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October 2005 Willies Workbench 1962 Jeep Stories

My Jeep, the teacher

Five hundred issues ago, I was a tall skinny kid in high school. Hot rods were in, "musclecars" were starting to appear, and every one in Southern California either was, or wanted to be, a "surfer." Me, I drove a Jeep. A well used and abused '43 MB ... oh, and I did surf a bit.

With 60 hp, "big" 7.00x16 tires and open differentials, this Jeep became my teacher. It taught me how to read the terrain and how to pick the best line to tackle an obstacle. I got stuck a lot, and a shovel became my best friend. No Hi-Lift jack, no winch, no stretchy tow strap. Even if I had a strap, there would be no one to pull me out because usually there was no other vehicle with me.

When the clock read 6:01 on a Saturday night, my good buddy Don Price was sitting in my Jeep and I was walking out the door of the auto parts store where I worked after school and on Saturdays. We would drive for hours into the night at 50 mph with 6-volt headlights barely piercing the dark. No heater, no top, no doors. Sometimes it was cold-and sometimes it was really cold!

The mountains and deserts were wide open and we went everywhere. Places we shouldn't have been, including military gunnery ranges. Most likely, we did some ecology damage because we didn't know better at the time. We brought desert tortoises home as pets, again because we didn't know any better. On Mondays, I half slept through most of my classes and dreaded football practice.

Over the years, my teacher, the Jeep, as well as future 4x4s taught me how to weld, do body work, troubleshoot electrical problems, and rebuild parts like carburetors, engines, transmissions, rearends, and how to modify them for better performance. This led to my spending Friday nights working on friends' hot rods and musclecars.

I devoured magazines like Hot Rod, and was especially fond of the smaller-format books like Rod & Custom that would fit nicely concealed in school textbooks. In 1962, a new magazine came out, called Four Wheeler (of which I still have issue Volume 1, number 2). I would read every story and analyze every photo and dream how to build the perfect Jeep. I was like a kid before Christmas waiting for the next issue to come out. What a cool job, I thought, to work for a magazine like Four Wheeler.

Little did I then realize that within 10 years I would be doing travel stories and a tech column for Four Wheeler, helping others solve mechanical problems.

Tires made a difference in performance then as well as they do now. My first Jeep came with some military nondirectional 6.00-16s that were replaced with some 7.00-16s in a heavy-lugged mud and snow pattern. When I bought my new CJ-5 in the fall of 1962, it came with some 7.50-15s, which I quickly sold. By now, I was into tires and building rims. The tires of choice were some passenger-car 8.20-15 recaps spread out on my homemade 8-inch-wide rims. Later, I, and just about everyone I knew, was using Armstrong's flotation tires, or similar versions of them that were originally designed for farm implements. Traction didn't come from the straight grooves running the circumference of the tire but from their ability to conform to an obstacle. Soon we found that cross-grooving made for much better traction. The Pismo dunes, and those at Glamis, were wide open with no restrictions, and by the mid to late '60s, we needed more traction than these tires would provide. Before the advent of paddle tires, we would cross-groove drag slicks in various patterns and mount them on 12- to 14-inch-wide homemade rims.

My first engine swap was the later-model F-head four to replace the flathead four in my military jeep in 1961, and by 1969 my Jeep was powered by a blueprinted and fuel-injected 350 Chevy (it was nice having a father-in-law who built performance engines). I'd met my future wife on a Jeep trip, and even after 37 years of marriage, she still is my Jeeping partner.

Things have changed a lot over the years, but have they really? I still can't wait for the next issue of Four Wheeler to come out and I still read it cover to cover several times over.

I'm back to driving a flatfender Jeep, and we still get cold-sometimes really cold! I'm still learning how to fix "things" and modify parts for better performance. I am still trying out different tires and rim combinations, looking for the ultimate in overall traction. I'm tackling more difficult obstacles than I ever in my wildest dreams thought possible and I'm still learning to drive.

One of my first Techline questions I ever answered dealt with how to adapt a Jeep T-90 transmission to a Chevy engine. You know something? I got that same question again just a few days ago.

Yep, things really haven't changed that much, and yes, the Jeep is still my teacher.