The Monday of Memorial Day weekend, we went up to Sacramento to look at a 1952 Willys Jeep – a M38A1 “field extended ambulance prototype.” A friend of mine, Dave Alexander pinged me on Saturday to let me know that his father had a Jeep that he (sadly) needed to sell.
The timing was better than you normally expect. Anyone who has read this blog before knows that I’ve been rebuilding a 1952 Willys CJ-3A but its meticulous nature has been making me somewhat frustrated because I’m getting more and more anxious to drive it. This one, Dave said, was a runner. He showed me the pictures, put me in touch with his father, and Monday I hooked up the trailer “to go see a man about a Jeep.” It turned out to be more of an adventure than I was expecting.
After working on the CJ-3A, I started to realize that I was actually growing fonder of the CJ5 body style, with its softer curves, but I had wanted to go with something more reinforced in the frame like the military versions had. This meant that the M38A1 would be a perfect fit for what I was looking to have… someday.
Overall though, I wanted something that I could use, something that I could drive and have fun with. The Honey Badger (what I’ve come to name the CJ-3A) is a long, long way off from driving. I have no doubt that when it’s complete, it will be a hell of a lot of fun to drive.
Porkchop, whose name I wasn’t really all to keen about (until I found out its origins, and now I don’t feel right changing the name) is indeed a runner (mostly). This isn’t to say that it doesn’t need improvements, ’cause it certainly does! But at least I was able to take a test drive around the block and have some fun doing that!
One of the really cool things about it is that – as told to me by Dave and his father – the chassis was ‘field extended’ as a prototype for rescue/ambulance Jeeps. The seats were modified such that the passenger side could be equipped with a stretcher, along with additional toolboxes in the tub for medical equipment/supplies. While the frame (you bet your ass I looked at the frame!) did have some surface rust it looked and felt quite solid.
Having said that, it needs quite a bit of work. The brake system needs to be completely overhauled. I believe the master cylinder needs to be replaced, possibly with a new dual-reservoir system, but that may require modification to the frame to install which means needing someone else to help with that delicate work… again.
The steering needs major work as well. It’s got the turning radius of the Queen Mary, and I think the setting may be off – that is, it turns better to the left than it does to the right.
The parking brake, well, let’s just say that I have no confidence that it would actually park the Jeep on a level street, let alone one on an incline. This was particularly noticeable when I loaded the Jeep onto the trailer to take home, but more on this in a second.
I test drove Porkchop (trying to get used to the name) around the block, and immediately recognized all of these problems that needed fixing. The choke was stuck in one position, the throttle handle came off in my hand. It took me a 3-point turn to do a 90-degree right turn into the alley from the lot it was resting in. The brakes weren’t “soft” or “mushy,” it was like sinking your feet into mud. Stopping was something you planned for well-in advance. The F-134 Hurricane engine sounded great when it was running, but dropped off extremely quickly when I let up the gas.
I’m pretty sure the parking brake may not have been completely disengaged when we started rolling. I had my hand ready to yank it up into place like the plastic wedge on the old Big Wheel handbrake, just in case. Even then, I wasn’t too sure it was actually going to stop, even at 2 mph.
But you know what? Just like the Big Wheel, it was fun. I mean, not just a little fun, but Woo hoo!!! fun!
It’s the kind of fun you want to have every day. Even though it was drizzling, I never even noticed. I could have kept driving (had I felt safe enough) all over the place, regardless of the rain. It was exactly the kind of thing that makes you understand why people go out and buy Jeep hats, shirts, even hang signs in their living rooms (not that I’m going to do that, mind you). It’s the kind of feeling that, well, only comes from a Jeep.
More to the point, it reminded me of why I was doing this in the first place. That feeling is exactly why I started this project in the first place.
So, after checking out everything I could think of, every nook and cranny, in the engine bay and underneath, I thought it was a great value. So, I paid the man and then loaded the Jeep onto the trailer:
Once it was loaded on the trailer, I started to get a little nervous. I remembered how bumpy the road was up to Sacramento, and wasn’t sure if the straps that were holding it down were going to work well. The front of the Jeep had towing mounts, and it was a good place to thread the canvas tie-down straps:
The rear side, though, was a bit tougher. At first, it seemed that the military bumpers would be fine to use – the metal wasn’t very sharp, the corners were rounded, so it seemed like it would be fine:
As we started driving, however, we began to realize that things were not as secure as we had originally hoped. The Jeep was too far forward on the trailer, causing a bit of fish-tailing that were made worse with the bumpy roads. After driving about 20 minutes, my anxiety level was growing too much to bear, so I pulled to the side of the road to make some adjustments.
