Oh god. This is going to be bad. After my “budget build” 1948 Willys Jeep, dubbed Project Slow Devil, turned from a project into an all-consuming obsession, I basically handed over my credit card and wept in the corner. Here’s the damage.
Project Slow Devil began hopelessly. For months, many of my articles about the 1948 Willys CJ-2A I bought from farmers in rural Michigan described a vehicle whose only aim was to move on to the afterlife, and in my stubborn attempts to prevent such a transition, the Jeep nearly took me with it.
It definitely took my wallet for a ride.
I’ll admit that when I bought it for $1,400, I thought I could get this little Jeep fixed up for nothing more than maybe two or three grand all in. After all, there are few vehicles on earth as simple as a 1940s Jeep; how many parts could I possibly have to replace?
The answer to that question—after counting up everything I’ve had to swap out—is “over 100.” It truly was remarkable just how completely and thoroughly the Jeep was ruined. The fact that the Willys still drove with so many parts in totally unsafe, inoperable condition was genuinely incredible.
Each little repair job was like a shock of a defibrillator to a dying patient. My team of friends and I wrenched and wrenched and wrenched, but the Jeep still sat there in my cold, greasy garage. The line on the cardiogram remained flat. Unfazed, we trudged on, giggling as we battled with a Jeep that continually shattered our dreams; we had become immune to the heartache.
Only laughter—when we broke a bolt, hurt ourselves or discovered a part horribly ruined—kept us going. I’ve never in my life had so much fun while simultaneously being so miserable.
Eventually, we replaced as many bad parts as we could, and it was time for the trip to begin. The Willys surprised everyone by making it most of the way to Moab, and then conquering the off-road trails like a champ. Our hard work had paid off.
But now that the trip is over, how much had our hard work and determination cost me in parts? Answer: a lot.
On some vehicles, like last year’s Jeep Cherokee, even if every part had been totally shot, one could still replace basically all of it for a grand or two. That’s because you can find Cherokees for next to nothing on Craigslist or in junkyards. Parts availability for an old Willys, however, is much, much worse.
Being unable to leverage junkyards was a huge disadvantage from a financial standpoint, especially since I was so tight on time. That’s really what hurt my pocketbook most: the timeline. I didn’t have time to shop around, and I didn’t have time to reach out on forums—I kinda just needed the parts now, and that meant paying more.
I will say that I did leverage the excellent CJ-2A Page Forum as much as I could (I got new brake shoes, a new master cylinder, and a park brake lever for a song), and I kept an eye on local Craigslist and Facebook listings. But at the end of the day, I had no choice but to order from online vendors, many of whom sold garbage parts that required modification to fit.
Anyway, let’s get to the good stuff, starting with the engine:
With a bit of tinkering, the engine actually ran when I bought the vehicle, so I was thrilled. All I had to do was make sure the cooling system was up to snuff, and maybe adjust the valves and replace the seals, and I should be good, right?
After measuring crankshaft bearing clearance, and remembering those terrible compression numbers, I decided to tear into the motor and do a poor-man’s rebuild.
That ended up being a very good call, as the Jeep’s piston rings were broken, and every bearing was toast. But it wasn’t cheap, as I did this rebuild at the last-minute, having no choice but to buy the expensive parts from AutoZone. But alas, here are some numbers:
As you can see, we had to replace the entire cooling system minus the radiator (which leaked a bit, but functioned otherwise), all of the engine’s gaskets and seals (and basically every rubber part), valve springs, a timing gear, fuel pump and just a whole slew of random parts that probably gave up the ghost 20 years ago.
Total cost of all the parts to get the engine ready for primetime was $735.28.
I faced an internal struggle with brakes. The hard lines didn’t look rusty, and I could probably have rebuilt the wheel cylinders. But then I thought back upon my previous trips to Moab—those midnight runs on Hell’s Revenge descending extremely steep grades—and decided to spare no expense on brakes.
The problem was that even though the hard lines looked fine, I would have felt like a nimrod if I lost all brakes and hurt someone because I decided not to swap the 69-year-old parts under a neglected Willys. And did I really want my first attempt at rebuilding wheel cylinders to be the difference between life and death on the steep slopes of Moab? Maybe if I had more time, I’d have tried.
So I spent quite a bit of time on brakes. The brake lines were all new; could I have just bought some line and bent it myself instead of buying pre-formed line? Yes. But with the fittings included, that wouldn’t have been cheap enough to be worth the time (and I had none).
I did end up scoring two great deals off the CJ-2A Page Forum. I got a brand new master cylinder and a park brake handle for under $35, and I got lightly used brake shoes (and hardware) for about $27.
