by William Leslie
My first trip to a historic military encampment was at the Oregon Coast. It revealed more than 100 men and boys — and a few women and girls — in and out of uniform. The re-enactors came equipped with uniforms, guns, and equipment to represent half a dozen countries and several conflicts, including the Civil War, WWI, and WWII. Despite the enthusiastic display, there were only a handful of vehicles — one 6X6, two jeeps, and a folding bicycle.
WWII jeeps should be better represented at our militaria events. A full-sized army truck may be beyond the reach of most city-dwellers due to sheer size, and many people wouldn’t be comfortable driving one, but why are so few jeeps present? They’re surprisingly affordable, will easily fit in a standard one-car garage, and are relatively easy to drive for anyone who can handle a clutch. (Well, folks much over six-feet may find them a little small.)
Before you think about buying...
As with many activities, the best place to begin is by hanging around with others in the hobby and by reading. In addition to this magazine, many fine books are available to help get you started. Two great books to begin with are:
- All American Wonder, by Ray Cowdery (Volumes 1, 2, & 3). These are frequently referred to as AAW on websites and discussion boards.
- The Complete WW2 Military Jeep Manual. This consists of reprints of military technical manuals, and together they offer more details than you will probably need. Unless you have a computer in your shop, resist the urge to buy these manuals on disk. You will want to have a hardbound book to write in and to pack around with you.
Your subscription to Military Vehicles Magazine is a good investment. It’s a great way to build your knowledge base, and every issue is filled with advertisements from businesses who can help you with your restoration.
It’s also okay to drag out your favorite old television shows and movies to inspire you. Reruns of “The Rat Patrol” or “Kelly’s Heroes” are always a lot of fun, and it’s surprising how much detail you can pick up about jeeps. Keep in mind, that Hollywood didn’t always get it right. Many old TV shows and movies feature civilian jeeps painted olive drab, and Korean War era jeeps may appear in World War II movies.
Every state has a chapter of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association (“MVPA”). Each chapter has regular meetings, often with speakers, “cruise-ins,” and encampments where collectors will display their vehicles. At first, attendance at these events can be intimidating, but most participants are friendly and helpful. In this hobby, most love to answer questions about their vehicles.
Tips learned firsthand
Here are some of the things to know about finding and buying a vintage military jeep.
Condition: Most WWII jeeps that survived have been substantially modified, either while in military service or in civilian hands. Military modifications resulted from repeated trips through a motor pool. “Hey, Joe, grab the engine out of that jeep over there, the transmission out of that one, and the seats out of that one. Put it all on this jeep here, and then replace the glass and tires, and paint it with this new color that we just got.”
What left the factory as a Ford, could become a mix of parts produced by both Ford and Willys. Vehicles resulting from such a trip through a repair facility are predictably known as “motor pool specials.”
Vehicles held in military service for a decade or two may show dozens of approved (and unapproved) modifications as radios were added, machine guns were removed, hard tops were created for cold weather conditions, and so forth. Other modifications, called “field mods,” were made to meet the needs of soldiers in the field, and ranged from major (a wood or aluminum hard top in Alaska) to minor (like a bottle opener to the dash).
As WWII jeeps left military service, many passed into the hands of a series of government agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and local fire departments, where they saw even more modifications.
Civilian modifications of military jeeps can be even more extensive. They might include the replacement of the engine and transmission, lift kits, diamond plate “patch panels,” sound systems, and the addition of winches and over-sized tires.
WWII-vintage jeeps aren’t common among the rock crawlers. Partially because of their rarity, but also because WWII jeeps aren’t strong enough to survive rock crawling stresses or to support the strength and torque of powerful modern engines. Rock crawlers may be so seriously modified that they may not make a suitable candidate for restoration as a military vehicle.
What does this all mean?
Pick the right jeep to suit your goal.
Do you want a stock jeep, all original, suitable only for parades? Or do you prefer a daily driver, restored “loosely,” with some variations from stock for safety and to save money? How about a non-driver jeep suitable for static display at a local museum? Do you want something almost finished, or would you love to develop your mechanical skills?
The key is to buy the jeep that is right for what you are going to do with your jeep. There’s no point in paying a lot for a heavily modified rock crawler if your goal is to restore your jeep to military condition. Take your time with this important decision. I spent three years looking before I thought about buying.
Parts availability: The supply of vintage parts from scrapped vehicles and of “new, old stock” (NOS) parts continues to shrink. Vendors are producing almost every part necessary to restore a vintage jeep, however. It’s been suggested that virtually every part necessary to create a jeep can be purchased new, with the possible exception of an engine block and the frame. That may be an exaggeration, but it›s not far off the mark.
I’ve restored mine with a mix of NOS, garage sale finds, and new parts.
Affordability: Vintage jeeps aren’t necessarily expensive. Jeeps advertised for less than $1,500 are generally rolling hulks, suitable only as donor cars.
A project vehicle that could be the basis for a restoration can be purchased for between $1,500 and $6,000. An older restoration might cost $10,000 to $15,000, and a very nice un-restored all-original vehicle with low miles might top out at $25,000. This may seem high, but it’s below the cost of a new jeep.
Purity: The issue of how “purely” to restore your jeep will come up almost every time that you take out your checkbook to buy a part. Do you buy the original part that needs five hours of repair, or do you buy the brand new replacement part that is ready for installation, for half the price?
There is no right or wrong on this. Ignore the people who want to criticize your jeep. 98% of them don’t own a jeep.
How to find your jeep: The three best ways to find your jeep are through your local chapter of the MVPA; online through forums, eBay, or Craigslist; or from dealers who advertise in this magazine. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses.
How to safely buy a vehicle is beyond the scope of this article, but be careful. Don’t send your money unless you are sure that you will end up with a jeep when you are done.
Reputable sellers will provide multiple photos of the vehicle. They should let you see a copy of the front and back of the title before you pay. But be aware, many jeeps will have title irregularities. The actual year of production may vary from the year shown on the title. Some states assign the year when the vehicle first receives a civilian title. My jeep is titled as a “1946” — the year when it left government service.
Use caution in buying anything you haven’t seen in person.
How I learned my lesson
I took the plunge into WWII Jeep ownership in 2008. My Jeep arrived on a flatbed tow truck.
It had been well on its way to becoming a dune buggy in southern Oregon, when I found it on eBay. Some of the mods were pretty obvious: It had a roll bar, bucket seats from a VW bug, no fuel tank well, and a home-made fuel tank had been bolted in the back. It also had the carb from a CJ engine sticking through a rough hole cut in the hood. An electric fuel pump was bolted inside the rear bumper, and was operated with a toggle switch on the dash. Those were the problems.
It didn’t have any rust, and it had been treated gently most of its life. This Jeep was a good, solid candidate to take back to 1944.
A lifetime of enjoyment
A restoration will never really be completed. There are always details to improve and accessories to collect: gas cans, tools, a first aid kit, and other accessories to enhance your rig.
Do what you want, and ignore anyone who criticizes your jeep. Above all, enjoy your vehicle and have fun.
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