From day one, all cards were all stacked against this idea. Pretty much every major mechanical part on this 1948 Willys CJ-2A was broken in some way, I had little money and even less time, and the weather in Michigan made repairing anything in my garage total misery. The prospect of getting the Willys worthy for a 2,000-mile trek to Utah seemed almost impossible. Preparing it for the gnarly off-road trails of Moab? Pshh, that was a pipe dream.
And yet Project Slow Devil, the dilapidated Jeep I bought from a farm in rural Michigan, somehow made it 1,300 miles on its quest for the Easter Jeep Safari in Utah before breaking down in western Kansas.
What’s infinitely more impressive than the long road trip was how the little Jeep did on the trails once it was fixed. My God, did it kick ass.
Somehow, perhaps out of sheer stubbornness, that first task of getting the Jeep roadworthy was—for the most part—a success. Once my friends and I managed to get the Jeep running and driving—barring a little hiccup at the starting line—the thing just wouldn’t stop.
I watched over my oil pressure and coolant temperatures fiercely the whole time, and listened closely to the engine, never at any point playing music during the 50-hour trek from Detroit towards Utah. But those gauges remained steady, and the state border crossings kept piling up, with the Jeep covering all those miles with aplomb.
So yes, you could argue that getting the Jeep roadworthy was a success, even if a freak timing gear failure forced me to tow the Jeep the final 500 miles.
The dream of prepping the Jeep for rock crawling, though? There’s no arguing on that one: it was a total and irrefutable triumph. Here’s how it all went down once we got there.
The joy I felt upon pressing that foot-starter switch, and firing up the venerable Go-Devil engine for the first time since the unfortunate timing gear failure, was something I’ll never forget. It was a Wednesday evening, and Freddy Hernandez and I had just blasted to Grand Junction, Colorado at ungodly speeds in our 2017 Ford Raptor support truck on a mission to pick up from AutoZone the part we had overnighted.
As soon as we returned with our loot, we lined up the timing mark on the new gear, and tapped it into place. From there, we just had to button everything up: we bolted on the timing gear cover, threw the crankshaft pulley back on, attached the serpentine belt, hooked up and filled the radiator, fastened the grille and wrenched on a few other odds and ends. By the time the Jeep’s surgery was over, it was midnight, and I was aching to go for a ride.
A logical person would have waited until the next morning and taken the Willys on an easy drive down the street, seeing as the engine had just recently been brought back to life.
But I was in Moab, Utah and didn’t have time to waste. It was time to go off-roading.
The tiny and often overshadowed logical part of my brain realized I’d never taken the Jeep off-road. It had just awoken from a coma, it was dark, and I sort of expected the Jeep to break in half at any moment. An easier trail made sense.
What happened on that trail that night was something that will stay with me forever. After my friends and I had spent many months greased up in my garage working on a project that many of us were convinced would never actually have a chance to make it to the trails, the Jeep absolutely thrived.
Thanks to its insanely short 5.38 axle ratios, plentiful low-end torque and toy-like curb weight, once Project Slow Devil was in four-wheel drive and low range, all I had to do was somehow get one of the front tires on a rock, and 99 percent of the time, I could bump the little flat fender a bit with the throttle, and it’d just climbed right up like a squirrel.
This little 2,000 pound Jeep with a tiny 80-inch wheelbase seemed to tackle the trail with even less drama than last year’s hero, Project Swiss Cheese, a car 50 years newer.
Perhaps this video of that fateful first off-road expedition late on Wednesday night can explain even better:
What’s not shown in the clip above is that, when the Jeep was about halfway done with the trail, the headlight wiring shorted out on the front grille and shut off the headlights and taillights completely, forcing me to finish the remainder of the trail—which was littered with dangerous drop-offs—using only moonlight and a crappy flashlight. This was the sight from the front of my Jeep:
Luckily, that full moon, along with my flashlight, was enough to prevent me from disappearing over a cliff edge and dying a painful—but actually fairly fitting—death. I will admit, though, that the lack of visibility did cause some problems, as you’ll see in this clip:
Eventually, the Ford Raptor and I made it out of the trail, and I tried driving back approximately 10 miles from the trail head to my sleeping quarters without headlights or taillights (the brake lights still worked, however).
