GASSIER WARS SURVIVORS
’41 Coupe ’39 Pickup ’33 Coupe
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.”
> 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.