It started with me musing about having an old truck to travel the countryside of Round Top, Texas, where my wife Charlotte Meyer and I have a great weekend getaway. I already had a farm work truck, a 1989 Ford F-150 long bed that we used for everything, so my wish was less about having a truck and more about the great looks that old trucks have.
My "prayers" were answered on my birthday when a trailer pulled up loaded with a 1949 Willys-Overland Jeep truck—at least that is what it had been at one time. The truck had belonged to my wife's grandfather, Fritz Meyer, who used it on the family farm in Dreyer, Texas, and she had bought it from her uncle. Thus began my love affair with old trucks and the Jeep mystique.
I learned that I had a Model 2T 3/4-ton Jeep truck, serial number 25137. The "2" designated two-wheel drive, and the serial number placed it firmly in the 1949 production run. The odometer indicated a little more that 14,500 miles, which is likely accurate because the truck probably never made any long hauls.
Jeep trucks were marketed to farmers and anyone else who needed a reliable and economical work truck. The 4T 4X4 models offered a variety of accessories, including a power take-off, and could rival a tractor.
I went to work taking stock of my prize, which meant cleaning out the mice that lived in the seat, gathering together the miscellaneous parts that inhabited the cab and bed, and hosing down the entire vehicle. Like most farm trucks that ended up in a field under a tree, the Jeep was an amalgamation of bits and pieces pulled together throughout the years to keep it working. Cardboard and floor mats covered the holes in the floorboards, and the bed had about three layers of metal, including some checker plate—all of them thoroughly rusted.
A number of parts actually looked remarkably good. The original steering wheel and horn button were still with the Jeep, and the instrument cluster looked great. Plus, I had glove box doors and latches, door pushbuttons and aluminum rings, a rearview mirror, the dome light prism glass, and various pieces and original trim bits that I came to treasure over time because I did not have to hunt them down.
While figuring out what I was going to do with the Jeep, I searched the internet finding sites with lots of parts as well as restoration stories and shops. I decided that I would go for a restoration and keep it pretty close to original. I sought out a shop to perform the resurrection and landed at Custom Car Cool in Houston where Oscar Arce not only installed custom air conditioning systems but did amazing restoration work.
The prognosis for my Jeep was pretty grim. Rust had taken its toll on much more than just the bed and floorboards. On the positive side, a wide array of body parts was available to mend the most rust-prone spots. I soon became buddies with Roger at Kaiser-Willys Auto Supply. The bigger body parts were the challenge. My fenders and hood were too far gone for bodywork, and I set about trying to track down used ones. The internet helped narrow the search, and I ended up with a hood and front fenders from a yard in Maine. These items had once been part of a Jeepster, but my truck did not seem to mind. I shopped and shopped for rear fenders, but the original design was just not stout enough to hold up throughout the years. I kept hounding the guys who said that they were working on steel reproductions but eventually settled for fiberglass.
With my inventory built up, Oscar began the task of sandblasting, body repair, and priming. The Jeep had been sort of green when I got it but had started life wearing a rich maroon called Luzon Red. We color-matched the paint on the inside of the door and selected a modern Chevrolet color that was too close to tell the difference.
While the body reconstruction progressed, work on the running gear was moving forward as well. Parts came mostly from Kaiser-Willys, but we snagged a few parts from the Jeep Man in Houston. He had worked at the Kaiser-Jeep dealership there before the company was sold to American Motors and had ended up with much of the old parts inventory.
Given the condition of the truck, rebuilding all systems was a must. The 4-cylinder L4, 134ci "Go Devil" engine was refurbished with new cylinders to run unleaded gasoline. Its 63hp output meant that I was never going to go very fast in this truck, but given the sophistication of the brakes, suspension, and steering, that was probably a good thing. The three-speed Borg-Warner T90 transmission also was refurbished.
I went for a 12-volt electrical system trading the distributor for an alternator. Electronic ignition was added for drivability as were electric-driven wipers that are now rarely used. Adding turn signals necessitated converting the parking lights in the front and adding a matching right rear stop lamp. The balance of the running gear went back in as designed. The original oil bath air filter was refurbished, and the oil filter was spiffed up. (A coolant overflow reservoir was added later.)
Final detailing really paid off. The pot metal hood ornament was rechromed in New Jersey; the front bumper was done locally. The rear bumper and trailer hitch assembly likely was fabricated on the farm ages ago. The 7.00x16-inch wheels never had hubcaps, but the ivory color was set off with a paint stripe that still showed faintly on one wheel. I went with 215/85 radial tires that had a suitable lugged sidewall pattern to replicate the original look.
The best part was the tailgate. My 1949 had the Willys-Overland "O-W" logo stamped into the tailgate. The reproduction one that came with the new bed was blank because later models had a variety of painted or decal labeling. My original tailgate was too deteriorated to save, but the logo was intact, so Oscar surgically removed it and welded it into the new gate. Perfect!
The interior components were in surprisingly good condition, and as mentioned earlier, save for a knob or two, they were ready for final detailing. Reproduction grained plastic panels replaced the fiberboard originals—some of which had survived. Ribbed rubber floor covering kept things looking sharp. I went for an upgrade on the seats, however, adding woven vinyl seating area inserts. Using predrilled holes, I added a passenger-side sun visor that took several bidding wars on eBay to acquire.
The finished package is a delight. It has been great fun to drive around in my Jeep truck. Local parades and county fairs are a must, including Round Top's big Fourth of July parade that has been held continuously for 162 years. The Jeep is not alone around Round Top. It has for company two Jeepsters and a '50s Jeep panel truck—not bad for a town with a population of 77.
Text by Russell Miller, photos by Art Stokes