1948-’51 Willys Jeepster
The inexpensive, open-top Jeep collectible that’s more sport than utility
Feature Article from Hemmings Motor News
August, 2008 – Matthew Litwin
Tracking the design history of today’s sport utility vehicle is something few will consider thinking about for the next several decades. For many, there’s nothing “sporty” about them; they’re just gas-sucking behemoths that get the kids from school to soccer practice, and back to the house in time for the latest microwave dinner. Jeep, though guilty of manufacturing such uninspiring machines today, once had a very different vision of the sport utility. As evidence we present the Jeepster, first introduced to the public on April 3, 1948, as a sporty vehicle that a growing family could have fun with.
The 1948-1951 Jeepster is a two-wheel-drive convertible designed by Brooks Stevens. Stevens and Willys hoped that returning World War II GIs would scoop up these fun-loving drop-tops as soon as they rolled off the assembly line. They are perhaps one of the most overlooked, but interesting, vehicles in the storied off-road maker’s past: a sporty automobile rather than an off-road vehicle, never offered with four-wheel drive or in any commercial guises during the four-year stint. This open-bodied car–an ever-increasing rarity as the Fifties neared–also has a spot in history as the last true phaeton offered by a major domestic automaker.
The handsome Jeepster had the same front-end styling as the Willys wagon and pickup, but with a fancier look, thanks to Stevens’ stainless-steel T bar in the grille. While slab-sided like other Willys offerings, the Jeepster had a higher cowl; the beltline dropped at the doors and then kicked up again on the quarter panels just aft of the doors. For a lower look, a chrome strip ran along the body side a few inches below the belt line, sweeping up over the cowl.
As other automakers carpet-bombed the dealer lots with new cars, softening the post-war demand, Willys anticipated strong Jeepster sales from young couples and families as well. However, the buying public did find faults with the Jeepster, among them were its anemic engine and high price. At $1,765, the 1948 Jeepster cost slightly more than a Ford Super Deluxe club convertible, which had more desirable styling, functional windows and V-8 power. The Jeepster’s soft top and especially drafty plastic side curtains made it impractical for cold-climate consumers.
Despite its shortcomings, the Jeepster is a fun-to-drive yet practical vehicle with its open-air character and excellent gas mileage. As with many collectible Jeeps, it’s still a buyer’s market for Jeepsters, plus it enjoys a healthy aftermarket of parts that don’t cost an arm and a leg.
During Jeepster production, there were four different engines available. Up first was the original L-head Go-Devil four-cylinder that came from the World War II Jeep. This 134.2-cu.in. solid-lifter engine–topped with a Carter WA-1 carburetor–featured a 3.13-inch bore and 4.38-inch stroke and three main bearings. The compression ratio measured 6.48:1 and resulted in 63hp at 4,000 rpm with 105-ft.lbs. of torque. Even though the Go-Devil had a timing chain and centrifugal advance distributor, the civilian version featured gear drive and vacuum advance.
There were complaints about a lack of power and Willys’ answer, late in the 1949 model year, was the Lightning straight-six, though the four-cylinder was still offered. The Lightning was a cast-iron 148.5-cu.in. block featuring a 3- x 3.50-inch bore and stroke, four mains and solid lifters, all working together to develop 72hp at 4,000 rpm with its 6.42:1 compression. Fuel was fed via a Carter WA1-645S single-barrel carburetor. A high-compression four-cylinder version with a 7.0:1 ratio was a no-cost option, while a heavy-duty air cleaner could have been ordered. Due to the late straight-six Jeepster offering, production of said version was understandably low–just 653 units–while four-cylinder production numbered 2,697.
If you happen to find a 1950 model for sale, another round of mid-year introductions might have you scratching your head. Basically, the model year is broken down into first and second series, and each series could have been constructed with a four- or six-cylinder. More specifically, the first series Jeepster contained the same 134.2-cu.in. Go-Devil that had been in use since 1948. The second series however, was introduced with a new F-head four. This new engine, with the same internal dimensions, produced 72hp due to the unique F-head design that featured the intake valves in the cylinder head and the exhaust valves in the block.
Meanwhile, there were no changes to the first series Lightning in Jeepsters so equipped. But when the second series hit the showroom, the Lightning received a jump in displacement to 161 cubes, thanks to a slightly larger 3.13-inch bore. This also had a direct effect on compression, 6.9:1, and horsepower went from 72 to a whopping 75. Though there have been rumors of a very limited number of 1951 production Jeepsters, no evidence has surfaced. In fact, the 1951 models that were sold were retitled 1950 models–at least to date. Briefly, the four-cylinder offering reverted back to the 1950 first series, while the second-series six continued on.
A side note, all flathead blocks were painted black, and all cylinder heads for use under 5,000 feet elevation were black, while those intended to be used at over 5,000 feet were painted blue. Six-cylinder flathead engines had a black block and a blue head. The 1950 F-head fours were painted red with a yellow cover.
Even with the most powerful six-cylinder engine, the Jeepster’s best 0-60 mph time was about 25 seconds, which was slow even by 1950 standards. But what it lacked in power it made up for in reliability. According to Mike Meditz of Kaiser Willys Auto Supply in Aiken, South Carolina, these engines last a very long time and are simple to repair. Ed Peyton of Pennsylvania, owner of a 1950 Jeepster, who continues to work on these models, tells us that these engines are bulletproof. He says engineers have told him the F-head Willys design could still be used today and is very efficient.
