In 1945, an American soldier gave my Grandpa—who was then an eight-year-old living in Southern Germany—a ride in a World War II Jeep. That short trip changed my grandpa’s life forever, beginning a chain of events that led him to vow never to drive an automobile for as long as he lives.
Seventy-two years ago my grandfather—whom I refer to by the German word “Opa”—had just fled with his sister and mother on a dangerous, traumatic train journey out of his homeland of upper Silesia (formerly a part of Germany, now Poland). Displaced by invading Soviet troops, Opa and his family eventually arrived near a small town called Fürstenfeldbruck, just west of Munich, where they struggled to live in a war-torn country suffering unbelievable levels of economic and social turmoil.
While I don’t know much about this period of Opa’s life, there’s one story he’s never hesitated to tell me. It’s the story of the Jeep.
One day in 1945, as Opa and his buddy walked along the dirt and cobblestone streets of post-war Germany, an American soldier drove up to the boys and offered them a ride in his army Jeep. Opa, uneasy about getting in a stranger’s car, initially declined. But then the soldier produced a bar of chocolate from his coat pocket.
As chocolate was considered a rare delicacy after the war, Opa and his buddy abandoned their skepticism and hopped into the olive-drab 4x4. The soldier, an African American as Opa vividly recalls (up until that point, Opa had only ever seen a black person in books), drove Opa and his friend to a local radio station on a hill near Mammendorf, about nine kilometers from Fürstenfeldbruck.
It was during that ride—his very first in an automobile—that Opa fell in love with the legendary World War II Jeep. The flat fenders, the swoopy doorless openings, the tall windscreen, the big spare tire on the back, the stamped upright nine-slot grille—sure, this thing was a war machine, but it was also a rugged little American workhorse that was impossible not to love. To an eight-year-old, there was nothing cooler.
With wind blowing through his hair, Opa watched as the soldier pressed that heavy clutch with his left foot, and effortlessly shifted the stick between the two front seats in a z-pattern from one to two. The loud, high-pitched 134 cubic-inch Go-Devil inline-four engine sang a beautiful new tune with each gear change—a tune that fused with the rush of oncoming wind, gear noise from the transmission and differentials, and clanks from bumps in the road to create a symphony of mechanical music only an old Jeep can make.
It was a magical moment as Opa—having just fled from bombs, invading troops and other terrors of war—watched a soldier from an army that had brought him safety teach him all about the three tall, straight shifter levers sticking out through the floor. The middle stick goes down for four-wheel drive, the right stick goes up for low-range, and the left stick shifts gears (three forward, one reverse) in an H-pattern.
From that day on, Opa was in love with Jeeps.
A few months later, memories of that incredible Jeep ride flooded Opa’s mind after he biked from his house to downtown Fürstenfeldbruck. There, in a small shop window, sat an exact model of the Jeep in which the American soldier had given him a ride. Opa, who had been dreaming about that Jeep since that day he and his buddy went on that walk, had to have it.
Post-war Germany was in financial ruin, and Opa had no money. Still, he was determined to get that Jeep, so he saved up every Reichspfennig he could scrounge up. Any money his family gave him for a holiday, he’d put away in a jar; any money he found on the ground wouldn’t be used to buy candy, it would go into the Jeep fund.
As Opa saved up cash for his dream Jeep, he regularly biked from his house a few kilometers to downtown Fürstenfeldbrook to gaze at the glory that was that little Willys Jeep model. The army color. The classic off-road shape. It was the greatest toy he had ever seen. Opa stopped by the store every week to make sure the Jeep was still there.
After a year of strict penny-pinching, Opa turned nine years-old, and his Grandma gave him a few Reichspfennig as a gift. Opa calculated that the gift had put his savings at just inches from reach of the Jeep toy; knowing that even the tiniest amount of money was hard to come by, Opa couldn’t hide his impatience.
