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1949 2WD Willys Pickup - Wicked Willys: Part 1

Part 1: Building a big-tire’d retro wheeler

Verne SimonsPhotographer, Writer

Starting a new project is always an exciting time. You get to think about what you wanna build and then tweak the idea in your head as you begin to assemble the parts. The true beauty of a Jeep project is that it can go one of a thousand directions. Feature Editor Simons has always wanted a Willys pickup -- hell, he has always wanted practically any Jeep ever made, with the exception of a few of the more recent models. Why a Willys pickup, you may ask? Well, we should not have to tell you that they are cool. With lines reminiscent of flatfenders up front, a sexy grille, a retro cab with slanted sides, and step-side bed, a better question would be: Who doesn’twant one? Recently we were able to pick up a nearly complete, albeit disassembled, ’49 Willys pickup (pun intended) for $700, and it got the old building gears turning.

Sure, we could do a full restoration on the Willys, although that has been done several times and doesn’t allow much room for creativity. Or we could go crazy building a slammed Willys race truck built for the bends and straights of a road track. Come to think of it, that’s a great idea. But with dirt, big engines, big axles, and big tires generally on the mind, it’s hard to deny the pull of a big, bad truck. It’s been done before, and honestly this build has plenty of inspiration in the form of other vehicles, but we have a few tricky ideas up our sleeves that will definitely make this thing stand out. We are gonna keep the patina of the old rig and toss in some old-school tech and parts that still work. Plus we are starting from scratch and building this Jeep in our own two-car garage with our own blood, sweat, and tears -- not in some custom high-end shop with several lifts and an army of fabricators!

It’s not going to be a super-cheap build, cause we want to use quality components, but we are going to do what we can to try to keep costs realistic and give you a formula that you can follow. We are doing this because we want you to build a truck like this, too -- and you can. Think of it like a cooking show for custom Jeeps, and this is the first installment of the recipe for a big, bad “Wicked Willys.” Check it out.

This is our blank slate, a ’49 2WD Willys Pickup. It’s originally from California, but there is rust on the passenger floor and above the rain gutter on the passenger roof, which indicates that the truck probably sat under a tree while leaning to the passenger side. The area where the walls of the cab meet the roof made a cozy nook for rodents to store their goodies and promote rust. While probably not the best candidate for a restoration or a really clean build with dents, rust, popped spot welds, and cracks, all the parts are here, and under a coat of whitewash, the patina is pretty darn nice.

The next major component of the build is this ’97 TJ frame. Yep, we are building this Willys on a TJ frame. Why, you may ask? Well, prepping the stock frame for what we want to do with this Jeep would involve lots of work. The strength we would have to add rebuilding the old frame is already there in the TJ frame. We were able to buy it for $250 from a local junkyard. It’s from a theft-recovery vehicle and it’s square and straight. Also, it makes running a link-style suspension easier.

Here is the TJ frame next to the Willys cab…that was attached to the old Willys frame with one nut and bolt for the trip home on the trailer. Luckily, it was less than a mile. The next step is to fire up the plasma cutter and start trimming undesirable parts of the TJ frame in order to get the Willys cab on its new foundation. Amazingly, we were able to locate the grille of the Willys on the TJ’s grille mount. New body mounts will have to be fabricated for the cab to fit, but that’s fairly easy. Oh, and then we are gonna lengthen the TJ frame to fit the 118-inch wheelbase of a Willys truck.

What about drivetrain? Well, we knew we wanted 1-ton axles, and we knew we wanted a V-8. The rest was fluid until a web search yielded a ’73 Dodge 440 with a Dodge NP435 and all the accessories for $800. Add in a low-range box from a Dodge NP203 that we’ve been carrying around for 10 years (we’ll pretend it was free) and a junkyard-fresh NP205 ($100-$200, but we paid $50), and we are nearly there. Oh, and the guy selling the 440 was parting a truck with an ’87-earlier Chevy 10.5-inch ring gear 14-bolt rear axle ($100). Perfect. Add in a kingpin GM Dana 60 front axle that we talked a friend out of for $600, and we have all the major pieces.

