1962 Willys Wagon First Drive
Gone Fishin': Jeep's Modern-Day Willys Mixes Nostalgia With Reliability
There are vehicles many of us wish were still being made today: classics like the FJ40, the 1966-1977 Bronco, and the Willys Wagon. This last vehicle was the second product sold by Jeep. It and the platform-sharing pickup came out in 1946, and while the original Jeep was aimed squarely at those who wanted it for agricultural use (read: working on the farm) or for hunting, the Willys Wagon was designed to appeal more to general consumers. It was, according to Jeep, the company's first SUV -- and is the great-grandfather of the Liberty.
The iconic styling of the Willys Wagon is unmistakable, and Jeep fans are instantly drawn to it. So when we saw this one off-roading at Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, we were curious as to who owned it and why it was there. This one looks just like a 1962 Willys Wagon, and that's exactly where the body and interior came from, but underneath, it's totally modern.
The company created a one-off vehicle that is a Jeep fanatic's dream: It has all the charm and appeal of the original Willys Wagon, plus the reliability -- and power -- of a modern-day Wrangler. With this merging of old school and new tech, the Willys is a vehicle you could easily drive every day to work, and then take to your favorite fishing hole on weekends -- however far off the beaten path that may be.
Last year, Jeep built this vehicle with the idea of showing off the heritage of the company's products, and as a nod to the company's roots. When designer Mark Allen realized Jeep had access to a fairly complete 1962 Willys and a 2004 Wrangler Unlimited (this era Unlimited is the two-door, long-wheelbase TJ, not to be confused with the 2007-and-newer four-door JK also known as the Unlimited), he did some measuring and found a mere 3/4-inch difference in wheelbase length. While none of the body mounts lined up and the shock mounts went through the front fenders, merging the two vehicles was relatively easy. Once the merger was done, Allen gave the Willys a fishing theme, with vintage gear, rods, and cooler, and the key fob is a Rapala lure with the hooks bent inward so no one can get hurt.
Sitting in the Willys instantly took us back to a different era. This vehicle still wears the original paint, none of the dents or dings was repaired, and the interior is basically intact. While the Wagon is now powered by the TJ's bulletproof 190-hp, 4.0-liter I-6 with five-speed manual -- replacing the Hurricane flathead-six and original three-speed manual -- everything you see, touch, and sit on in the interior is essentially stock. It even has that smell inside -- the smell of your dad's old truck, the smell (slightly musty, sunbaked, with just a hint of gasoline) that takes you back to when you would tag along on weekend trips. And like the two-door Wrangler that donated its engine and transmission, this Wagon is a two-door. Want to get into the rear seat? Fold the front seat forward and climb in.
The cabin represents the days before power windows, mirrors, and door locks. If you need to adjust the passenger-side mirror and are driving solo, you have to pull over and get out to do it. Ventilation comes through crank windows and an extra airway in the center of the hood, nicknamed "the air-conditioner." Realistically, on a hot summer day, you're going to get warm. Slide onto the bench seat, and you'll see the lap belts, as this Willys is from the time before Jeep offered three-point harnesses. The Wagon has a parking brake -- a long rod under the dash on the left that you push all the way forward to release.
There is a radio, and you can't really hear it with the windows down, but who cares? Driving this vehicle is the experience. This isn't simple transportation. This Willys makes any journey as rewarding as the destination. There's no need for music or talk radio to detract from that.
The steering wheel is skinny and its diameter is huge, but it's easy to get used to. This vehicle benefits from 2004 steering. The shift knob and stalk are original and control the modern five-speed manual. It's the same with the four-wheel drive: A manual shifter on the floor controls the 2004 4WD system (with low range, of course), and it works well off-road. It actually has a secret bit of off-road capability as well. Hidden under the vintage Olympia Beer belt buckle on the dash are the switches for the ARB air lockers.
While acceleration isn't stellar, it's easy to go freeway speeds, and in traffic, we were never concerned about the engine overheating. The three pedals were skewed slightly to the right, so accelerating meant tilting your right foot closer to the transmission tunnel intstead of positioning it straight ahead. Braking was improved, thanks to the Wrangler's disc brakes, but it was always a good idea to brake early. When it comes to functionality on- or off-road, it's like driving a mid-'90s TJ.
This Willys Wagon turned 50 this year, but thanks to the new underpinnings, you'd never know it. It has all the charm and personality of one of the most beloved utility vehicles ever made, yet benefits from current drivetrain and off-road prowess. It's that unique blend of capability and nostalgia: a beautiful rig but not fragile, and you can take it just about anywhere with total confidence. Times have changed a lot, but this Jeep one-off is evidence that past and present can work well together. It shows that a project vehicle done well can cause people to yell "I love your truck!" as they pass you on the freeway -- and you couldn't care less that they're getting to their destination faster than you are.