Sometimes people accuse me of being addicted to Jeeps, and I always respond with “I’m not. Everything is under control.” Up until recently, I believed that. Then a random, shady guy showed up to my house and tempted me with the sketchiest Jeep of all time. Like a true addict, I couldn’t resist.
It was the morning of the Woodward Dream Cruise, and I was working on my 1958 Willys FC-170 Jeep with some friends from out of town. The FC, you might remember, began life as a hopeless piece of rusty junk that had been abandoned near Seattle for at least 20 years. While the full tale of what happened to that Jeep is coming in a few weeks, for now what you need to know is: it’s still a junker.
As my friends and I wrenched in front of my house, a pickup pulled halfway into my driveway. The bed of the truck stuck out onto the busy five-lane road, and dozens of cars honked as they had to either change lanes or stop to avoid a crash. The man seemed largely indifferent, and continued walking toward my friends and me. (I consider this red flag number one).
“Hey, cool Jeep,” he began. I thanked him for the compliment. “Hey man, so I have one of these if you’re interested.”
“What?” I responded, surprised. People don’t just have Willys FCs sitting around. These are rare machines. The idea that this guy just nonchalantly “had one of these” seemed unlikely. Incredulous, my friend Tommy asked “Oh yeah, you got a picture?” The man said he didn’t, but he’d text us some later. “How much do you want for it?” Tommy inquired. The guy’s truck was really holding up traffic at this point, I’d say seriously upsetting drivers based on the sound of those horns. He responded: “I’d take two grand.”
I gave him my number, and he immediately texted me the message “David this is Jason w 55 Jeep” before removing his obstruction from the road. Tommy and I awaited photos.
Later that day, I replied to the man’s message about his “55 Jeep,” realizing that Willys didn’t actually start making FCs until 1957. (This was red flag number two). “Send some pics when you can!” I typed.
Four minutes later, I received these:
My jaw dropped. Sure enough, this man had a rare Willys Forward Control pickup, and not just any! This was the shorter FC-150, and an early 1957 model with the narrow-track front axle that makes the vehicle look like it’s standing on its tippy toes. I was in love, and so was Tommy.
FCs have developed a cult following, and prices of these oddballs has risen to match. A nice one can go for $20-, $30-, $40,000, as tracked by Bring A Trailer. This FC looked like the deal of the century. In short order, it would become a poster-child for the phrase: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
I asked about a title. “No title,” the seller responded over text. (Red flag number three.) I asked if it ran. “Not running now. But it did before it sat.”
The seller gave me the address to a big warehouse in suburban Detroit. This was not where I expected such an old Jeep to be. A garage or an old barn? Sure. A warehouse? (This was red flag number four.)
Undeterred and convinced I could figure out the title situation, I asked when I could have a look. Jason told me to swing by Saturday morning; as it was Saturday, I assumed this meant in a week. He corrected me: “I meant tomorrow... Sunday.” I told him I’d swing by, and on Sunday morning I reached out, only to hear crickets. I assumed I’d been ghosted. (This was red flag number five.)
Five days later, on Friday, the seller replied. “Sorry I missed this message. Tomorrow (Sunday) is good.” It was Friday, so I assumed the seller meant “Saturday,” as I figured he was more likely to mix up Saturday and Sunday (as he had before) than to not know that “tomorrow” refers to the following day. I figured wrong.
I showed up to the warehouse on Saturday, and nobody was there. (We are now on red flag number six.) The place was sketchy as hell, all office buildings and warehouses. Old trucks sat in the parking lot, looking like they’d been there for years. The whole place was eerily quiet; something about it seemed off. This was no place for an old Jeep.
The next morning, actually on Sunday, the seller told me I could show up early if I wanted. I assumed that meant he was there, so I hopped into my truck and zoomed back to the warehouse, whose interior — I would find — was sketcher than its exterior (red flag number seven).
I’ll say first that the Jeep looked beautiful. Check out that little red pickup, with its innocent face and its little legs tucked into its body. Why was this glorious machine hidden among all of this rubbish? See that big white object on the top right side of the image above? That’s a boat. See the object on the left side of the image below? I’m pretty sure that’s a bird cage.
The random assortment of stuff shoved tightly into that warehouse — all over the floor and stacked on shelves that seemed to reach up into infinity — was stupefying. There were household items everywhere — lawn chairs, carpets, tool boxes, a chainsaw box that I assume had a brand new chain saw in it, bags of charcoal, exercise equipment, and on and on. And in the middle of it all sat a big boat and an old Jeep.
The alarm bells ringing in my head were quenched by the glory of the Willys, which was in nice shape, even if it was obvious that it had been thoroughly modified by the previous owner. (The seller told me it belonged to “Farmer Joe” — a generic name that I took as red flag number eight.)
The interior, shown above, features seats out of a boat as well as carpeting. The exterior no longer shows the seams between body panels, and lower parts of the doors look wavy, indicating to me that the Jeep has been thoroughly covered by a layer of bondo. Some of it is flaking off:
Under the center doghouse isn’t the original F-head single overhead-valve engine; in its place is a World War II-era Go-Devil motor with a pump feeding fluid to a hydraulic ram on a plow at the front of the Jeep.
