How many old Jeeps does my new hero Ron Hattner have on his northeast Michigan property? He stopped counting around 40 or 50. Some might see Ron as a crazy hoarder; I see him as a guy who’s working to preserve one particular aspect of American car culture.
As many of you know, I’m the Jalop version of a crazy cat lady, living by myself in a house with a crappy old car and four junky old Jeeps. But my collection pales in comparison to Hattner’s.
Ron is a bit of a local legend. He lives in the woods out in the sticks. I should clarify: when I say he “lives in the woods,” I mean he actually lives in a house that is situated in the woods. He’s not a mountain-man living in a lean-to, though that would make for an awesome story.
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. You can meet some truly incredible people through Craigslist. Three years ago, when we were naught but wee Chrysler interns, a friend and I headed up to Ron’s place to pick up some parts. My friend had seen Ron’s ad on Craigslist, and was hoping to score a cheap carburetor and starter motor for his ‘46 CJ2A. Geeked about a chance to do anything Jeep-related, I tagged along.
After two hours on the highway, we drove down a muddy driveway and wound up at Ron’s place. A few moments later, we were standing in front of his garage, mouths agape, streams of drool running down our chins. There stood an old FC150 Forward Control Jeep.
That was the start of a very long afternoon in which Ron gave us a tour of his extensive collection of Willys Jeeps. He told us all about his herd: where he got them, what was under the hood and who had owned them previously.
His tour was a better history lesson than any amount Wikipedia-reading could ever offer. It was a Jeep-nut’s wet dream.
What’s the difference between a collector and a hoarder? Many people think the distinction lies in the condition of the cars; if most of the vehicles run and drive, you’re a collector. But if most of your vehicles look more suited to the world of Mad Max than actual worlds, you’re a hoarder.
In which camp does Ron fall? Well, much of his collection does indeed look like it might have been the unfortunate victim of a nuclear blast, so that would put him in the latter category. But I think the term “hoarder” carries with it a certain negative connotation. It indicates a certain aloofness; an addiction, an inability to tame oneself.
But with Ron, it’s really not so simple. While he did buy much of his fleet to satiate his desire for Jeep goodness (I know how that goes), he also bought many of his cars with nobler goals in mind.
Several of the Jeeps littering Ron’s property were destined for the junkyard. Take the Gladiator pickup in the picture above. The owner died, and his family wanted to send the truck off to get scrapped, but Ron couldn’t bare to see priceless history end up among a pile of pancaked Ford Escorts. So Ron bought the truck, and now it sits on his lot waiting for the right person to come along, take it off his hands and get it back on the road.
Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s from Georgia, so the rust is very minimal. Plus, look at the gorgeous interior:
That Gladiator truck was definitely worth saving.
Ron says it’s not about the money. In the case of the Willys pickup below, a man came along and offered him a paint job in exchange for the truck. Ron took the offer, so now the truck will be restored, and one of his Willys wagons will get some fresh new paint. It’s a win-win.
Unlike the weirdo hoarders you see on the Discovery channel, Ron is not delusional. He’s fully aware that it takes approximately two years for him to restore a Jeep, so he’ll never be able to fix up the dozens of vehicles in his fleet. Some of his Jeeps are beyond repair, anyway.
But Ron still sees value even in the rusty “Flintstone-Specials.” Take the two-door Wagoneer in the picture above. It might have heavy body and frame rust, and it might look totally worthless, but to someone out there, the hood, front end, powertrain and drivetrain could be just what they need to finally get their own precious Wagoneer on the road.
And that’s the whole point.
Ron is very active in the Jeep community. He’s a veritable Yellow Pages for Jeep enthusiasts: he knows everyone in the Jeep world, particularly those in the Michigan area. Looking for an old AMC engineer? He probably knows one. Or six. Looking for the guy who owns the CJ4? (yes, the CJ4) Ron says he knows him.
I asked him how he got started with this hobby, and he simply responded: “I was born in Toledo.”
Nuff said. Toledo is where it all began. The original World War II MBs? Built in Toledo. The best-selling Jeep ever, the Cherokee XJ? Also built there. Still today, the Wrangler (the successor to the MB) and Cherokee are rolling down the line at the Toledo North Assembly Plant. Jeeps are engrained in Toledo’s culture, so it makes sense that Ron’s a Toledoan.
Looking at Ron’s huge collection, I’ll admit that I was initially a bit weary, wondering what kind of man would buy and keep so many vehicles in such poor shape. But after a few hours of talking with Ron, it’s clear that he’s just a man who wants to keep those classic four-wheel drive machines on American roads. And for that, I applaud him.
Here’s a look at his full collection:
One of his best running Jeeps is this 1963 Willys panel truck that he picked up from Marygrove college in Detroit. It’s got Warn overdrive, power brakes, electric wipers, and was the lucky recipient of a full frame-off restoration.
Then there’s his 1946 Willys CJ2A outfitted with a DDT sprayer. It’s is a bit hard to see in the picture, as it’s obscured by a pile of stuff, but Ron says it only has 1,100 miles on the clock!
Ron has two fire trucks, and they’re both absolutely gorgeous. The first one was sitting out front and was originally from Bay City, Michigan. It’s only got 11,000 miles and still works like a charm. Ron used it to pump water for six hours at a local mud bog.
Here’s a CJ6. They’re very rare; though they made them for about 20 years, only 50,000 were produced.
This one’s clearly not a car, it’s a 1952 or ‘53 Willys “Power Unit” generator, which Ron uses every now and then to send electrons to his house when the power goes out. He once ran his house off the generator for six days straight. Not bad for a 60 year-old machine.
Ron uses an old CJ3B to plow his driveway.
It’s no Jeep, but it’s too awesome not to show. This is a 440-powered Dodge Power Wagon with enormous Dana 70 axles.
Under this tarp sits a 55 Willys Wagon with a Chevy LT1 and Muncie four-speed.
This is the crown jewel: it’s a 1963 Jeep FC170 fire truck from New York. The body and interior look gorgeous.
This doesn’t look like much, but it’s an original World War Two Jeep trailer:
Here under the plastic is Ron’s first Jeep he ever owned: 230 cubic-inch Willys Wagon with a four speed. It started out life at a gas station, pushing cars and plowing snow.
Here’s me contemplating if I want to buy this parts truck for my J10 for $800.
Here’s much of a 1953 Willys CJ3A Jeep-A-Trench. The “Jeep-A-Trench” was an outfit offered by Auburn Machine Works that used the Power Takeoff in the rear to power a trench digger. Notice the counterweight on the front of the Jeep.
This is a CJ2A with a three-speed column shifter. I love column shifters.
Okay, so maybe this truck has been sitting a while: