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To heck with your crossover, I’m getting a Willys

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I need a vintage four-wheel-drive in my life. But do I want a truck, a wagon, or a CJ? This was the Willys lineup for 1951: Truck, Station Wagon, and CJ3B. Images via The Old Car Manual Project, and lov2xlr8.

I need a daily driver. This issue has reached a critical point. I’ve been reluctant to divert any possible resource (whether it be time or money) from my Model T project, so I sold my ’62 Falcon and I have been slowly picking away at a ’60 Dodge pickup project—but honestly its styling is a bit new for me. I also tried the motorcycle thing, thinking a Royal Enfield would provide the kind of ’50s tech stimulation I’ve been lacking since I quit driving old cars and took up with my wife’s 2008 Dodge Charger police car. I’ve fallen off the bike twice and broke my foot with the kick starter—the romance is gone.

Last week we had a horrendous snowstorm. My wife took the Charger out before the storm started and didn’t get home in time to avoid the weather. She found herself stranded and I was totally helpless to go rescue her because the aforementioned Dodge isn’t yet roadworthy and it’s a two-wheel-drive pickup in snowy, hilly Vermont. I’m generally unafraid of driving rear-wheel-drive vehicles in the snow, but there are certain times you just stay home—and that was one of them.

The snowstorm reinvigorated my historical interest in vintage 4x4s. It’s never something I’ve actively embraced, but it’s a big part of my past. My parents used to go trail riding in a second-generation Ford Bronco before I was born and Dad drove a ’79 F-250 4×4 for years. Later, we plowed snow with a similar ’74 F-250 that came with my parents place—a 25-acre chunk of former farm in West Michigan.

That farm was home to a couple of old vehicles and myriad discarded appliances before my parents purchased it. One of those other old vehicles was a flat-fender Willys CJ. Dad had promised me, at age 8, that if the Jeep came with the farm, he’d teach me to drive it. Alas, the Jeep and the appliances went away prior to closing. I thought a lot about that Jeep in the subsequent years—it would have been a far more enjoyable experience than the 1986 GMC S-15 Jimmy that became my first car.

My first encounter with Jeeps was a red flat-fender Willys languishing on an old farm in Michigan. It looked a lot like this 1948 CJ2A, though it could have been a ‘3A or even a high-hood ‘3B, since I was only eight years old. Check those military-style NDT tires.

Years later, I had another encounter with a flat-fender Willys as a late teenager. An eccentric fellow in the town where I was working could often be seen driving to and fro in his Jeep with the windshield folded flat. It looked like a blast and made the Jeep seem like an eminently usable local vehicle.

Local is the key concept in my Willys plan, of course. With their short gearing (5.38 seems pretty typical), drum brakes, and the lack of locking front hubs on some early models, a mid-’40s to early ’60s Willys product isn’t the stuff of cross-state jaunts—but that’s quite okay for me. Reliability and ease of service are what’s important here. Any long-distance trips for me can be done in a) a work vehicle, b) my wife’s Charger, or c) a rental.

I’m not looking to do any kind of hardcore off-roading, either. I want a durable, all-weather utility vehicle to support my old-car habit and give me that daily-driver fix I’m so sadly lacking. I’m imagining the kind of Willys vehicle Gus Wilson might have driven in the ’40s and ’50s, sitting proud over knobby tires and with a toolbox and jerry can in the bed. With a set of chains, there will be no question about getting to the office, the store, the hospital, or wherever.

Also, I’ve got a Model T gow-job project in the works, so the ability to haul things and make the occasional foray into the woods to rescue old parts will be most welcome.

This is a 1948 wagon, before four-wheel-drive was offered as an option. Instead, it has Barney Roos’ Studebaker-like Planar IFS. I’m a sucker for that maroon-and-faux-wood paint scheme, though.

So now the only question I’m faced with is “Which Willys?” At first, I wanted a CJ2A. They were built from 1945 to 1949 and they feature all the ’40s details I love so much, right down to the pinstriped wheels of the era. I’ve decided a CJ3A would be okay, too, though I still prefer the split windshield of the original Civilian Jeep. Either one offers some of the best parts availability around, but their diminutive size is a limitation when it comes to hauling things around for my Model T project (or, y’know, home ownership).

Looking around, though, I really fell in love with the Willys Station Wagon and Jeep Pick-Up Truck. The wagons showed up in 1946 but only started coming in four-wheel-drive in 1949. The ’49s are probably my favorites, aesthetically, because, like the ’2As, they feature those great ’40s details. Willys changed the grille to be more Jeepster-like starting in 1950 and that’s okay, too. Practically speaking, 1954 seems to be the sweet spot, because the Station Wagon retains a lot of its early character, but the 4x4s at last got the flathead six-cylinder from new corporate parent Kaiser—previous 4×4 Station Wagons (and Jeep Pick-Up Trucks) came first with “Go-Devil” four-cylinder flathead power and, starting in 1950, the Hurricane four-cylinder F-head (intake valves in the head, exhaust valves in the block).

A 1-ton truck is probably overkill for me, but where else do you find an affordable four-wheel-drive ’40s truck? I’m not holding my breath for any Marmon-Harrington Fords, NAPCO Chevrolets, or even a military-style Dodge Power Wagon coming along in the same price range as a Willys. This is from the truck’s first year, 1947, and four-wheel-drive was already available.

The Jeep Truck came out in 1947 and looks similar to the wagon, but it sits on a longer (118-inch vs. 104.5-inch) wheelbase and has a heavier 1-ton rating. They also came exclusively in four-wheel-drive after 1952, which helps simplify the search somewhat. The downside to both the wagons and the trucks is that they don’t have nearly as much aftermarket support as the CJ. Willys sheetmetal in the ’40s and ’50s wasn’t the most robust or corrosion-resistant, so finding a good candidate is important as is not letting it get rusty or smashed once it’s in service.

Earlier is better, to my taste, but condition, proximity, and cost will really rule the day. The wagons speak to me (I’m a sucker for station wagons), the truck seems the most sensible for my purposes, and the CJs have the best parts availability. What would you pick, and why?