Aside from those two scores, I bought the rest of my parts online. Between all the brake hydraulic components, the hardware, and the park brake components, I spent $357.04 to get my Willys brakes into mediocre shape (seriously, the brakes suck).
But I at least felt confident that, on that 45 degree slope at midnight, my brake lines weren’t going to burst, and I at least had a function park-brake as backup. That confidence helped me relax and really put the Jeep in precarious stops without a worry.
When I bought the Jeep, I knew something was wrong with the transmission because that shifter just didn’t quite feel right when trying to get into gear. Little did I know that every single gear in the trans would be totally rusted.
Luckily, a reader saw my peril and offered me a used (but good) set of gears for nothing more than the cost of shipping from Canada (about $40). From there, my friend Brandon and I rebuilt the transmission in a single night.
But that wasn’t the end of our transmission woes, because after we put everything back into the Jeep, second gear still wasn’t working, forcing us to have to pull the transmission main shaft again and replace second gear, as well as the synchro blocking rings and shift fork. Those were literally swapped in a couple of days before I left on the trip; they were expensive.
The transfer case was a leaky bastard, so I had to swap all of its seals, and pretty much the entire clutch linkage was completely worn down, so all of those components had to go, too.
All in, I dropped a hefty $465.07 on my transmission and transfer case.
If there’s one area where I got lucky, it’s suspension. The leaf springs on the Jeep had been replaced relatively recently, as there were still stickers on it, and the paint looked great.
The shocks had some bad bushings, and quite a bit of rust on their housings, plus they seemed very soft, so I went ahead and spent the $21 apiece for some cheap Monroe’s.
I did have to spent $64 on a new steering sector shaft and bushings to combat the egregious play in my steering box that would have made driving 1,300 miles down country roads at night a fun time.
Aside from that, I spent some money on some rubber to keep the axles from hitting the frame, and to act as body mounts. Total expenditures for suspension, steering and bump stops/body mounts comes to $193.40.
The wheels and tires were a great score. A Jalopnik reader reached out to me and sold me the wheels for $10 apiece, my friend Steve (the mastermind behind my electrical system) sold me his tires for $100, and my arch-nemesis at Belle Tire charged me $100 to swap the new tires on, and to trash the old ones.
All in, wheels and tires cost me $240.
This part of the cost roll-up is annoying, because it really goes to show how quickly small expenditures can add up. Fluids and filters are dirt cheap, but when you’re going through them at a rapid pace, your wallet feels the burn.
All in, I dropped over $150 on fluids and filters, and that doesn’t even include all the brake cleaner and PB Blaster I had to use to clean and extract bolts from this old junker.
I owe so much of the success of this project to the Jeep community.
Not only did Jeepers help me diagnose faults, but they helped me find parts for a reasonable price, and some went above and beyond my expectations.
On man named Bob from the CJ-2A Page Forum drove all the way up from Cincinnati (that’s over a four hour drive) just to deliver to me his custom soft-top. He’s not a car parts vendor trying to get free advertising, he’s just a guy who loves old Willys Jeeps, and enjoys seeing weirdos like me taking them on epic journeys.
Between Bob, Lew from the International Flat Fender Club (who gave me a free cylinder head), and all my buddies who helped on this project, the Jeep community really pulled through for me on this one. I am immensely grateful for that.
Add up all of those costs, plus estimate about $75 for miscellaneous hardware, and you end up with:
So that was it. I spent about $4,200 on the Jeep. Of course, there were other expenses, too. I had with me $200 worth of emergency spare parts that I had picked up from a hoarder in Northern Michigan. Parts like an axle, transmission, transfer case, oil pump, and fuel pump—you know, just in case something broke out on the trail or on the drive out.
On top of that, between the Raptor and the Willys, I probably dropped $1,100 on fuel, and if you add in hotels, we’re looking at somewhere just under six grand for the whole adventure. (Thankfully, my wonderful, generous, handsome boss Patrick George is covering hotels and other expenses related to the Moab trip itself, but the rest—the car and parts and so on—was on me.)
Plus time, of course. And also the inevitable therapy sessions.
Aside from a few fun parts like the speedometer and shifter knobs, I basically bought the bare minimum needed to get the Jeep ready for the long trek. So yeah, resurrecting a dead, neglected Willys isn’t exactly what I’d call cheap.
But my god was it fulfilling. I wouldn’t trade those 50-plus hours of back-road, doors-off, 40 mph driving for anything. And the windshield-down off-roading in beautiful Moab? That was an experience I’ll cherish until my last day.