An hour or two with a plasma cutter, and we had the frame pretty well pared down for the build to begin. Next, we took a grinding wheel and ground down all the cuts we’d just made. Our plan is to run a long-arm suspension using parts from Synergy Manufacturing and some TJ lift coils. We also plan on lengthening the frame, thus the body mounts, motor mounts, and control arm mounts all had to go.

The best way to attack the stock TJ frame-side track bar is with a 41⁄2-inch angle grinder and a cutoff wheel. When you think you’ve cut through the welds, get after it with a big hammer. Once we get the front suspension set up, we can build our own track bar that we know is parallel with the drag link, insuring no bumpsteer on the big truck.

We built the front body mounts out of some scrap rectangular tubing. We used some polyurethane body mounts for an early CJ-5 from Daystar (PN KJ04001BK) that we had left over from Project Ground-Up and secured it with Grade 8 hardware.

Getting back to the frame, we knew we needed to stretch the TJ frame so it would work with the longer wheelbase of the Willys truck. After contemplating our options, we decided to cut the frame at the top of the rear axle arch just over the factory axle placement. We stole this idea from Chris Durham’s feature “Wild Willys,” (June ’13), and it will allow us to keep the Jeep low. To do this we strengthened the frame by welding in a length of 13⁄4-inch, 0.120-wall DOM between the frame rails. This should hold the two framerails in place until we can add our new rear section.

Next, simply cut with a reciprocating saw.

We also spent time tearing the GM kingpin Dana 60 and 14-bolt axles apart so we could have the housings sandblasted in prep for gears, lockers, and suspension brackets. The kingpin cones on our used east coast Dana 60 had seen better days, and man, are they in there from the factory. To get them out we used a cutoff wheel to make a relief cut 1⁄8- to 1⁄16-inch from the base of the cone, and then sprayed with penetrating fluid, hit, and let soak. We then found a steel treaded-rod coupler nut that fit inside the hex of the cone. It allowed us to put a socket on it and hit it with the pneumatic impact wrench.

We then drilled the TJ frame inside and out with two 1⁄2-inch holes so we could rosette-weld the frame stretch sections to the TJ frame. We slid the lengths of rectangular tubing into the TJ frame, made sure they were straight and level, then tacked them in place. Later we’ll add some plates to make sure this junction is strong, come what may.

To add length to our modified TJ frame that is formed out of 21⁄4 x 4-inch, 0.120-wall rectangular tubing, we planned on sliding in lengths of 2 x 4-inch, 0.188-wall rectangular tubing from the steel supply shop. We cut the tubing at an angle shown here so that the 4-inch height of the two pieces of tubing would match. We spent about $600 at the steel shop for 10 feet of rectangular tubing and several sticks of 13⁄4-inch, 0.120-wall DOM for the ’cage, rockers, grill hoop, and miscellaneous other stuff.

Here is the final product of the frame stretch. The Willys bed will sit up a few inches higher than stock, and that will help match the look of the high-clearance set-up we are running up front. Also, you get a sneak peak at some of the Synergy suspension components on the 14-bolt rear axle.

Here is a look at the front of the Willys cab, hood, and fenders to give you an idea of what’s to come. We basically trimmed 4 inches from the bottom of the hood and raised the front fenders by the same amount. To do this, we had to drill the mounting holes in the back of the fenders and cut the front of the fenders to allow the grille to remain in the same place relative to the cab and hood. Our plan is to run big tires like 40s or 42s on this Jeep with minimal lift. Right now it looks like we will be able to get away with running big tires and 2- to 3-inch-lift TJ springs. Next, we’ll start working on setting up the suspension and possibly dip into the drivetrain a little bit.