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1952 Willys Wagon - Round Two

Family-heritage Willys Wagon

Usually Hazel is the one hunting down vintage orange Jeeps. If there’s one in a five- mile radius, you can be sure he’s on it like stink on a monkey. But this time the tables were turned. The owner of this Monarch-orange ’52 Willys Wagon saddled up alongside Hazel at the 2011 TDS Desert Safari event. And before Vista, California, resident Bryan Kilcrease could get more than a couple of words in greeting out of his mouth, Hazel was dragging him off to a photo-shoot location. Orange…Willys…mmm…feature.

As it turns out, the Willys Wagon has been in Bryan’s family since about 1960. His dad bought the Wagon when he was a 16-year-old high-school kid. He dated Bryan’s mom in it. Heck, Byran is half-convinced he was conceived in the back of it. The old man made many of the modifications still in place on the Wagon, but as time and old age left their mark on both, the Wagon was put to pasture and left to languish for 30 years in Bryan’s dad’s back yard. Rat nests filled the inside almost up to the roof and rust pitted the chrome and ate the original paint. Then, when the old man announced three years ago he was going to “throw away” the old Wagon, Bryan swooped in and saved it from death. He sold his YJ for $5,000 to fund the rebirth and set to work.

Unlike a lot of the crazy-hardcore rigs we feature, we don’t really have a lot to say about the chassis of this rig other than it’s sporting a 4-inch lift. Bryan brought the Willys to E&C Spring in Escondido, California, to have a custom set of springs built. He converted the C-shackles to standard shackles and added a set of Rancho RS5000 shocks with a full-custom stealth-black coating. Yep, that’s humor: Everything under the sheetmetal got bombed in black spray paint, as it should be. When the new springs were first fitted under the Wagon the ride was incredibly stiff, so Bryan pulled out one leaf from the front spring packs. That cured the stiff ride, but also allowed the new springs to grow too long, and stuffed the shackles to a locked-out forward position when the springs compressed. With the springs now broken in, Bryan replaced the leaves after returning from the TDS event and the shackles now work fine off-road and the ride is much improved.

At some point Bryan’s dad added the skidplate over the factory 15-gallon fuel tank, but otherwise everything else attached to the out- or underside of the frame is factory, including the factory manual steering.

With few exceptions, the drivetrain is just as it was when Bryan last drove the Jeep as a 16-year-old. Bryan’s dad yanked the 115hp L-head 226 and replaced it with a 155hp ’65 Buick 225 back in 1970. We’re guessing he used parts from Lloyd Novak since Advance Adapters didn’t open shop until 1971. Bryan had his work cut out for him reviving the old 1-barrel 225 without destroying it, but it hummed like a sewing machine the day of our photo shoot, so job well done. In addition to a lot of wiring work Bryan added an electric fan behind the stock radiator, a Pertronix electronic ignition conversion, and a new alternator.

The T-90 transmission is the original unit, and as delivered behind the 226 sported gear ratios of 2.80 (First); 1.55 (Second); 1.00 (Third); and 3.80 (Reverse). No doubt the Buick’s infamous 50lb flywheel spins in front of a factory 226 10-inch clutch.

Movin’ on back, the Spicer 18 is also the original unit. The twin-stick T-case sports its factory 2.46:1 low range and 11⁄8-inch intermediate shaft. Spicer didn’t go to the larger 11⁄4-inch intermediate shaft ’till 1953. What’s not so usual is the very rare Borg Warner Studebaker electric Overdrive. It was actually the first one this author has seen in person. Dear ol’ Dad installed the unit back in the ’60s, but Bryan doesn’t know why he chose the more-complicated unit over the easier-to-install and more-compact Warn Overdrives of the day. In addition to requiring a shorter rear driveshaft, the Studebaker unit is a somewhat-complicated beast to use. For starters, it has a 6-volt electric solenoid, so Bryan had to run a converter to it so it’d still work with the 12-volt conversion Bryan performed. You’ve got to flip the electric switch and then pull a cable to engage the unit. While doing this, you’ve got to be careful to match the rpm of the engine and drivetrain to prevent grinding as the unit engages. Also, since it only engages the rear output, you can’t use it in four-wheel-drive or in low range. And the Overdrive doesn’t work in Reverse. Really, it’s just for over-the-road use, while the Warn Overdrive works in any gear, any speed, and any T-case range. Still, it’s a neat unit and Bryan is glad to have it for its uniqueness and character.

