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Resurrecting an old 1953 Willys Jeep Flat Fender Project

Update on the Hazel Flattie

Along with a handful of others, this 1953 Willys DJ-3A flatfender is one of the most recognized flatties around. Built by Christian Hazel in his garage and covered in the pages of Jp magazine in the early 2000s, the '53 Willys first hit the trail in the fall of 2003. The first time the tires hit the dirt was pulling off the trailer at the trailhead of the Rubicon trail. The as-the-untested flattie performed flawlessly, despite its unique combination of components and has soldiered on since then with relatively few changes to the original design.

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A Unique Build

At the time most people just stabbed a V-6 or small-block Chevy in one of those things, so the LX5 DOHC 3.5L all-aluminum "Shortstar" V-6 Hazel used in front of a junkyard SM420 and Spicer 18 with genuine Warn overdrive was a pretty unusual combination. Actually, we're not really sure anybody else has ever put one of these transverse engines in an old Willys. The drivetrain is mounted super high in the chassis, partially for ground clearance and partially because the engine oil pan is a log style with no cutout for axle clearance, so mounting the engine high under the hood provides the necessary axle-to-oil pan clearance. Still, the uptravel of the Currie 9-inch front axle is severely arrested to prevent the low-pinion Strange 9-inch centersection with 5.83 gears from smashing the oil pan to bits. It limits the vehicle's ability to bash through whoops off road but has the unintended advantage of making the short-wheelbase Jeep super stable when descending big obstacles. Originally the suspension used factory rear YJ leaf springs done spring-over front and rear, but after several traction bar issues trying to keep the rear pinion from climbing, Hazel finally swapped out the stock YJ spring-over for a set of Rubicon Express 4.5-inch rear YJ lift springs done spring-under. And after the second rebuild of the Spicer 18 started wearing out from hardcore off-road use and popping out of gear, Hazel swapped the T-case, axle gears, and rear housing with an eye towards brutal off-road survivability more than on-road manners. A fully built Dana 300 with JB Conversions 32-spline front and rear outputs was placed behind the SM420 and a centered Currie 9-inch housing was loaded with a TrueHi9 centersection running 5.38 gears in place of the old 5.83s and a 35-spline spool. Because the Dana 300 rear output is much higher than the Spicer 18, offset trunion 1350 U-joints were required to prevent binding on the yokes. Up front, the 35-spline Detroit was set up with 5.38 gears and upgraded 1350 U-joints throughout. Although a bombproof off-road combo, between the gearing and rear driveshaft vibrations it was all but undrivable at speeds over 50 mph.

Left Sitting for 3 years

The Hazel flattie was a garage ornament and storage shelf for a couple years, but those days are over now.

After having the UACJ6D built for Ultimate Adventure 2017, the CJ-6 sort of took over the spot of main trial rig while the flattie held down the garage floor back at home. Through a combination of oxygenated fuel which didn't play nicely with the rubber of the high-pressure fuel system and corrosive brake fluid eating away the remote reservoir hoses, the flattie sprayed gasoline and Dot 3 brake fluid all over the garage the last time Hazel went to take it for a spin. So, work and family responsibilities being what they are, the Hazel Flattie slowly became a garage shelf for a while, but those days have come to an end.

Wilwood Brake System Rebuild

The LX5 Shortstar engine puts out about 260hp and 260 lb-ft and weighs about 300 pounds dressed and wet, but it's big under the hood of an old Willys Jeep.

The triple Wilwood master assembly worked bitchin', but we "temporarily" substituted the Wilwood-supplied remote reservoir hose for parts store hose, which didn't stand up to brake fluid and allowed moisture and corrosion in the system.

With little room under the hood, the remote reservoirs were mounted on the rollcage cross bar.

Here's a shot from when the Jeep was being built back in 2002. Wilwood doesn't even make this particular pedal assembly anymore.