But I got pulled over almost immediately. An officer with a very kind looking face walked up next to me, and asked for my documents. I then somehow produced the goods from the pile of crap in the back of my Willys, having halfway expected them to have fallen out during the drive.
After showing him my license, registration and proof of insurance, the cop asked “So what’s going on with your lights, man?” I told him they had just cut out on the trail, and that I was limping the vehicle back to the garage I was sleeping in about seven or eight miles from town.
The officer stepped back to look at the Jeep, and after observing its pathetic state, said with a very apparent expression of pity on his face “Okay man, just go ahead but be careful. Get this thing back and fix those lights.” After a sigh of relief, I limped the Jeep back to the garage.
The following morning, still wondering if the previous night had been a dream, I met my friends in town, and we headed north towards the trailhead for Seven Mile Rim, one of my favorite off-road courses thanks to its scenic views and great mix of challenging obstacles and relaxing dirt paths.
My friends’ vehicles of choice were Jeep Wrangler Rubicons with small lifts and big 35-inch tires. With a rusty 1948 Willys Jeep that was pretty much entirely stock aside from the wheels and tires, I think everyone in my party thought I was going to be the straggler holding the big-dogs back from all the fun. The fact that my Jeep’s generator had all of a sudden stopped charging the battery on the drive to the trail head also threatened to rain on the parade.
But the parade remained dry, because the little Willys kept up with those $50,000 Wranglers on Seven Mile Rim without ever breaking a sweat. Like the night before, the farm-plow gearing (the CJ-2A was sold as a farm implement) made driving the Willys up steep inclines a dream. While I’m sure its lack of lockers would have made keeping up with the JK Wranglers difficult on tougher tails, on Seven Mile Rim, no matter which obstacle my friends took with their Jeeps, the Willys—with perhaps a bit more drama and momentum—could tackle it too.
Once I got one of the Jeep’s 31-inch all-terrains on the obstacle though—even with open differentials—that lightweight little Willys, with its surprisingly decent articulation that did a good job of keeping all four wheels planted, clawed its way up like a mountain goat. Even on the steepest grades, the Carter W-0 carburetor never choked or sputtered, allowing the engine to keep delivering torque to the wheels smoothly no matter the angle. I’m convinced that engine would run upside down if given the chance.
Even more impressive than the inclines were the declines. Many modern vehicles have hill descent control features, which use the antilock braking system to keep the car driving slowly down steep grades.
This Willys, though, is about 60 years too old for such fancy tech, but accomplishes the same task by way of its fantastically short gearing.
In first gear, the featherweight Willys had no chance in hell of overcoming the resistance of the engine, meaning much of the time, all I had to do was let off the brake and allow the Jeep to slowly descend down the grade. If I wanted to drive slower than what the engine idle speed allowed, I’d just apply the brake (and not the clutch) and let the engine braking and the manual drum-brakes work together to ease me down, with no worry of stalling the engine thanks to that long-stroke and all of the glorious low end grunt.
Approach angle was hardly ever an issue. Departure angle, though, was.
Every now and then, upon dropping off a ledge or scooting down an incline, I’d hear a terrible bang from my rear hitch (see image above where the back is sitting on the rock ledge). Unfortunately, I had forgotten to remove that low-hanging chunk of steel, which intrudes heavily into the Jeep’s departure angle. By the end of the trail, that hitch had taken a beating; luckily, it ties into the frame, and was meant to handle the hard work on the farm, so it held up well despite the heavy impacts.
After taking every hard obstacle we could (I will admit that I skipped an obstacle called “Wipeout Hill” on the recommendation of my friend, though in retrospect, I think the Willys would have tackled it just fine), our party got lost trying to find the exit.
Our group spent a lot of time sitting and looking for directions. I was worried because I faced a dilemma: do I leave the Jeep idling and risk running out of fuel (the tank only holds about 10 gallons, we’d been off-roading for six hours, and we had no jerrycan), or do I cut the engine and start it back up, not knowing how many cranks I had left before the battery cut out?
I ended up leaving the Jeep idling, a move that bit me in the butt on the way back from the trail, as the Jeep started bucking like a bronco. With no apparent misfire symptoms, and a well-tuned carb, this was clearly a fuel delivery issue most likely related to rust. We had run the fuel too low and sucked iron oxide through the lines.