Finally, at opposing ends, the factory Dana 25 front and Dana 44 rear still rotate under direction of the factory 5.38 gears loaded on open diffs. The axles are dead stock from the 11-inch drum brakes to the coarse 10-spline shafts.

Body and Interior
Bryan never provided us with any “before” photos (actually, we never asked), but going by his description the Wagon was in rough shape from sitting in his dad’s Chula Vista, California, yard for three decades. Bryan stripped all the trim, bumpers, and shiny stuff and sent it out to be rechromed. Then, he started sanding—forever. Brian doesn’t know exactly how many hours he sanded the thing in anticipation of its new coat of paint, but the final tally was obscene. However, like any paint job, the devil is in the details and prep work makes or breaks the final job. And the final job looks great even up close and personal. Brian chose the Monarch Orange shade and had the body sprayed before reassembling the chrome and trim.

The inside is still a work in progress. Most of the factory trinkets are there and functional, but things like the wiper and headlight switches have been replaced with simple toggles. The factory gauges are in the dash, but an aftermarket temperature gauge and tach keep tabs on the really important stuff. The e-brake lever works, the steering wheel is stock and still sports the fragile plastic horn button, and (miraculously) the dash escaped the ’70s and ’80s without being hacked to fit an 8-track or Kraco stereo! A homebuilt wooden Baja box houses spare tools, parts, and fluids, and a Hi-Lift jack flanks the nearly-60-year-old spare tire. The stock seat frames have more or less been recovered, but there’s still some more work to be done on the interior before Bryan is completely satisfied.

Good, Bad & What It’s For
Although it’s definitely a head turner and could easily serve as a daily driver, the Willys is still a work in progress. Bryan recently built a receiver hitch out back with a swing-out tire carrier so he can bring along a fifth 33x12.50R15 Goodyear MT/R mounted on a matching 15x8 black steel wheel. The Warn Premium hubs on the Dana 25 front axle are certainly strong enough to survive the mild back country trips Bryan takes the Willys on, and a pair of 5-gallon jerrycans flanking the cowl will ensure plenty of range. During our photo shoot Bryan pondered upgrades like an axle or brake swap or a shackle reversal, but almost immediately dismissed them. At some point, you either embrace the limitations that come with owning and using a vintage vehicle or you modernize it and lose much of its character. We think Bryan has made the right choice at every turn with his buildup. Keep it old, keep it cool, and keep it true to the family plan. He’s done that. So much so that the old man now wants his Jeep back!

Why I Featured It
I was hot-footing it to a location during my event coverage and was trying to catch up to another group when I spied this bright orange wagon entering a dry wash. I thought about chasing it down, but then decided my current engagement took precedence. Then, as I waited for some chucklehead to get out of my way so I could climb out of the wash, Bryan pulled up alongside my DJ and introduced himself. Call it fate or whatever you like, but I bailed on the other engagement and (quite happily) nabbed a cool feature with a great story attached to it.

Hard Facts
Vehicle: ’52 Willys Wagon
Engine: Buick 225 V-6
Transmission: T-90
Transfer Case: Spicer 18
Suspension: Custom 4-inch-lift leaf springs
Axles: Dana 25 (front); Dana 44 (rear)
Wheels: 15x8 steel
Tires: 33x12.50R15 Goodyear MT/R
Built For: The memories