1. home
  2. project vehicles
  3. 1952 Willys Wagon: Utility Camper

1952 Willys Wagon: Utility Camper

Practical Wagon

We see a lot of cool Jeeps over the course of a year and that is awesome. The problem is, most of the Jeeps we see and shoot are freshly put together, and never really lived-in for any length of time. This Willys Wagon is the exact opposite of that. Eric Frost put it together over the course of five years and thousands of hours to not only take wheeling, but also to take camping and tow his travel trailer and race car trailer.

When we heard the rumble of the V-8 cruise past and saw the cool body armor that didn't change the nostalgic look of the Jeep, our interest was piqued. When Eric told us that not only has he been wheeling all over with the Jeep, but drives it and tows with it, we wanted to know more.

The stock Willys frame was tossed and a '77 Wagoneer frame was swapped in its place for more strength. The frame was chopped behind the rear shackle mounts to better fit the Willys body. Then the body mounts on the frame were modified to work with the stock Willys mounts. The engine and transmission crossmember mounts are home-built units and the wheelbase worked out to 108-inches.

Total lift height comes in at right around 4 inches thanks to a pair of Skyjacker Softride lift springs in the front controlled by Rancho shocks. Out back some bastard leaf packs consisting of re-arched Wagoneer springs and a few Skyjacker Softride leafs are controlled by Monroe air shocks. The air shocks help level the Jeep out when towing loads with a heavy tongue weight.

It all starts off with a '71 351 Cleveland that was partially blueprinted and balanced to within 1/2-gram of tolerance. Inside, the connecting rods are stock, but the Keith Black hypereutectic pistons and Perfect Seal gapless rings certainly aren't. The main caps run studs rather than bolts and the rods were shot-peened. Comp Cams provided the cam with 0.554-inches of lift and a 221/221 @ 0.050 duration that pushes on aluminum rocker arms. The stainless steel valves (2.19-inch intake, 1.71-inch exhaust) were polished as were the combustion chambers, intake, and exhaust ports. An older Holley Pro-Jection two-barrel throttle-body sits atop an Edlebrock Performer intake manifold and breathes through a custom dual-intake cold-air setup. A capacitive discharge Crane ignition with a rev limiter lights things off. The combustion ratio comes in at 9.3:1 and the spent gasses are sent downstream via some owner-built headers, 21/2-inch exhaust, and Dynomax mufflers.

An NV4500 is bolted to a modified aluminum Ford bellhousing. Power is passed on to an NP208 taken from an '88 GMC Jimmy that was rotated up about 20-degrees for better ground clearance. From there, driveshafts sporting 1330 U-joints send the power out to the axles. The front axle is a Wagoneer Dana 44 with 4.56 gears and a Lock-Right with Alloy 4340 axleshafts. While the Ford 9-inch out back from a 60's-era pickup has a Detroit Locker hiding in the third member and between the 31-spline axleshafts. The front axle retained the Wagoneer discs but got larger calipers from a heavy-duty Chevy Suburban while the rear got the Wagoneer drums. The master cylinder was sourced from an '84 Jeep Cherokee.

Body and Interior
The factory "step" in the fender is protected from attack by an integrated tube/plate as is the lower edge of the body in front of the rear tires. The factory bumpers were made to work with the Wagoneer frame. Tow bar brackets were added up front just in case it needs to be flat-towed. A piece of rubber hung down in front of the front axle reduced air flow under the Jeep, thus increasing air flow through the radiator and curing a persistent overheating problem. Since this Jeep is actually driven, the interior was given a makeover. New seat padding, restored rear seat frame, new carpet, and trim panels were all the order of the day. Up front, the factory gauges actually work, the Wagoneer steering column was kept for steering duties and there is no mistaking the overdrive transmission. A single-DIN Kenwood head unit was hung under the dash in a custom wood enclosure that also houses the Vintage Air A/C system. Below that is a CB radio. The wood cargo area runners match the custom-built box under the dash and a foam board headliner keeps things cool and quiet.

The front seats are from an '84 Firebird, and the rear seat upholstery was chosen to match. A simple hoop at the B-pillar with legs down to the rear inner wheelwells provides added protection for the occupants. The space-saver spare tire is mounted behind the rear seat in the stock location. The tool box is strapped to the floor and a scrap piece of carpet protects the wood runners from spare parts and tools. An inverter is flush-mounted to the driver's side rear trim panel.

Good, Bad, and What It's For
The big Ford V-8 is always going to run a bit hot in that engine compartment, but Eric has done a good job of troubleshooting and minimizing the issues. The interior is clearly that of a Jeep that is driven and the simple hoop doesn't detract much from the vintage-looking interior. However, if it was going to be wheeled hard enough that a hoop was needed, we'd rather see a cage at least for the front seats.

Why I Wrote This Feature
I have a thing for Willys wagons, and I want to build one similar to this one. The fuel injection, A/C, and stereo make for a comfortable ride. While the simple leaf-sprung suspension and bomb-proof manual transmission makes for a reliable one. The custom body armor doesn't detract from the stock looks of the wagon, and if I ever build one, I'll likely use Eric's ideas to armor mine as well.
-Pete Trasborg

Hard Facts

  • Vehicle: '52 Willys Wagon
  • Engine: Ford 351ci Cleveland
  • Transmission: NV4500
  • Transfer Case: NP208
  • Suspension: Spring-under (front), spring-over (rear)
  • Axles: Wagoneer Dana 44 (front), Ford 9-inch (rear)
  • Wheels: 15x8.5 Enkei aluminum wheels
  • Tires: 37x12.50R15 Dick Cepek F-C II
  • Built For: Camping, Jeeping, and towing a travel trailer or race car