But his Oma saw the look in his eyes, and knew he had been diligently saving up for that little Jeep toy (which, Opa still remembers to this day, cost 15,90 Reichsmark, a fortune in those days), so she handed him the last few coins he needed to finally be able to afford the Jeep model that had captured him over an entire year prior.
Opa thanked his grandma and bolted out the door, grabbing his bicycle and pedaling as hard as he could toward the small shop. After over twelve-months, the excitement was indescribable. His heart was beating lightning fast as he blasted down the country road, finally making the glorious bike ride he had been dreaming of for all this time.
After what seemed like an eternity, Opa arrived at the store, jumped off his bike, and ran to the window. But the Jeep was gone!
Opa ran frantically into the store, searched around the shelves and in every nook and corner, but found nothing. He asked the store owner where it was. “I just sold that this morning,” she said. Opa’s heart sank.
The disappointment was so crushing that, at that moment, Opa made a vow. “Ich will mit Autos nicht mehr zu tun,” (I want nothing to do with cars ever again), he resolved that day.
It’s hard now to understand how something as simple as a toy could have such a strong effect on someone, and Opa even admits that it’s hard to explain. “Ich war so enttäuscht als Junge” (I was so disappointed as a young boy), he told me after I asked why a toy model drove him to give up on cars entirely.
You also have to remember that Opa’s experience with cars was very limited at that point. In post-war Germany, automobiles were still a novelty, and in rural towns like Opa’s, they were really nonexistent. So when Opa’s second experience ever with automobiles (the first being the Jeep ride) ended up being such a let-down, it painted in his mind a bad picture of automobiles in general. He decided then that he was done with them.
Fast forward 71 years, and to this day, Opa has never driven a car. And while Germany’s excellent public transportation has aided him on that front, it was that one stomach-sinking moment outside of that little store in Fürstenfeldbrook that kept Opa from operating the machines that we here at Jalopnik so dearly love.
Despite not wanting to drive, automobiles became an important part of Opa’s life, as he became a travel agent when he grew up. This job took him to every corner of the world, including Botswana, Papua New Guinea, Yugoslavia, Burma, Guatemala and nearly three dozen other nations.
Every time Opa found himself in an African desert or a South American rainforest, he hoped he’d get a ride in a Jeep. For nearly 55 years he traveled the globe, exploring the remotest areas of the roughest, toughest and most desolate countries out there, but time and time again, he found himself in the passenger’s seat of a Toyota Land Cruiser or a Land Rover Series I. Never throughout his long career traveling the world did he get his second ride in a World War II Jeep.
But earlier this month, Opa turned 80. And to celebrate, my mom and I worked with a local Jeep club to finally—after 72 years—get Opa that second ride in a Willys Jeep.
After reaching out to Willys Am Tegernsee in October of last year, the group’s founder, Christian (a real Jeep nut who’s been driving his first car—1945 Willys MB—for nearly 30 years), organized his annual meet-up the weekend after Opa’s birthday. Christian, who told me he’s heard a number of stories like Opa’s—of German children falling in love with Jeeps because of the kindness of allied troops—said he’d figure out the logistics; all I had to do was bring Opa to the Tegernsee.
So that’s what I did. The day after Opa’s 80th birthday, my dad, brother and I picked up the newly-minted octogenarian from his apartment near Munich. As my mom had told Opa the plan a few days prior, Opa was all packed up and ready; you could tell by the look on his face that he was excited.
After a little fender bender in the apartment parking area caused us to miss our 10:30 a.m. appointment with Christian, we rescheduled for 5 p.m., since he and his crew were going on a nice, long Jeep cruise all afternoon.
Opa, my dad, my brother Mike and I arrived at the Tegernsee around 4 p.m., and were greeted by a meeting area covered in Jeep photos, World War II memorabilia (like a bench made of a two-by-four bolted to two World War II gas cans), olive-drab camo netting and lots of classic bits of Americana (1930s and 1940s American music played on the radio). It was an awesome setting, and it became even more awesome when 28 World War II Jeeps drove around the corner and started filing into the parking lot:
Once the convoy of Willys MBs and Ford GPWs (and one CJ-2A) shut off its clackety Go-Devil engines, Christian hopped from his Willys, shook our hands, and introduced me and my family to Marcus and Eckhard, two Jeep enthusiasts from Austria and Germany, respectively. Despite having just driven for many hours, they were keen to give Opa a ride in their beautiful machines.