We untied Porkchop and I got back into the saddle to reverse a few inches so that it was more evenly balanced over the wheels. In addition, I was not happy with the rear straps, as they were simply hooked onto the bottom of the trailer mounts. I had a feeling that if the Jeep bounced any more on the roads (and we hadn’t even hit the really bad roads yet), it might compress enough so that the hook would disengage from the trailer completely.
Moving the Jeep backwards on the trailer and lowering the straps to the frame under the tub helped the stability tremendously. However, the bounciness was yet to come. Driving back from Sacramento to Silicon Valley – even staying between 50-55mph – meant dealing with some very strong winds and very bouncy roads (not to mention assholes who thought it would be wise to cut in front and slam on their brakes).
I kept a close eye in the rear view mirrors to watch the straps at all times, and it was a very good thing that I did. Just as we got off the exit onto I-205W, I looked and saw that one of the rear straps was missing, and a quick glance in the other mirror showed the remaining strap flapping around like a octopus tentacle.
Doing a controlled stop to the shoulder (thankfully, there was one, given the amount of construction during the entire route), I managed to get out and see exactly what had happened. Despite being advertised as ‘tough’, the canvas had rubbed against the frame enough to snap:
It’s probably easier to see on this closeup:
Thing is, when I saw the problem and pulled over, I was fine. Calm, cool, and collected, I managed to get us over to the shoulder safely. Once there, though, I began feeling the adrenaline start to seep into the system.
This was a bad situation. I was parked on the side of the road with a Jeep whose parking brake wasn’t trustworthy, and there was absolutely nothing to prevent it from racing forward as my truck braked in traffic. Realizing that it could have done this as I was pulling off to the side of the road made me realize that things could have gone very, very poorly indeed.
Within seconds of pulling over, though, another pickup truck pulled in behind us. At first I was nervous that the other end of the strap (which was long gone) may have escaped and hit his truck. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Instead, he was stopping to help protect us, because the shoulder was very narrow and he thought it would be better if some crazy driver hit his (massively huge) pickup than clip us on the side of the road.
By some miracle, he not only knew where we could go to get a replacement tiedown, but he actually had chains and a tie-down ratchet in his truck. Travis, my great Samaritan, helped tie down the rear end of the Jeep with the chains, ratcheted it down, and followed us to the nearest auto parts store.
For what it’s worth, I’ve got to get those chains and that ratchet winch! I never felt more safe and secure as I did when that sucker was tied down with those things.
When we got to the auto parts store, I thanked him profusely and asked how I could repay him, but he didn’t want anything. Hell, I would have bought his gas, bought him (and his wife) dinner, whatever. It may not be an exaggeration to say that he may have in fact, literally, been a life saver.
He and his wife left before I could get his contact information, but I was getting a vibe from her that she wasn’t sure about stopping to help strangers on the side of the road. After all, I kind of understand. With all the news reports of crazy people out there, I can’t blame her for being cautious, and asking for a way of reaching out to them again may have come across as, well, unwelcome.
Nevertheless, if Travis and his wife should ever come across this blog, please know that there is genuine, heartfelt appreciation and thanks here. Just when I had about convinced myself that people suck, I get a lesson in just how wrong I can be. It’s times like this when I like being wrong.
After walking back and forth between a couple of close hardware/auto stores, we eventually resigned ourselves to getting more canvas tie-down straps. Unfortunately given where we were, chains were not an option. Looks like I’ll have to go to one of the truck warehouses down in Gilroy or something to get proper equipment. Or maybe Grainger.
This time, though, I bought shorter tie-downs that were able to clip onto themselves, rather than simply hook into the trailer mount. This meant that even if Porkchop bounced (the name is growing on me) the straps themselves would not disengage.
Obviously, having canvas straps at the exact place the previous one got severed doesn’t mean it’s perfect. However, by having independent straps at least if one broke, there would be a second one to hold onto it long enough for me to safely stop the trailer again. Moreover, I could feel better about the give-and-take of a bouncy road without having to deal with the straps coming loose of the trailer altogether.
Interestingly enough, once the Jeep was secured was when I really started to feel the anxiety and nervous energy kick in. My heart was beating at least twice its normal pace, as if I had just finished a 5k run.
Sitting down and getting a quick bite to eat helped a great deal, fortunately, and the remainder of the drive back home was uneventful (thankfully).
I haven’t given up on the Honey Badger, of course. I’m still working on that, and I know I’ve just adopted another ‘project,’ but at least this one will be running soon.