation Jeep.
If you’re a wine aficionado, then the name Cecil De Loach should be familiar. De Loach, best known for the fine wines his De Loach Vineyards produces in California’s Russian River Valley, is a Jeep enthusiast and a car buff of the first order. In addition to the stunning 1950 Jeepster shown on these pages, he owns five other 1950s Jeeps, and, naturally enough, his daily driver is a 1992 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Unfortunately, not much history of his Jeepster is known, which carries serial number 473VJ10431 and was one of 5,845 Jeepsters produced for the 1950 model run, some of which were retitled and delivered as 1951 models. It was purchased in 1993 from Walt Mikolajcik, who edits the West Coast Willys Club newsletter. Dan Hoffmann, who is De Loach Vineyards director of purchasing and coordinates the restoration and maintenance of De Loach’s collection, talked with us about this Jeepster.
"When we got the Jeepster from Walt, it was pretty rough. The engine and transmission were out and in boxes and there was no wiring left in the vehicle. The good thing was that virtually all of the parts were intact, saving us a great deal of time tracking down parts that, under the best of circumstances, are quite rare.
"Our next step was a complete frame-off restoration, which was performed mostly in-house. Thankfully, up here in Sonoma County, we have a number of skilled craftsmen, some who are Jeep fans themselves. Paul Barry from Willys America in Cazadero was a big help in providing us tech support for many areas of the restoration. Down in Santa Rosa, George Caven of Industrial Machine was responsible for the rebuild of the 72-hp four-cylinder engine, one of 4,066 produced in 1950."
While enjoying the early spring, late-afternoon sunshine in the ragtop phaeton, Hoffman explained the life cycle of the vineyards and how they produce over their life span. One vineyard we drove was planted in 1928--which was during Prohibition. Although it no longer produces the quantity it did in the past, this older vineyard produces outstanding wines.
The 19,000-square-foot De Loach winery (707/526-9111, www.deloachvineyards.com) is located at 1791 Olivet Rd., north of the city of Santa Rosa and west off the U.S. 101 River Road exit. It's open daily 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for wine-tasting and retail sales. Winery tours are offered at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.
When you visit the winery, don't be surprised to see Cecil or Dan with guests touring the grounds in this outstanding example of the Jeepster. Then you can examine for yourself the attention to detail that's the hallmark of this restoration.