While the floors and cab corners have clearly been patched by the previous owner, the Jeep still looks good from underneath. Check out this nice, painted chassis:
For two grand, this seemed like a good deal. I wished the Jeep still had its original bed and not just a wood stake bed, but the frame looked solid, the body appeared decent from about 10 feet, and the drivetrain/powertrain — while not original — was all there.
All I had to do before buying the Jeep was find its VIN. I’d spoken to a friend who knew a guy who spent much of his career titling cars in the state of Michigan; the man had told my friend that, so long as I could find a VIN, I could register the Jeep. I opened the driver’s door and peeked at the floor next to the seat, where the VIN plate should have been. There was nothing:
The floor had presumably been patched at some point, and whoever did it decided not to preserve the VIN plate (red flag number nine). This, to me, seems like an absurd thing for anyone to do. “Surely the VIN plate has to be somewhere, right?” I thought. But, try as I might, I simply could not find the VIN anywhere on the Jeep’s body.
I wasn’t too concerned because Willys didn’t just include the VIN on a plate in the cab (you can see how the plate should look in the image above showing my 1958 Willys FC-170). The company also stamped the VIN into the frame on the passenger’s side just behind the rear axle. I took a peek, and found that someone had apparently already sanded the black paint down in that area, clearly looking for a VIN stamping (or possibly grinding it off):
There was no VIN to be found anywhere (red flag number 10) — nowhere on the frame and nowhere on the body of the Jeep. This was a title-less, VIN-less machine being sold out of a warehouse by a guy who didn’t even know what year the Jeep is, whose regard for his fellow human was apparently not enough to dissuade him from blocking a main road with his pickup, who mixes up Saturday and Sunday, was flaky in general, and apparently got the Jeep from “Farmer Joe.”
These 10 red flags weren’t enough to deter me. I just wasn’t convinced that there was no VIN anywhere on the Jeep. Maybe I needed to look more closely. Still, I wanted to be sure that the Jeep wasn’t stolen, so I found an email on my local sheriff’s website, and shot out a message with the vehicle’s old plate number.
Hilariously, the gentleman from the city of Troy’s impounds division turned out to be a big FC fan. Unfortunately, the old tag wasn’t enough for him to do a check:
If you send me a vin/serial number I will be able to look for you. On an FC it looks like it should be on a plate inside the cab near the drivers seat. Here is a link to some other locations they may be.
Let me know what you find. I LOVE FCs and I’m insanely jealous you have the chance to buy one!
So I had a choice to make. Do I buy this clean but modified, title-less, VIN-less FC-150 for two large, and pray that I can somehow find a VIN and that the vehicle isn’t stolen? Or do I let it go?
I decided to follow my patented car-buying technique: “Buy first, think later.”
So now I have this possibly-stolen Jeep in my yard
It wasn’t all sketchy, though. The seller seemed like a nice guy once I got to know him. More importantly, he was perfectly willing to include a copy of his driver’s license along with the Bill of Sale.
The big thing that calmed my nerves was the fact that “Farmer Joe” was actually a real person. I found this out when I googled the name on the metal plaque ahead of the yellow plow lever inside the Jeep. For some reason, the previous owner, Joe, wanted his name on the Jeep, and amazingly, all it took was a google search to get his home phone number.
This led to an amazing conversation with an old farmer not far from me in Troy, Michigan. Within seconds of introducing myself and asking about the VIN, Joe told me to “Junk the son of a bitch,” and then, to “save [me] some trouble,” he suggested that I head over to a nearby Japanese mini-truck dealer, since those JDM Kei trucks are roughly the same size as the FC. These mini-trucks, he told me, are lots more comfortable than this Jeep, and can even be had with air conditioning!
This wasn’t an optimal start to the conversation.
Joe then told me he’d been given the Jeep, and that it had been on his property for 30 years without ever having been registered. That plate on the back? That’s just a random tag he threw on there.
Joe told me about the work he had done to the machine. He’d conducted clutch repairs and lots of body work. The bed had rotted out, so he’d built the custom flatbed. He’d also welded up the plow himself, built that rear bumper, and repainted the Jeep.
The story of how he repainted the Jeep was hilarious. Joe said he’d sanded the body beautifully to prep it for paint, but then he went to get some food and a neighbor came over. “I had it all primed, everything nice and easy... I come back, and you know what he did? He DA’d the body!” Joe told me, clearly still angry about the incident that had likely happened decades ago. DA refers to a “dual-action” sanding wheel; the man had sanded all the primer off down to the bare metal. “Boy was I ever pissed,” said Joe.
Joe told me he didn’t use the Jeep much, since the six-volt system made winter starting pretty tough. The body, he told me, was never really that bad, and the motor “ran excellent.”
The gentleman claims he never saw a VIN tag, and that he’d sold this Jeep to his neighbor’s son, who was apparently the guy I’d bought it from. This makes me less suspicious about the Jeep being stolen, though who knows — maybe someone kidnapped the cute little FC four decades ago. You never know.
I’ll swing by Joe’s house in the next few days to talk with him some more. He says he has a tailgate and the original fuel tank, which is good, because the little five-gallon jug under the makeshift bed won’t get this Jeep very far.
As for my plans for the Jeep — I haven’t thought that far ahead. Worst case, I sell some of the parts and keep some for my FC-170. I do need a windshield and some doors without giant holes in them. Best case: I get this thing back on the road and on off-road trails where it belongs.