The huge valve covers of the DOHC 3.5L LX5 "Shortstar" and the engine's high placement under the hood resulted in not much firewall space for the master cylinders. A temporary solution, which somehow became permanent, was to run a set of triple Wilwood master cylinders with remote reservoirs up on the 'cage cross bar. The hose eventually leaked, stripping the paint and atmospheric moisture contaminated the fluid and corroded the aluminum inside. In short, the Jeep now needs a complete brake system overhaul. Assuming the Chevy -ton calipers out back and Wilwood four-piston calipers up front are still good, the plan for now is the swap out the three remote-reservoir master cylinders for some low-profile masters that will hopefully fit under the hood without the need for cutting ugly holes through the hood.

Ethanol Friendly Fuel System

The 35-quart Dometic CFX is a great fit, but the 15-gallon RCI fuel cell takes up a lot of valuable real estate in the cargo area.

California, where this Jeep lives, uses oxygenated fuels that can quickly deteriorate many kinds of rubber found in fuel pumps, lines, and fittings. The braided steel hose we used to build the fuel system in the Hazel Flattie is really good stuff, but it's not meant to be used with higher ethanol content found at some pumps. Over time, we've had several hoses spring leaks as well as the external fuel pump and regulators go down. Also, Hazel was never really in love with the 15-gallon fuel cell mounted in the rear of the tub, so now the plan is to build a custom fuel tank that fits under the rear of the tub, provides enough clearance to stay alive during hardcore rock crawling, and that runs a factory GM in-tank fuel pump and lines rated for high ethanol content fuels.

Freeway Flattie with Overdrive

The ATV Manufacturing Overdrive and Spicer 18 were built by Herm Tillford for the '53 Willys project.

The SM420 transmission is shoved way forward in the chassis and the Dana 300 twin-stick shifters will obviously have to be replace with the Spicer 18 and Overdrive shifters.

The centered Currie 9-inch housing will need to be replaced with an offset 9-inch housing and axleshafts after the Spicer 18 is installed.

At least in a vehicle this light (3,000 pounds dressed for trail) the 32-spline outputs on the Dana 300 are virtually bombproof. But Hazel likes to drive his junk on the street, so he had Herm Tillford of ATV Manufacturing build a Spicer 18 and ATV Overdrive which have been patiently waiting for Hazel to devote some time to the little orange flattie. The Dana 300 and SM420 need to come out and then Hazel will send off the special Centerforce Dual Friction clutch disc back to Centerforce to be relined. A decade and a half of hardcore use has taken its toll on the teeny clutch disc that was mounted on a custom Centerforce flywheel. After the offset Spicer 18 is installed a new Ford 9-inch housing and shafts will go back in so this little rig can once again keep up with freeway speeds.

Optima YellowTop Battery Replacement

With an eye towards light weight, the battery "tray" is a couple simple pieces of aluminum angle iron and a top cage that keeps the battery in place under the seat.

The original Optima BlueTop that juiced the Hazel Flattie for almost 20 years finally went flat last year. It had developed a dead cell while winching another Jeep out of a mud hole the last time this vehicle was on the trail, requiring a jumpstart while running Pritchett Canyon trail in Moab, Utah. The mount in this Jeep lays the battery on its side under the driver's seat in a custom-built mount, and despite the dead cell, it still worked well enough to start the vehicle to move in and out of the garage, so Hazel just left it until he noticed it was leaking electrolyte all over the floor of the Jeep. A new Optima YellowTop was purchased and awaits installation once the brake, fuel, and T-case changes are made.

Replacing the BFG Tires

The 35x13.50R15 BFG Krawler KX tires and OMF beadlocks have provided outstanding off-road performance for this Jeep but the tires need replacing.

It's gonna hurt like hell to put different tires on this Jeep. The 35x13.50R15 BFG Krawlers that the Hazel Flattie currently runs are from the first run back in 2002 or 2003 and some of the very first BFG Krawlers to be released to the public. Aside from a couple tire tests, they've been on this Jeep ever since it first rolled out of the garage under its own power. These are Hazel's favorite tires ever, but they aren't manufactured anymore, so the hunt is on for a 35x13.50 for a 15-inch wheel that'll provide a similar combination of crazy off-road performance, fierce durability, and super-tough construction. You just can't run a 17-inch wheel on a flatfender. Gack.