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1963 Willys Wagon - Dr. Vern

It's time for the rubber room

Dr. VernWriter

I surrender. I’ve lost it. Looks like it’s time for the rubber room. As you may have guessed, it was a Jeep that put me over the edge. The specific Jeep is a ’63 Willys wagon. Ever since I bought it a few years ago, I’ve been demodifying it to make it a better, more reliable driver. I’ve rewired it top to bottom. The heater actually provides heat now when requested. I’ve even tightened up the steering linkage so I don’t need ruts on the freeway to stay in a particular lane. Still, there’s only so much you can do when dealing with the aftermath of a high school drug dealer conversion.

For those unaware, the term refers to the first so-called upgrade that many folks make to a 4x4 once they’ve got a little extra money, whether earned legitimately or from selling drugs to high schoolers. There’s no way any vehicle can perform with stock wheels, right? Off they go, to be replaced by oversized wheels and big, beefy tires.

Despite what you may think, long ago a team of engineers toiled over the geometry of the steering system. Notice I said “system.” All those pieces work together in concert. One key aspect is the location of the contact patch for the front tires. This spot on the ground should be in a very specific location, close in line with the pivot point for the front knuckles. People much smarter than me (Editor’s note: That doesn’t really narrow it down...) did the math years ago and the equation hasn’t changed.

The overall steering geometry is the combination of several precise settings. To determine the swivel action, you need a certain amount of caster. To set how much the top of the wheels lean in or out, you need a specified amount of camber. So let’s see, what else is in the recipe in addition to caster and camber? I think there is also some rosemary and thyme, but maybe I’m thinking of something else.

"It’s time for the rubber room"

Now let’s say, for reasons unknown, you’d like to tweak the recipe and increase the steering effort on your vehicle. While you’re at it, you’d also like to make your rig far more sensitive to irregularities in the road. Would you have to modify the steering knuckles? Is your welding good enough for such critical components? Relax, because even if you’re a card-carrying member of the Barely Welding Society like me, the “fix” is much simpler. Just bolt on some big deep-dish wheels. Mission accomplished! That’ll move those pesky contact patches way out there and give ’em some leverage.

If you doubt me, riddle me this: How often do you see deep-dish wheels installed by the factory? Even factory upgrade rims usually don’t have much offset to them. Power steering can partially mask some of the problems, but in general, stock geometry is better when it comes to steering. That’s why I was on a mission to ditch those aftermarket wheels. It’s all a moot point, anyway. Even if I was wrong, and I’m not suggesting that’s even a possibility, I simply like the looks of gravedigger tires.

So I scrounged up a decent used set of stock wheels, slapped on some tires, and called it good, right? That would be the end of the story in a normal world. Did you already know to laugh there? If so, are you hopefully a snorter when you get the chuckles? Furthermore, had you just take a big swig of orange soda? And since I’m living vicariously in my little imaginary world, were you seated on a white sofa at the time? A guy can dream, right?

I scoured the classifieds, pretending to look for something else so the wheels wouldn’t know to hide. Surprisingly, it wasn’t too difficult to find fifty year old wheels. I should clarify that doesn’t mean fifty wheels, each a year old, although it would be nice to have so many extras, and practically new ones at that. I meant a set of wheels that were each fifty years old. Here’s the problem with wheels that are fifty years old: They looked like they were fifty years old.

The poor things, although structurally sound, would need to be cleaned up and painted. This is where an embarrassing garage deficiency became painfully obvious -- no sandblaster. A normal person, defined as somebody who is not me, would simply drop off the wheels at a place that does sandblasting. Naturally, I started shopping for a sandblast cabinet instead.

Much like every Jeep I’ve ever owned, the sandblast cabinet I found needed a little bit of work. That’s “little,” as in basically everything. The entire gun had to be replaced. The glass was cloudy, so that had to go. The gloves had seen better days, too. I could have saved big bucks by raiding the stash of rubber gloves the editor keeps in his desk, but unfortunately those aren’t the right kind for sandblasting. And so it went, until the only original thing left was the metal box itself.

As I type, the sandblaster is finally ready for its test run, but I’m not about to let that keep me from my deadline. You, my dear readers, will get a proper ending to this month’s column, as always. It will make you laugh, but at the same time also restore your faith in humanity. Yes, it will be that good. And I’ll get to it as soon as I get back from the garage.