1950 Willys Jeepster
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by Bill Vance

The most famous vehicle, land, sea or air, to come out of the Second World War was undoubtedly the Jeep, that sturdy little quarter-ton, go-anywhere 4X4 that functioned as everything from weapon carrier to President’s limo.

It served from the deserts of Africa to the Burma Road, and while the military HMMWV, or Hummer in civilian form, may be bigger, stronger and more imposing, it will never capture the hearts of the fighting men and women the way the Jeep did.

But if you are Willys-Overland of Toledo, Ohio, what do you do when the demand for military vehicles disappears after the war? W-O decided not to return immediately to making cars, but to begin offering the Jeep to the public. It replaced the olive drab with brighter hues, traded the guns and axes for equipment like snowploughs and post-hole diggers, and marketed the Jeep as a multi-purpose civilian vehicle.

There really wasn’t anything like it on the market, and there was a ready made deep reservoir of Jeep good will out there. Willys-Overland had ample experience building them because it, and Ford under licence, had produced almost 600,000 during the war.

There was also the very practical consideration that Willys-Overland’s pre-war cars would have been decidedly dated in the post-war world, although it later returned to the car business with the modern 1952 Aero models.

Thus the Jeep CJ (Civilian Jeep) was born. It came on the scene in 1945 with production starting as soon as the war ended, and was aimed at such markets as farming, utility companies and service stations. It was also expected to appeal to off-road enthusiasts yearning to escape it all.

The CJ was a converted military model, but strong early sales encouraged Willys to quickly expand the line. They added the Jeep all-steel station wagon, a popular model, in 1946, followed by pick-up and panel trucks in 1947. Our subject, the Jeepster, came on the scene in 1948.

The Jeepster (a combination of Jeep and roadster) was the most glamorous Jeep of them all, a kind of early post-WW II American sports car. Technically called a phaeton (the last American one offered), most referred to it simply as a four-passenger convertible. Its cut-down doors, folding top and attractive colours gave it a jaunty air, marrying the spirit of the Jeep with the romance of the convertible.

The Jeepster was the realization of an idea that had been conceived by stylist Brooks Stevens of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during the war, when visions of civilian Jeeps were beginning to emerge.

Production of the Jeep sports phaeton began in May 1948, and 12,633 of these vertical-grille models were built through 1948 and ’49. Unlike most of the Jeep models, the Jeepster had two-wheel drive, and the transmission was a three-speed unit with column shift.

Power came from Jeep’s venerable side-valve four cylinder engine that could trace its lineage back to the Whippet car of the 1920s. For 1950 it was converted to an F-head, or inlet-over-exhaust design in which the intake valves were in the cylinder head, while the exhaust valves remained in the block. This and other modifications such as higher compression, increased the power of the “Hurricane” engine from 63 to 72 horsepower. With this valve layout the Jeep joined such illustrious marques as Rolls-Royce and Rover.

Willys recognized the need for even more power and smoothness, so chief engineer Delmar “Barney” Roos, who had participated in the design of the original Willys Jeep, developed the new “Lightning” six in 1949. With just 2.4 litres (148 cu in.) of displacement it was the smallest six in the domestic industry. It was an option in the 1950 Jeepster, which also got a new horizontal bar grille.

Production of this original Jeepster ceased in 1950, although a few were sold as ’51s. Total sales for its three year run were 19,120, not enough to convince Willys-Overland to continue production. Also, the company resumed building military Jeeps that year, which took up plant capacity, and preparations were under way for re-entry into the passenger car market.

The Jeepster was revived in late 1966 by the Kaiser-Jeep Corp., Willys-Overland having been acquired by the Kaiser Corp. in 1953. By this time, however, others such as the Ford Bronco, had come on the scene and the second generation Jeepster no longer enjoyed its unique status.

That first Jeepster was an interesting little chapter in Jeep history. Its sporty nature had helped pave the way in North America for such English sports cars as the MGs, Austin-Healeys and Triumphs that would soon be arriving in quantity.

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