Pretty much everyone knows the Willys Jeep from World War II, even if they don’t know its official ‘MB’ designation, nor the ‘MA’ version that preceded it.
Similarly, most are aware of the CJ range of Jeeps that sprung from that wartime model at the end of hostilities.
Less well known are some of the derivatives of the CJ, none more so than the original Jeepster; a bright and bold “fun machine” that has been seen by some as the predecessor of today’s softroaders.
War and Peace
The contract awarded to Willys during World War II to build the Jeep had undoubtedly saved the company.
Willys-Overland, to give the company its full name, had once been a proud name in the American automobile industry, but had gone into receivership in 1933, followed by the death of founder John North Willys in 1935.
A takeover and recapitalisation in 1936 put the company back in the black, but the good times didn’t last; Willys recorded losses from 1938 onwards, but were saved by that lucrative and long-running contract to produce the Jeep for the US Army.
But, as early as 1944, Willys were looking at what sort of car they would be producing after the end of hostilities.
America’s other automobile manufacturers – and all their suppliers – were gearing up for a return to civilian vehicle production, too, which meant Willys had a problem.
Give that they had been so weakened by their maladies through the 1930s, WIllys were no longer seen as a major player in the American automobile market.
As such, they couldn’t convince the major bodybuilding companies of the time, like Budd, Murray and Briggs, to take on their postwar product.
All these firms were dealing with the ‘Big Three’ automakers (GM, Ford and Chrysler) and had more than enough orders from them to keep their operations going at full steam; Willys-Overland was simply too small to worry about.
Willys had their own presses to produce the military Jeep (and would continue to do so in mildly-modified ‘CJ’ form after the war), but these were basic, slab-sided vehicles.
Without their own machinery to produce conventional car body panels, nor access to others in the auto industry, Willys President, Charles Sorenson, instead turned to the appliance industry.
He figured that the presses used to produce the shells of items like fridges and washing machines could also be used for automobile body parts.
But these metalpress machines couldn’t reproduce the kind of deep, complex shapes found on an automobile’s front guard. Sorenson knew this, so dictated instructions to Willys’ young designer, Brooks Stevens, to design a range of postwar vehicles with these limitations in mind.
Stevens, who would achieve more notoriety with Studebaker and his own “Excalibur” retro-styled roadsters later in his career, took to the task with enthusiasm, producing designs for a panel van, station wagon, pickup truck and tray-style truck, all with the panelmaking limitations in mind and all showing a clear visual homage to the Jeep, a connection that Willys realised would be a valuable marketing tool.
Also in Stevens’ designs, and apparently added almost as an afterthought, was a two-door roadster finished in a bold two-tone colour scheme.
This would become the Jeepster. From their initial design in 1944, Stevens’ civilian models went into production starting with the Jeep-styled Willys wagon and panel van in 1946, then the trucks in 1947, but the Jeepster didn’t hit the American market until the middle of 1948.
When it arrived, the Jeepster was defined by a front end shared with the Jeep station wagon, but behind the cowl, the five-seat roadster had its own panels, including angular rear wheelarch flares and a sloped tail, upon which the spare wheel was mounted, continental style.
The Jeepster used the same 104-inch wheelbase and body-on-frame construction as the station wagon and shared most of that model’s mechanical parts.
Wheels, lighting and some trim pieces were also common to both. To save weight and reduce complexity and cost, the Jeepster, like the Jeep wagons, was only ever offered in two-wheel drive.
Interestingly, the Jeepster was described as being available in right-hand drive form, too, although its unknown if these were produced specifically for export to RHD markets like Australia, or were for specialist use, like postal delivery.
Powering the Jeepster was a mildly-modified version of the L-head ‘Go Devil’ 134ci (2.2 litre) four cylinder engine used in the wartime Jeep. While fine for negotiating beaches and muddy fields at low speeds, the 47kW four was underpowered for American highways, with slow acceleration and the top speed of around 70mph (112km/h) coming in close to 20 seconds.
Fitting overdrive as standard to the three-speed manual transmission partly addressed this, but the Jeepster urgently needed more power in a market that was now dominated by six- and eight-cylinder vehicles. Where the Jeepster was acknowledged as being ahead of the pack was in its ride.
Most expected the Jeepster to handle like a truck, but thanks to conventional leaf springs at the rear and Willys’ own ‘Planadyne’ transverse leaf spring at the front, the ride was as good, if not better, than many conventional passenger cars of the era.
Two-tone paint treatment, usually in a bright lower colour with black upper section edged in a chrome trim strip, was common to most early Jeepsters, with chromed ‘T’ grille ornament and complementary bonnet strip, chrome bumpers, bright metal hubcaps and standard whitewall tyres all adding more bling.
