1945 Willys-Overland MB With Firepower

War Baby

Bruce W. SmithPhotographer, Writer

When we first met Scott Zimmer he was leaning over the body tub of his 1945 Willys MB, patiently getting one of the two original metal straps that held the fuel tank under the driver seat to fit perfectly. Repairing the fuel tank strap was just one tiny part of what would end up taking the better part of a year, restoring the military icon to the same condition it was on the day it rolled off the assembly line 73 years ago.

Zimmer, owner of an aftermarket RV suspension company (Source Engineering in Eugene, Oregon), has a habit of taking on an annual “car project” to fill holes in his work schedule during the slower winter months. He always loved the nostalgic appeal of the WWII Willys MB, so he bought a restored one that caught his eye and drove it into the shop on a cold December day, right after Christmas 2016.

“We brought the MB into the shop to do some simple work on it, but quickly realized it was in need of a little bit of attention, which led to a full-on restoration all the way down to every last nut and bolt,” said the motorhome chassis designer and suspension engineer. Zimmer, a stickler for detail, set out to be as true to the original design, look, and feel as possible during the process. That meant, among other things, getting rid of all the body filler and using as many original parts as he could find instead of reproduction pieces. The Willys was completely disassembled, and every part down to nuts and bolts was sandblasted, repaired, painted, and reinstalled.

The most challenging part of the build, according to Zimmer, was finding parts. “We started to use a handful of reproduction pieces, but soon found that none of them fit well,” said Zimmer. “We went back and pulled all the original parts we were going to replace out of the dumpster, re-machined, welded, and fixed them up to go back into the Willys. There are probably less than 10 reproduction parts in it, including the front seats and tires.”

However, sometimes that zeal for perfection can go too far, as was the case when they undertook the body repairs. “About halfway through the bodywork we realized that if we weren’t careful we’d end up with about the straightest MB that Willys-Overland ever made. So, we started leaving some of the manufacturer’s imperfections in it to keep it authentic. We also left a .30-caliber bullet hole in the front that happened at some point in this MB’s life,” said Zimmer.

While the Source crew was knee-deep in the body and chassis work, the 134cid “Go-Devil” Willys L-Head was across town in the hands of Springer Performance and Machine where they re-sleeved the inline-four block to 3.125 inches. The shop then put it all back together—balanced and blueprinted. The 60hp engine runs like a champ, and Zimmer says the little four-banger pushes the 2,400-pound MB down the highway at 55 mph with ease, all the while “bettering the military’s 19mpg requirements at the time it was built.”

True to its heritage, once the MB was back in like-new running shape, Zimmer and crew set about getting it ready for action. They installed a period-authentic, pedestal-mounted .30-caliber Browning machine gun (semi-auto) behind the front seats, an M1 Carbine in the carrier across the windshield, and a Thompson submachine gun in the scabbard on the passenger side. There are also an ample number of grenades (dummy, of course!) and other necessities within easy reach.

Looking back over a year of restoration work, Zimmer said the most gratifying aspect of his MB is how it all came out after trying to put himself and his crew into the mindset of the builders who designed the classic. “The way [Willys-Overland] designed some things in it don’t make any sense, while some things they did are just brilliant.” One thing we know for sure is this ’45 Willys MB is a wonderful example of a restoration that stands tall—just as it did when Willys-Overland rolled out its 1/4-ton 4x4 to show the U.S. Government more than seven decades ago.

Hard Facts

Vehicle: 1945 Willys-Overland MB
Engine: Willys Go-Devil; 60hp L-head I-4; 134cid
Transmission: Warner T-84-J 3-spd
Transfer Case: Spicer 18 (High 1:1/Low 1.97:1)
Suspension: Stock Willys leaf springs; KYB Excel-G hydraulic shocks
Axles: Stock Dana 25/Military; 4.88:1
Wheels: Stock 6.00x16 steel
Tires: Military’s 6.00x16 Mohawk Chief 6-ply
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