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1953 Willys Wagon - By Any Means Necessary

Tavis Highlander's '53 Willys Wagon

John Mata Jr
May 1, 2010
Photographers: Evan Griffey
Building a vehicle that is as clean as a whistle is only half the battle when trying to stand out in a faceless crowd. Creativity, originality, and the overall execution of both traits are vital when piecing together any successful ground-up project. When Tavis Highlander, a creative designer by trade, first set his eyes on the rust bucket carcass of a unique '53 Willys wagon that would be the core of his first major vehicle build, he didn't let the obvious years of deterioration and neglect on its surface corrode his determination. His lack of an abundant bank account and endless lines of credit didn't get in his way either.
Photo 2/10   |   1953 Willys Wagon right Side Angle
Tavis' cousin, Warren Heathers, can actually be awarded the finder's fee for the Willys, as he discovered the ex-Washington state forest service vehicle being sold by a man who had originally purchased it from the state back in the early '60s. When Tavis took ownership of the retired ranger, it was equipped with a 4WD suspension naturally, but things were about to change. All suspension parts necessary for the transformation were dug up while pillaging local junkyards. An S-10 front clip, Belltech 2-inch drop spindles, and stock GM springs were all found second hand, as well as the scrap metal that was used to box the Willys' frame that was later completely sandblasted, smoothed, and powdercoated. One-off rear leaf hangers, shackles, and a transmission crossmember were fabricated from recycled steel, which certainly kept overall cost low while sending character value through the roof. To round out the nicely refurbished chassis, a set of 15x6-inch U.S. Wheel chrome smoothies covered in 215/75R15 BFG tires are featured up front while 16x7-inch rollers with 225/7016R rubber were assigned residence at the rear.
Now that the rolling chassis was in better-than-new condition, Tavis was weighing power options that would have the chassis, along with the rest of the wagon, rolling faster than the Willys-Overland Motor company could have ever imagined possible. Tavis was in the process of wrapping up a promising graphic design gig for Mopar Performance, so instead of a paycheck, he requested that a monstrous 6.1L HEMI crate engine and a Mopar Viper T-56 six-speed transmission serve as his compensation. To his surprise, his negotiation was approved rather quickly, and his 450hp powerplant and tranny were packaged up and directed toward his doorstep. To add more fuel to the Willys' fire, Mopar billet fuel rails, a custom air intake tube capped with a Spectre filter, a Flowmaster 50-series muffler, and a Ford 8.8-inch rearend have been thrown into the performance equation. This Willys wagon is certainly qualified to wear the SRT-8 badges Tavis cooked up from leftover aluminum stock.
The 56-year-old body wasn't in the best condition by any stretch of the imagination, so it was taken down to bare metal in order to remove the layers of rust and patches of decay. The inner fender wells and both rear quarter panels were replaced as was the original rear valence and rockers. A new lower tailgate area and cowl panels were fabricated, and the firewall was built from scratch with a 4-inch doghouse to accommodate the HEMI's setback, which sits just behind the front axle line. Custom panels were constructed from recycled walnut boards that were laminated together, clearcoated, and polished. Once Tavis approved of the bodywork and the Willys was beginning to closely resemble the rendering, he selected Sherman Williams '08 Toyota Tundra Pyrite Mica paint to cover the wagon.
With the paint buffed to sparkling perfection and after every nut and bolt was tightened, Tavis took the time to look back and examine his original game plan. Creating the entire wagon to somewhat resemble a factory optioned vehicle was the overall mission, which can easily be considered a success. Although Tavis' pockets weren't deep when he first started the project, or afterwards for that matter, he relied heavily on creative bartering and getting his own hands dirty in order to make things happen. Tavis' father, Dave, served as his right hand man throughout the entire build as the two even performed sheetrock and construction work in trade for a portion of the interior materials. The dream of creating a clean, updated Willys wagon was definitely a deep-rooted passion that Tavis just could not and would not give up on.



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