“You want the intake valves to run cool and the exhaust valves to run hot and that’s just what happened with the Willys engine,” said Ed. “They have a very strong crankshaft; and I abused my Jeepsters, but did regular service on them and have never had a problem.”
First-year Jeepsters were equipped with a standard, floor-shifted Borg-Warner synchromesh three-speed manual with a standard overdrive that offered 70 percent reduction. The overdrive uses a cable control and an electric solenoid with a kick-down switch under the accelerator. Each transmission also featured a single-plate, dry-disc clutch, and gear ratios were: 1st-2.60:1, 2nd-1.63:1, 3rd-1.00:1 and reverse-3.53:1. To help reduce the sticker price, overdrive was relegated to the option chart for the duration of the model life–among other features–beginning in the middle of the 1949 model year. These transmissions are reliably durable, and parts needed to overhaul them can be easily located.
Although there were numerous changes to the engine lineup, the Jeepster–with its body-on-frame construction–did not deviate from its 104-inch wheelbase chassis design. Willys advertising at the time read “Braced like a battleship,” the frame under each being box-section steel with an X brace to prevent the twisting one would associate with a non-braced convertible.
As mentioned earlier, the Jeepster body is the last American-built phaeton design with plastic side curtains and lacks roll-up windows. There were minor alterations during the Jeepster’s run, primarily to the grille, which came to a “V” in 1950 and 1951. In 1948, there was a small, metal-framed rear window and smaller side curtains; however, the 1949 and ’50 models had a large plastic rear window and larger viewing areas from the side curtains. “Most of the hobby doesn’t pay attention to this, and you find a lot of ’48s with the wrong tops,” said Pete Mozzone of the Willys Overland Jeepster Club. Also, the rear bumper is a simple one-piece chrome design with the inscription “Willys Overland” centered between two chrome bolts. In 1950, the word “Overland” was removed due to a legal battle with the government.
Like most vehicles of this era, Jeepster had little or no corrosion protection, so the tin worm takes over. The rocker panels and lower fenders can rust badly–a traditionally weak area on any vehicle–and because the Jeepster lacked a solid top, water finds its way in and rots away the floors. Some owners report their floors looking like Swiss cheese before restoration. Fortunately, reproduction rocker panels and lower fender sections are available, as well as reproduction patch panels, floor pans, fuel tanks and associated straps.
The Planadyne-type independent front suspension consisted of a transverse, semi-elliptic leaf spring, kingpins and airplane-type double-action hydraulic shock absorbers. “Planar” refers to a cross spring to which the front wheels are secured in such a manner that they can operate independently over rough roads, and the unusual advantage of the “planar” front spring is that it reduces total unsprung weight. The front spring was made of low-stressed, high-alloy steel and was double-wrapped at the spring eye for greater strength. Frictionless rubber inserts were placed between the leaves to ensure riding comfort and safety. Not necessarily an afterthought, the rear suspension featured conventional semi-elliptic springs and hydraulic shock absorbers.
The standard interior featured metal doors with a partial door panel, a split-bench with a fold-down front passenger seat and full rubber mat, the latter of which was simply due to the fact that engineers knew an open-air vehicle would get wet now and then. In the rear, which has plenty of room, a chrome-plated footrest was optional.
The dash panel, a square, engine-turned unit, located to the right of the driver, was utilitarian, but included a neat cluster of gauges to monitor the engine. In the center sat the odometer and 80-mph speedometer with “Willys Overland” in script beneath the odometer. To the left of the speedometer sat the fuel and amp gauges, and on the opposite side was an oil pressure and temperature gauge. The center of the metal dash also housed the ignition switch, headlamp switch and choke. Incidentally, the oil pressure sending unit and gauge are 80 pounds for the Jeepster and 60 pounds for other Willys.
Reproduction two-piece rubber mats are not available, but carpet is and that is what many people put in their Jeepsters today. Complete interior kits, convertible tops and side curtains also can be purchased.
Air cleaner, new – $153
Bearing cone, front, inner – $15
Carburetor, Carter, rebuilt – $225
Distributor kit, includes new cap, points, rotor condenser – $45
Escutcheon, window crank – $9
Fan belt, generator – $9
Fuel filter – $4
Gasket, water pump – $2
Headlamp switch – $44
Hood ornament, new – $45
Kingpin bearing cap – $7
Kit, rear seat, mounting bracket – $32
Nameplate, side, Jeepster – $20
Steering wheel, new, 1949 – $230
Steering wheel, new, 1950-1951 – $130
WHAT TO PAY
West Coast Willys
10831 NW Laurinda Court
Portland, Oregon 97229
Dues: $25/year; Membership: 1,170
Midstates Jeepster Association
7721 Howick Road
Celina, Ohio 45822
Dues: $25/year; Membership: 400
Willys Overland Jeepster Club
P.O. Box 2531
Taunton, Massachusetts 02780
Dues: $25/year; Membership: 550
Kaiser-Willys Auto Supply
Walck’s Willys & Jeep Parts 1941-1986
This article originally appeared in the August, 2008 issue of Hemmings Motor News.