A Modern Willys Wagon
Take a TJ and see what develops
Among the sea of Jeeps at this year’s Dirt ’N Drive, Casey Dimmitt’s 1957 Willys
Wagon stuck out like a sore thumb… one that we’d gladly endure some pain to own. Sporting a perfectly recreated patina and an unassuming near-stock appearance, we fully expected to see leaf springs, drum brakes, and an old Ross bellcrank steering system on it. It wasn’t until we got closer and noticed the coil springs that we suspected we might have a sleeper on our hands. The more we looked, the more we liked.
Casey hails from Long Beach, California, a place known for lots of beachside recreation and year-round sunshine. A vintage wagon would be right at home, but getting a classic 1950s Willys to modern SoCal freeway speeds is a hair-raising experience, not to mention bringing it to a stop in a hurry. Casey noted that the Wagon’s wheelbase was awfully close to an LJ’s, and so the hunt began for a suitable donor that could contribute modern underpinnings to the classic body.
From the start this project was built on a budget. Casey found a suitable rust-free donor up in the desert near Johnson Valley. After doing some bodywork and getting it into primer, he let it sit out in the elements for a while before adding some rattle-can color. He had trouble finding a suitable LJ donor, and so he bought a few TJ wrecks and started cherry-picking parts for the wagon. A 2006 TJ frame was stretched to LJ dimensions once he had no luck sourcing a good stock LJ chassis, and he sold off components he didn’t need in order to offset costs with an eye toward breaking even. He ended up with a 4.0L backed by a 6-speed manual and a Rubicon 4:1 transfer case. Power is sent to the vintage-looking
tire and wheel package via Rubicon Dana 44s filled with factory lockers and 4.10 gears. The tires are perfectly proportional 255/70R17 BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/As wrapped around vintage-looking stock Chrysler 300 wheels that have been powdercoated white.
Mating the vintage body to the modern frame wasn’t terribly difficult, but it was not without its challenges. Casey fabricated body mounts that matched the wagon on the TJ chassis and also added an extra pair in the back for good measure. The arch for the rear springs had to be notched to clear the wagon floor, and everything rearward of
the arches had to be raised and reworked to match the body. A WJ gas tank looks right at home under the older SUV and required outboarding the rear shocks. Despite the nearly stock-looking stance, the suspension is actually lifted 4 inches via a collection of mismatched parts that he had lying around.
There are a ton of subtle details to this vehicle that are easy to overlook. There’s a 10-gallon water tank hidden under the floorboards hooked to an onboard hot-water shower. The underhood storage box is an old portable file cabinet, and both the air cleaner and the radiator overflow tank were sourced from a Land Rover. Casey managed to shoehorn the factory HVAC system under the dash, but it feeds vintage air ducts; the sunglasses holder near the steering column is a case for an old pair of safety glasses; and the big aluminum cooler was originally used by the Swiss military as a blood bank.
The build isn’t radical, and that’s just what we like about it. It was created with reliability and long-distance off-road travel in mind, and Casey reports that it serves those purposes perfectly. Aside from extended getaways from the crowds and traffic of SoCal, the Willys is equally at home cruising PCH with a surfboard sticking out of the rear hatch.