GASSIER WARS SUR­VIVORS

’41 Coupe ’39 Pickup ’33 Coupe

Hot Rod Deluxe - - Front Page - • WORDS: DREW HARDIN

BACK­STAGE IN 1961: L.A. RODDERS, RAC­ERS SET THE TRENDS HOT RODS ON THE AUC­TION BLOCK

Sur­vivor is a word that gets used and mis­used a lot in the car hobby. It seems that just about any hulk that hasn’t com­pletely re­turned to its el­e­men­tal state gets called a sur­vivor. To our way of think­ing, though, this ’41 Willys has earned the ti­tle.

For one thing, you are look­ing at all orig­i­nal sheet­metal. Even the tilt hood is made from the car’s fac­tory front-end parts. There’s no fiber­glass here. Some rust re­pair, sure, cov­ered by fresh primer care­fully blended with the 1950s red rac­ing paint. The nice-look­ing trim? Orig­i­nal. Just needed some pol­ish.

What makes the Willys’ con­di­tion even more re­mark­able is the fact that it was drag raced and sold off—not once, but twice— be­fore sym­pa­thetic hands sought to pre­serve it. The car’s guardian an­gel was Randy Grib­ble, who owns Lake City Rod & Cus­tom in Water­town, South Dakota. He re­mem­bers the day, back in

1990, when he and a friend were driv­ing home from a drag race in Omaha. He was leaf­ing through the lo­cal Deal­son­wheels ad pa­per while his buddy drove.

That’s where he saw an ad for a Willys. “I had Willys fever,” he says, tick­ing off sev­eral of the diminu­tive hot rods he’s owned over the years, many of which he had to sell to fund the pur­chase of land for his shop. “I made my friend pull off the in­ter­state and find a phone booth. It was a Sun­day af­ter­noon. I called this place in Gree­ley, Colorado, a car lot there, and left a mes­sage. On Mon­day they called back, and I made a deal over the phone.”

A cou­ple weeks later the car showed up at Randy’s place. “Had I seen the car in per­son I might have passed on it,” he ad­mits, “but I didn’t have a lot of money. I still don’t. Some things never change. And I wanted one re­ally bad.”

The Willys “didn’t look as good as its picture,” Randy says. “The grille was busted out in the cen­ter. It had old painted sil­ver wheels on back when the picture showed chrome wheels. The frame was chopped up and rusty, and some­one had put an alu­minum floor in with sheet­metal screws. But it was an all-steel Willys coupe, and I was in love.”

Randy had opened his busi­ness 10 years be­fore and was go­ing full-steam on cus­tomer projects. That meant rel­e­gat­ing the Willys to af­ter-hours sta­tus, worked on “a lit­tle at a time each win­ter.” His be­ing in the busi­ness and own­ing a col­lec­tion of parts from his own race car projects pro­vided op­por­tu­ni­ties to add choice parts to the car.

The Willys’ chas­sis was so beat up that he “started over” us­ing the frame from “another car I pulled out of the weeds,” a ’41 sedan that would also do­nate its steer­ing col­umn and dash­board. Randy and his son burned up two bat­tery-pow­ered screw­drivers get­ting all the sheet­metal screws out of the floor. Randy had a ’57 392 Hemi left over from a blown-al­co­hol nos­tal­gia drag­ster he’d sold, and he thought it would be per­fect in the Willys. He found a Don Long chro­moly straight axle at a swap meet in Phoenix. “It came off an old gasser that they were mis­tak­enly turn­ing into a street rod,” he says, laugh­ing. “It had Willys spin­dles and ev­ery­thing, and the perches were per­fect for Willys springs.”

It would be years, though, be­fore Randy learned about any of the car’s history. That jour­ney be­gan with a chance en­counter, much like spot­ting the ad for the car in the first place.

“You Got My Old Car”

“I was on my way to the L.A. Road­sters show and was in­vited to Mike Devriendt’s open house,” Randy re­mem­bers. “He used to have the So-cal Speed Shop in Colorado, and that’s the area where this car came from. I was talk­ing to Mike about buy­ing the Willys through the ad, and we re­al­ized he sold that car to me. This was 20, 25 years later.”