The Jeep still drove, but at speeds over about 25 mph, the fuel required to sustain a steady velocity was too high for the blocked fuel lines, and the engine choked on itself, sending the Jeep lurching uncontrollably. I had to limp the Jeep into town in low range at about 25 mph, undoubtedly annoying the traffic behind me.
After crawling Slow Devil back into town, my friend and I drove back to my garage to see if we could fix the fuel and power-generation issues. The following day—Friday—was a big one for us, as it was the day of the fabled Flat Fender Run, an annual trail ride of only Willys flat-fender Jeeps—the original military-inspired ones, like mine. It’s an event that we’d both followed online in previous years. Now we could be part of it.
My friend and I fiddled with the carb and fuel filters, and played with the voltage regulator and wiring, but to no avail. “Oh well, we managed to drive an entire day with no generator, so we should be fine,” we convinced ourselves. As for the fuel problem: it wasn’t an issue at low speeds, so we just called it a night.
Skipping the driver’s meeting for the Flatfender Run to preserve battery, and because neither my friend nor I wanted to deal with the Jeep’s bucking more than we had to, we met the group of “flatties” at the trail head, and were greeted with a tremendous view of old Willys Jeeps.
Once we got started, we reached one of first obstacles called “The Squeeze,” a very narrow path between a rock face on one side, and a sheer drop on the other. I’ll admit that, especially with my Jeep’s terrible brakes, I was a tad bit nervous about this bit at first.
But when it came time to navigate the Jeep along the ledge, I found that the tiny track width left plenty of room on either side. I’ve got tremendous respect for my friends who had done this in enormous JK Wranglers a few days prior.
After the squeeze came the big dog: Easter Egg Hill, a very intimidating steep grade littered with rocks and loose dirt. What made it even more intimidating was that one of the first Jeeps to attempt the obstacle—a lifted flatty with big tires—got so stuck, it took 15 minutes to winch him to the top.
Most other flatfenders on the run had some sort of locking differential, and even they sometimes required a push to get to the top.
Me, with open diffs front and rear? I was expecting to need a tug from the big army-green Willys perched at the summit.
What gave me comfort was that, just before I was set to give ‘er a go, a gentleman in a brown bone-stock Willys CJ-3A (with narrow tires) had made it all the way to the top with nothing more than a push from a few strong men:
I’m glad I saw the CJ-3A’s climb, because I knew—with my wider tires—if I followed his same line, there was a chance that I’d make it up the grade unassisted.
With a couple dozen fellow flatfender owners watching and spotting from the top, Slow Devil began its climb, bouncing up rock after rock, shooting sand from beneath its tires, but holding momentum. Finally, about halfway up, it got caught on a ledge. I put the Jeep into reverse, then first gear, and bumped up the rock, letting off the accelerator once my left fender got dangerously close to a boulder. I kept trying, but that left side kept sliding the Jeep towards the rock.
Eventually, a spotter told me to just stay on the gas, so that’s what I did, narrowly clearing the bolder, and crawling farther up Potato Salad Hill. I stayed on the gas to keep my momentum, but saw that I was about to have to thread the needle between two very large rocks.
Luckily, Project Slow Devil is a total beater, so I didn’t care too much about a scrape or two on the side. So instead of losing my momentum to slowly navigate the gap, I put the hammer down. That flathead-four whined under hood, cranking those tires up the grade, until finally I made the summit. I did scrape my left side pretty badly on one of the two boulders, but I consider it a badge of honor:
The rest of that trail ride, aside from a close call with another Jeep thanks to all the slop in my brake pedal, was more of the same. The Jeep continued to be unstoppable, and by the end of this final trail run, I found myself in a beautiful place: snow-capped mountains painted the backdrop, beautiful red rocks made up the foreground, and little flat fender Jeeps abounded as I piloted a trusty (yes, trusty!) steed with its windshield folded.
My little Jeep had done it, and I was in heaven.
Sure, you can buy a new Jeep with locking differentials, beefy axles, and a fancy sway-bar disconnect. But even back in 1941, the U.S. government commissioned from Willys and Ford a vehicle with world-beating ingredients: the right approach and departure angles, a tiny wheelbase, a low curb weight, plenty of under-body armor, a great carburetor that works at pretty much any angle, really short gearing, and a torquey motor.
The fact that all these years later, those ingredients shined through my geriatric old Willys’ many layers of rust, and allowed it to hang with the best off-roaders of today is just astonishing.