Verne Loses Sleep & Thrashes on a 1949 Willys Pickup for Ultimate Adventure 2016 #UA2016

Verne SimonsPhotographer, WriterTom BoydPhotographer

I have built rigs from nothing but a pile of parts before. I’d like to think I know what I am doing, but for some reason this old Willys has fought me tooth and nail (or is it “nut and bolt”?) for the past two years. The theme surrounding this Jp magazine buildup that I started when editor Hazel and I were both still working there [That was three years ago, Verne! —Ed.] continued right up to the start of Ultimate Adventure 2016. I feel like I’ve done everything on this truck twice, some things have been fixed or adjusted thrice, and a few parts have been apart no less than four times (frice?).

Sometimes the problems have been my fault (you’ll get to see more of that here in a second). I’m admittedly not perfect, but other times it just seems that trouble is in the air surrounding this once-W2D 1949 Willys 1/2-ton pickup. In general, we at the magazines, are not supposed to write about vehicles as people, but this old Willys is without doubt, in my mind, a stubborn old girl (sometime called a name that rhymes with hitch) who needed more than a little convincing that becoming an awesome off-road rig would be way better than getting smelted down and pressed into soup cans. That convincing took a while. I don’t know why.

When I decided to make the push to bring this rig on UA 2016 it seemed to me that getting the truck done should be relatively simple. Most of the large mechanical parts were in place, and I had most of the smaller parts in hand if not already installed. All I had to do was finish up a few things and hook up a passel of wires—or so I thought. The truck needed wiring, driveshafts, exhaust, pluming of fuel, steering work, ’cage work, seats, seatbelts, some bodywork, and more. Boy, was I wrong about it being simple! After thrashing for weeks (which is all now a blur both in my memory and in my photographs) the truck ran. The night before I left for UA 2016 everything was in order. I had put on about 100 miles, the truck only leaked a few fluids at an acceptable rate, and in all honesty I should have felt confident about the trip, but I had a feeling more trials were to come. This time I was right.

This is what the floorboard of the Willys looked like a few weeks before Ultimate Adventure 2016. It should give you a good idea of what the whole garage looked like. It’s hard to tell, but visible are bits and pieces of about 50 different mini-projects that needed to come together before the truck would be UA-ready.

For some reason my good buddy Trent McGee offered (or was pity-shamed) into wiring the truck for me. He did a way better job than I would have soldering many of the connections and spending hours of his own time for little thanks and no pay. Good friends are the best! Trent was the main reason I didn’t burn the Willys to the ground leading up to and during the first few days of UA 2016. His ability to diagnose newly completed 4x4 issues is unparalleled.

So the plan was to drive the Willys to and from Ultimate Adventure 2016, from Phoenix, Arizona, to Ridgecrest, California, via Las Vegas, Nevada. By some miracle Trent McGee and I left only an hour or so late (that’s Trent’s 1997 TJ Buggy on his trailer). An hour in to the trip we fueled up in Wickenburg, Arizona. At this point I had no idea what fuel economy the Willys would get or whether it would consume any other fluids at a harmful rate, but at the first stop all seemed well.

Before I knew I was going to run a 505-cube stroker V-8 in the Willys, I got a 13ish-gallon fuel cell from Dave’s Customs Unlimited. Knowing that the range the tank would allow the Willys to go would be not so good, I decided to figure out an auxiliary fuel tank. I like beer, so an old 30-gallon keg visually adds flavor to the truck and does its job well. It can take 10-20 gallons easily and transfer fuel to the main fuel cell when needed by the opening of a ball valve.

Just outside of Wikiup, Arizona, and just after filling the fuel tanks again, the Willys truck shut off while cruising at 65 mph down the highway. It was like a “go” switch flipped to “off.” No chugging, no burping, just off. No amount of cranking would allow the engine to fire. Trent and I pretty quickly figured out that we had no spark, but we had no idea why.

After making a few calls and trying a few tricks we decided to swap the Willys for Trent’s buggy on the trailer and headed toward Las Vegas, where we met up with Keith Bailey and Sam Gillis, who were making their way to the UA from Alabama. Our plan was to meet them at the home of Trent’s old pal, Al, where we could swap parts and try to see what was wrong with the Willys.

In Las Vegas we rolled the Jeep off the trailer and into Al’s garage. Al, Trent, Keith, and Sam all helped figure out what was wrong. Initially we thought that the coil was bad. With new coil installed, we still had no spark. Then we tried swapping distributors. Still no spark. Finally after scratching our heads for longer than we should have, someone suggested we try to turn the rotor button. It spun free. The billet steel Crane Cams cam had eaten the cast iron distributor drive gear, and that’s 100 percent my fault. In our defense, Trent and I had tried the rotor on the side of the road several hours earlier, and the rotor did not turn at the time, but we’d since cranked the engine over several times driving it on the trailer (and helping it into Al’s garage).

Here is the mostly consumed distributor drive gear. It lasted about 200 miles. Some will know that you have to run a bronze gear with a Billet cam. I, however, did not know this, but I sure do now. We flushed the engine with parts cleaner and changed the oil and filter in hopes of getting most of the metal out of the fresh engine. Al used to own a parts store and had oil and a filter to fit our rig on hand. We need more friends like Al! Now where do we get a bronze drive gear for a Dodge RB?

To rectify the situation, we called Cooper Rasmussen from Power Products Unlimited, who was on his way to Ridgecrest for the start of the Ultimate Adventure. We caught him near Reno and talked the Summit Racing Equipment retail outlet into staying open long enough for him to swing by and buy the bronze distributor drive gear. Cooper would meet us in Ridgecrest after we dragged the Willys the rest of the way there on Trent’s trailer. Once assembled in Ridgecrest we installed the new drive gear into the Dodge RB and timed the engine by ear.

The next day we queued up with the rest of the rigs on Isham Trail near Trona, California. The rest of the adventure was a blast and a blur. The Willys behaved acceptably, although I did flop her on her side on the first obstacle on the trail. I just wanted her to understand how this relationship was going to work.

Damage Report
Lest you think the Ultimate Adventure is all a sham and we sit around sipping lattes delivered by helicopter to us on the trail (all the time), here is some of the stuff that’s not so new after my 2,100-mile trip to, during, and back home on UA 2016 (minus the 400 miles the truck was on a trailer). This includes dings to the underside from big rocks and hard obstacles as well as the fallout from my flop on Isham.

Thanks to all the Ultimate Adventure 2016 Sponsors!

Bubba Rope - Official Recovery Rope
Falken Tire - Official Tire
Offroad Design - Official Transfer Case
Power Products Unlimited - Official Retailer
Skyjacker Suspnsions - Official Suspension and Shock
Warn - Official Winch
Rugged Radios - Official Communication

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