Mike told Randy he had pur­chased the Willys from a sal­vage yard south of Wi­chita. That piece of the puz­zle led Randy to con­tact his friend Don Bax­ter, who ran Bax­ter Ford Parts in Lawrence, Kansas, to see if he knew any­thing about the car. Don re­called see­ing a Willys with In­dian-head em­blems on the doors, and re­mem­bered a Pon­tiac en­gine with a chain-driven blower un­der the hood. That de­tail stood out, as “it was the first one with chain drive that he ever saw,” says Randy.

Also let­tered on the car were two names, which Randy and a friend punched into an in­ter­net search en­gine four or five years ago. They found a num­ber, di­aled it, “and there’s Dave Mader on the phone,” Randy re­calls. “I told him what I had, and he said, ‘You got my old car. Me and the sher­iff will come get it. That car was stolen.’”

It took a sec­ond for Randy to re­al­ize Mader was jok­ing. Sort of. Dave Mader and Jerry Mor­ris were friends who bought the Willys in the late 1950s from an ad in a magazine. A drag race car from the Den­ver area, it had been pow­ered by a Pon­tiac en­gine, which ex­plained the lo­gos on the doors. When Mader and Mor­ris bought the car the Pon­cho mill was toast, so they put another Pon­tiac in the car, topped by the chain-driven su­per­charger Don Bax­ter re­mem­bered. They raced it from 1959 to 1964, when Mader was sent to Viet­nam. He left the Willys in the care of his part­ner, but when he came back from the ser­vice he learned that Mor­ris had taken the car to a junk­yard. “It sounded like Mor­ris was in bad health,” Randy says, “but he still had the orig­i­nal ti­tle to the car.”

Randy asked Mader if he had any pho­tos from their rac­ing days. “We could hardly af­ford gas for the car,” Mader told him. “We didn’t have a cam­era.”

[Ed note: we would love to hear from any read­ers who may have seen the car race or have pho­tos of it, from them a der/ mor­ris years or even be­fore, when it was in den­ver. it should be easy to spot in your scrap­book. how many willys dec­o­rated with in­dian heads can there be?]

Mader asked him if it still had its Pon­tiac en­gine and Olds rearend. “No,” Randy told him, “no mo­tor. Just the Pon­tiac em­blem on the doors, and a Tri-five rearend to roll it around.” Randy said Mader “wasn’t all that happy” to learn Randy put a Hemi in the car. “He wanted a Pon­tiac back in it,” Randy says, ad­mit­ting, “I should have done a Pon­tiac mo­tor. And if Gil and I didn’t have all this Hemi stuff, that’s what he’d be do­ing now.”

Light­en­ing the Load

The Gil he speaks of is Gil Muro, who, with his broth­ers and other fam­ily mem­bers, op­er­ates Hot Rod Ranch in the cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia town of Lom­poc. Randy knew Gil from the March Meet. “I used to race there when the Goodguys

were do­ing it. Gil bought a few parts from me at the swap meet.” Over the years the two stayed in touch, so Gil had Randy’s num­ber handy when he saw on In­sta­gram that the Willys was for sale.

“I put so many projects ahead of this thing, just worked on it when I had the time, when I felt like it,” Randy says. “Pretty soon it had been 28 years. I’m 64 years old, and I’m think­ing about light­en­ing the load a bit. That’s one rea­son why I got rid of it.”

Plus, he ex­plained, he had taken the car to the point where it was ready for body­work. “I’m not a body man,” he ad­mits. “I would have had to hire that done.” He also faced a de­ci­sion about the paint. He had a lot of lengthy dis­cus­sions with a friend, Craig “Spud” God­frey, about whether to pre­serve the his­toric paint or re­paint the car. “Spud would have been the one to re­paint it if I de­cided to go that way,” Randy says. In the end, he felt the body should stay in its as-raced con­di­tion. “But there’s so much bad there to be fixed, it would take some­one like Gil to save the old paint.”

Gil im­me­di­ately rec­og­nized the car’s po­ten­tial. “It’s re­ally rare to find a ’41 Willys that’s all steel and even has the orig­i­nal trim.” Like Randy, he wants to get the car run­ning while keep­ing it as orig­i­nal as pos­si­ble. “Re­ally what we’re do­ing is help­ing Randy fin­ish his dream.”

