Lots of folks don’t realize just how much of an automotive town Kenosha, Wisconsin once was. And part of that has to do with the fact that today, the city’s auto sector is basically nonexistent. Still, I intend to pay homage to Kenosha by driving my AMC-built Jeep J10 pickup there on a 740 mile round trip.
Before I get into why Kenosha holds such an important place in auto history, I’ll talk about the trip that I plan to go on in a few weeks. I’ll be piloting my 1985 Jeep J10 pickup, a vehicle that I bought back in 2015, and proceeded to neglect for four years as I focused my efforts on writing and on epic road-trips in low-budget shitboxes.
More importantly, under the hood of my Jeep is an incredible inline-six engine built in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Recently, I got around to fixing my J10, mending its transmission (which had a bad input shaft bearing and reverse gear), building a new ignition system, replacing almost all cooling system components, draining all the fluids and filters, and much more. As it sits now, the J10 runs quite well, and its transmission shifts perfectly. But there are still a few issues.
The biggest concern is one I found while conducting a pre-trip inspection. I noticed quite a bit of up-down, and side-to-side play in my driver’s side front wheel, indicating a bad wheel bearing. I’m in the process of swapping that out, though I’ll first need to find a special socket to remove the enormous spindle nuts (which have four little notches in them).
Also, after some shake-down runs in the J10, I noticed a pool of coolant on the ground. A closer inspection showed a pinhole leak in the radiator, so I’ll be removing that, and taking it to a specialty shop to have it brazed shut. Hopefully the fix won’t require an entire new radiator core, as that will put me in the poor-house.
Aside from that, the J10 really doesn’t need much else. It’s sitting on a set of barely-worn tires, the brakes work great, and the engine—though extremely underpowered—runs smoothly and will probably outlast me.
Anyway, back to Kenosha. I’ve wanted to visit those hallowed grounds for a long time now, as I’ve read so much about their rich car history, particularly as they pertains to American Motors Corporation.
As Reuters mentions in a 2009 article about the demise of one of the city’s most famous auto plants, AMC’s history in Kenosha begins right around 1900 with Thomas Jeffery, a bicycle maker from Chicago who bought an old bicycle manufacturing plant in the Wisconsin city. There, in 1902, after experimenting with cars, he began producing the second ever vehicle to be built on an assembly line, the Rambler. (The Curved Dash Oldsmobile was the first).
By 1915, after its founders death, the Thomas B. Jeffery Company was crushing it. It stood out as one of the top ten automobile manufacturers in a pool of hundreds of companies entering the space. Eventually, the firm was bought and renamed by Charles Nash, a former General Motors executive who left GM due to a quarrel with GM’s founder William Durant.
In 1937, Nash Motors merged with the appliance maker Kelvinator, forming Nash-Kelvinator Corporation, which then merged with Hudson Motor Car Company to establish American Motors in 1954, the same year that George Romney (you may know his son, Utah Senator Mitt Romney) took over. Right around 1970 AMC bought Jeep from Kaiser Jeep (who had bought the brand from Willys-Overland), and with it, got control of the Toledo Assembly plant where Jeeps were built.
In many ways, AMC buying Jeep was a match made in heaven, as the former was building torquey, bulletproof inline-six engines whose variants would become absolute legends in the Jeep community. One of those variants, the “258" inline-six sits under the hood of my 1985 Jeep J10, and was manufactured not far from the very plant that Thomas Jeffery had bought at the turn of the century.
Sadly, shortly after Chrysler bought AMC in the late 1980s, the legendary plant closed and Kenosha stopped building cars, focusing instead on engines. Then, after Chrysler’s bankruptcy in 2009, even engine production ended, and the final remnant of AMC—the engine plant—was demolished a few years later.
Still, though the plants may be gone, I still want to visit the birthplace of American Motors, and I intend to do so in my American Motors Jeep J10 pickup, whose trusty Kenosha-built heart will power all 2.5-ish tons of long-bed pickup across Michigan, through Indiana and Illinois, and to the once-bustling automotive city.
Hopefully my Jeep, which has driven maybe 100 miles in the last four years at least, doesn’t hit me with any nasty surprises.