The convertible top was manually operated and easy to use, but the ‘phaeton’ styling was by now a little outdated. Instead of the roll-up windows found in all other postwar American convertibles, the Jeepster used snap in side curtains for weather protection.
While still a feature on small British roadsters and sportscars, America had moved past this feature for “regular” passenger cars, Willys being the last American manufacturer to offer this body style on a volume production model.
More broadly impacting on the rejection of the phaeton body was the start of a decline in demand for convertibles in general, as evidenced by the widespread adoption of the ‘hardtop’ in the 1950s; the fixed-roof, pillarless bodystyle that mimicked the look of a convertible, without a convertible’s inherent issues.
Timing and Price
Prior to the Jeepster’s arrival, the immediate postwar years in America were very much a “seller’s market”. If you could produce a car and get it into new car lots, it’d sell, pretty much regardless of what it was.
But by late 1948, supply was starting to catch up with demand. The Big Three were starting to dominate the market at this time, too, with independents like Willys-Overland, Studebaker, Packard, Hudson, etc., fighting for the scraps.
Had the Jeepster arrived a year or two earlier, it may have fared better, but that late arrival wasn’t the sole reason for its failure.
Aside from the outdated phaeton body treatment and lack of performance, what also worked against the Jeepster was its price. Keen to maximise profits on their new arrival, Willys launched the Jeepster with a high US$1,765 starting price.
While that figure included things like whitewalls, twin sunvisors, a lockable glovebox, side wind wings, chromed hubcaps and dual horns that were optional on other cars, it was still expensive. In comparison, a ’48 Ford Super Deluxe V8 convertible cost US$1,740, while a six-cylinder Chevrolet Fleetmaster soft top was only US$1,750.
In addition to being cheaper, both these mass market alternatives had more powerful engines, “proper” wind-up windows and were generally seen as being “complete” cars, rather than modified commercial vehicles.
Willys, perhaps realising they couldn’t go head-to-head with the likes of Ford or Chevy in the mass market, instead pitched the Jeepster as an “individual’s” car.
Adverts for the ’48 model described the roadster as a “daring, fun-loving dream. . . . to thrill those ‘special’ kinds of people who tire of the ordinary and always seek the uncommon.”
It turned out, however, that there weren’t enough of those ‘special’ kinds of people to make the Jeepster a winner, with only 10,326 units produced for the ’48 model year.
Dropping the starting price to US$1,495 (and dropping some of the standard features at the same time) for 1949 made no difference, nor did the introduction of a 148.5ci, 53.6kW six-cylinder engine option later that year.
Jeepster production slumped to 2,960 for 1949, but did improve from March, 1950, when a modernised ‘Hurricane’ F-head four and ‘Lightning’ six-cylinder engine were both introduced. Styling was modified during this period, too, with with a pointed grille and more rounded faces to the front guards.
But the writing was on the wall even before the end of 1950. Production for the year, including a handful that carried over and were retitled as 1951 models, was 5,845.
In less than three years, Willys had produced only 19,132 Jeepsters.
The ‘Jeepster’ name was revived briefly in 1967 (and spawning the Commando) and later applied to a couple of concepts, but the original remains largely forgotten today, so the appearance of a fully-restored first-year example is worth a closer look.
The Jeepster shown on these pages was consigned for the Auctions America sale at Hilton Head, South Carolina, late last year. Good first-year examples like this one don’t come up often, but the good news for hard core Jeep collectors is that Jeepsters like this remain relatively affordable.
The unit featured was described as having a full frame-off restoration, before a respray in period correct Luzon Red paint, while the remanufactured grey canvas convertible top includes new timber bows and new side curtains.
The fully-rebuilt Go Devil engine has been augmented by a rebuilt carby, new water pump and rebuilt fuel pump, while the transmission featured a new clutch, pressure plate and release bearing. A new fuel tank and sender were also part of the restoration.
An all-new wiring loom and complementary 6-volt battery have been fitted and the seats re-trimmed in burgundy leatherette vinyl to match the exterior.
The auctioned car also included an authentic working heater and AM radio, both of which were extra-cost options when the Jeepster was new.
With its impressive attention to detail, the Jeepster consigned at Hilton Head was described as one of the best available from the first year of production. At the November auction, the restored Jeepster sold for US$22,500 (AU$27,800 approx.).
A 1951-model Jeepster was consigned at the same auction, described as an older restoration, but fitted with the Lightning six-cylinder engine. Against a $35,000 high estimate, it failed to meet its reserve and was passed in.
For more details and further information on this vehicle and others consigned for the Auctions America Hilton Head sale, go to: www.auctionsamerica.com