• PICS: WES AL­LI­SON • CAR: GIL MURO, HOT ROD RANCH

> Af­ter be­ing in Randy Grib­ble’s hands for nearly 30 years, this vet­eran of the Mid­west gasser wars has found a new home with Gil Muro and his co­horts at the Hot Rod Ranch. “Where I’m from, it’s hard to get Cal­i­for­nia cool­ness,” says Randy, who’s based in South Dakota. “We don’t have a lot of drag rac­ing out here. We build jalop­ies for dirt track rac­ing. I’m hav­ing more fun know­ing Gil is do­ing some­thing with it.”

> What’s known about the Willys’ rac­ing history starts in the Den­ver area in the 1950s. Back then it was pow­ered by a Pon­tiac en­gine, and af­ter he bought the car Gil turned up an old photo of the Willys with just the Pon­tiac lo­gos on the doors. Dave Mader and Jerry Mor­ris added their names, and another Pon­tiac mill, when they raced it in the Kansas area in 1959-1964.

> Paragon Plas­tics cut the Plex­i­glas side and rear win­dows for Gil. > Gil pro­vided the parts for the Hemi’s induction sys­tem: Twin 750cfm Hol­leys feed­ing a 6-71 su­per­charger on a Cra­gar blower in­take. He’s still tin­ker­ing with the mo­tor, so we weren’t able to hear it fire. Among the mods al­ready planned are dif­fer­ent pul­leys “to over­drive it to get more power.”

> Randy found the Willys’ front sus­pen­sion at a swap meet: a spin­dle-to-spin­dle setup us­ing a Don Long chro­moly straight axle. When Randy got the car it had “an orig­i­nal Willys axle in it that had a lit­tle drop to it,” he says, “but this axle has the gasser history that I wanted.” He re-arched the front springs to give the nose a lit­tle al­ti­tude (and at­ti­tude).

> “I wish those win­dows could talk,” Randy says of this odd wear pat­tern in the paint. His best guess: While the Willys was in stor­age, a dan­gling chain, maybe in the garage rafters, would blow around in the wind and hit the car as it was swing­ing.

> When he took out the Chevy rearend, Randy found lad­der-bar brack­ets and fab­ri­cated these “based on the look I wanted and where I thought they should come out. I stud­ied a few old HOT ROD mag­a­zines and saw what they were do­ing.” The bars are made from 1 1⁄4- inch DOM with quar­ter-inch-wall tube. “I did step up to reg­u­lar Art Mor­ri­son lad­der bar ends, good solid rod ends,” Randy said.

> Gil had the vin­tage Mickey Thomp­son valve cov­ers from “another Hemi pro­ject,” un­der which are triple-nickel 354 heads that were ported by Lock­er­man Port­ing Ser­vice. The heads are from “Mark Wil­liams’ last front-en­gine drag­ster,” Randy says. “It was a nor­mally as­pi­rated, ni­tro-in­jected, A/fuel car back in the day.”

> A big Sun tach and Ste­wart-warner gauges mon­i­tor the go­ings-on, but Randy also left room for this ’41 Willys dash­board, another trans­plant from the sedan parts car. “It’s an orig­i­nal dash­board, just not orig­i­nal to this car,” he ex­plains. “My friend Spud de­tailed it for me.”

> The Willys wears 1950s-vin­tage red paint over what looks like fac­tory white, but there are worn-through ar­eas and places, like this, where all the paint is just gone. Look close at the door and you can see an eighth inch or more of what ini­tially looked like filler un­der the paint. Closer ex­am­i­na­tion re­vealed it to be lead.

> Wil­wood front disc brakes are among the car’s few con­tem­po­rary com­po­nents (along with a fuel cell in the trunk), all there for safety, says Gil. “Old Air­heart brakes would be cool, but I wanted some real stop­ping power con­sid­er­ing how fast this thing will be.”

> Randy re­moved the Tri-five Chevy rearend that was un­der the Willys when he bought it and re­placed it with this ’57 Pon­tiac rearend, filled with 4.88 gears, a spool, and 35-spline Old Henry’s axles.

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