Mike hopped into Eckhard’s gray navy Jeep, I jumped into the back of Marcus’s green Army Jeep, and Opa took shotgun in the seat in front of me. After my dad helped him climb into the tall Willys, Opa sat down and gazed at a sight he hadn’t seen in seven decades, recognizing the shift levers, the flat metal dashboard with data plates on the glovebox, and the big opening on his right that had let him watch the dirt road rush by just a few feet below back in 1945.
Marcus fired up his Jeep, and we were off.
The little Jeep ran beautifully. Its orchestra—made up of the clacking flathead-four, the whining three-speed T84 transmission, the rumbling nondirectional tires, and the whirring wind blowing over the folded windshield—produced that same beautiful symphony Opa had heard when he was just a boy.
Following Eckhard and Mike in the Navy Jeep, we turned off from the small side-street where the Jeep gathering was held, and onto the main road, which ran right along the shore of the Tegernsee. The path took us through quaint German towns riddled with iconic half-timbered houses, restaurants and city halls decorated with ornate murals, and balconies overflowing with vibrant flowers. At that moment, I couldn’t help but to wonder how similar the view from my seat was to that of American soldiers in the 1940s.
Marcus looked to his right and noticed that Opa, eyes tearing from the piercing wind, was a bit uncomfortable, so he asked if we should put the windshield up. But Opa was clearly having too much fun, deciding instead to just throw on his sunglasses and rain jacket. Even though he was 80, Opa made it clear that he wasn’t going to let a little bit of discomfort ruin what he considered an incredible windshield-down experience.
Throughout the ride, Opa asked Marcus a bunch of questions about his Jeep, all of which Marcus fielded with pleasure. The Austrian, dressed in old American army gear, gave us a great tour around the Tegernsee, reminding Opa how all the gear levers worked, pointing out General Patton’s old home right along the shore of the lake, and walking us through the history of his own love for Jeeps.
After driving most of the way around the lake, Marcus and Eckhard pulled their Willys MBs into a parking lot for a break, and we all got to talking about these wonderful machines. Opa’s enthusiasm was palpable:
Here’s a picture of Opa standing together with the two Willys drivers, Marcus on the left, and Eckhard on the right:
For the final part of our trip, Opa hopped into Eckhard’s navy Jeep, and Mike and I got a ride with Marcus. My brother and I had the times of our lives bouncing around in that green flatfender, watching Opa grin from ear to ear behind the flat windshield of Eckhard’s gorgeous gray Willys. But alas, the journey drew to an end; Eckhard’s navy Jeep pulled ahead, and Marcus followed it back to the Jeep show.
When I initially reached out to Christian, the founder of the Jeep event at the Tegernsee, I was hoping to get Opa a short ride up and down the block. But Marcus and Eckhard exceeded my wildest expectations, driving Opa, Mike and me on a picturesque 20 kilometer route around the entire Tegernsee.
After Eckhard and Marcus finally pulled back into the parking lot where the Jeep show was being held, I could tell immediately that the drive had meant more to Opa than I could ever have imagined. He told me as soon as he stepped out of Eckhard’s Willys just how much he appreciated me helping him experience a joy he had been dreaming about since 1945.
I talked with Opa over the phone before I left back to the U.S., and he thanked me endlessly, telling me the ride in those Jeeps was “eine der größten erlebnisse meines lebens” (one of the greatest experiences of my life).
People often ask me why I’m so obsessed with Jeeps, and for the longest time, I haven’t had a good answer. But after that day at the Tegernsee, the reason for my Jeep love couldn’t be any clearer: it’s in my blood.