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Parts Bin - 1948 Willys M38 Rat Rod

Midwest Flat Rod

If you read Jp magazine with any regularity, than this is not the first Jeep rat rod you have seen on our pages. While they will likely never be as common as TJs with long-arm suspensions and 35-inch tires, we love the creativity that’s possible when you put a seven-slot grille on the front of a hot rod. Brain Shirley, from Dodge City, Kansas, has upped the ante with his new flatfender rat rod, and the best part is that he has less than two grand in the whole thing.

Instead of using a flimsy stock frame, Brian built his own. As a competitive rock racer, custom fabrication is not foreign to Brian so he made his own foundation from 2x4 rectangular box tubing. The Z-frame is raised up 9 inches in the front and a whopping 18 inches in the rear to keep the tub 6 inches off the ground and provides room for the suspension components. With such a low ride height, Brian used old aluminum street signs for skidplates to protect the undercarriage.

The rear suspension uses a triangulated four-link, coil springs from a Subaru Justy, and shocks that were found on a Chevy Luv. The front suspension is also a four-link with short trailer leaf springs sourced from Brian’s business BS Trailer Sales. The trailer springs are frenched into the frame. Shocks and a panhard bar were considered optional items and are nowhere to be found in the front of the Jeep. All the links are constructed from 5⁄8-inch rod ends used to hold ordnance in place and 1¼-inch gas pipe that Brian had rusting in his yard.

In true rat rod style, the drivetrain was all sourced from things Brian just had lying around. Fortunately for him, he had a 350ci small-block Chevy V-8 and TH350 automatic transmission from his former stock car racing days. He claims the engine is a “mild build,” but as the burnout photos can attest, it produces plenty of power. A two-barrel carburetor sits under the vintage WWII Army helmet and is fed by two Jerrycans plumbed together for the fuel tank at the rear of the Jeep.

A Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts conversion driveshaft was all that was needed to mate the driveshaft out of his stock car to the Toyota 8-inch rear axle, in what is quite possibly the only Jeep where the driveshaft actually goes up from the transmission to the differential. The Toyota axle is filled with the factory 4.10 gears and an open differential, which makes for wicked peg-legged burnouts. Up front, another Toyota 8-inch axle is used, although the differential and axle shafts were removed since the diff would not clear the front frame horns. A Samurai manual steering box sits on the frame under the driver’s feet and connects to the stock Toyota steering. Staggered Maxxis Marauders give the Jeep the correct hot rod look—big in the back and skinny up front. The axles were sourced from Brian’s son’s pickup after he got tired of breaking Birfield axles off-road. Finally someone found a use for old Toyota axles!

Body and Interior
The body and interior are where Brian really had the opportunity to get creative with his Jeep. The M38 grille sits in front of an AFCO aluminum radiator and is filled with H4 headlights from a truck stop that have integrated LED turn signals. At the other end, ’29 Ford taillights were added to the ammo boxes that serve as the bed and are covered with wood from the bed rails of a military truck.

The tub is from a ’51 flatfender that was rusting in a field, and Brian cut off the back and tacked in the wheel wells to create a pickup tub reminiscent of a Model T. The inside of the Jeep received fairly extensive sheetmetal work, with a new transmission tunnel and integrated seating. The seats are covered with heavy canvas from, you guessed it, the local army surplus store. One of Brian’s big purchases was the collection of gauges from Speedway Motors, which have parchment faces and script numbers that fit the overall theme. The steering wheel features a quick release hub, also from Speedway Motors, and makes ingress and egress much easier. The TH350 is shifted via a 20mm cartridge casing shift lever and a 7-inch-tall windshield keeps the wind out of Brian’s face if he leans down far enough in the seats.

Good, Bad, and What It’s For
Obviously this is not a Jeep to take off-road, but Brian says that he has gotten nothing but positive feedback from Jeepers and hot rodders. “They love it, people are coming up to me all the time telling me their own Jeep stories and asking me questions about it.” Ideally Brian would like an overdrive transmission or gears that aren’t quite so deep, but he hasn’t spent the money yet to make that happen. And honestly, he probably won’t. The Jeep takes off like a rocket ship as it sits, even if it the revs are high at freeway speeds.

Hard Facts
Vehicle: ’48 Willys M38
Engine: Chevy 350ci V-8
Transmission: TH350 three-speed automatic
Transfer Case: N/A
Suspension: Four-link (front and rear)
Axles: Toyota 8-inch (front and rear)
Wheels: Staggered red steel
Tires: Maxxis Marauder
Built For: Turning heads
Estimated Cost: $1,850

Why I Wrote This Feature
While this isn’t the first Jeep rat rod I have ever seen, it is definitely one of the most unique. I like that Brian wasn’t afraid to use unconventional components like Toyota axles or a Samurai steering box to create his rat rod. While I certainly wouldn’t want it to be my only Jeep, riding in Brian’s flat rod definitely makes me want one of my own.
—Harry Wagner