Well, turns out buying a rusted-out 69 year-old barn find Jeep as an off-road project was a major mistake. The car is in shambles, my garage is in shambles, even my house is in shambles. As for me, I’m struggling to keep it together mentally.

After buying my 1948 Willys CJ-2a this past summer with intentions to drive it 2,000 miles to the Easter Jeep Safari at Moab, Utah, where my last project Jeep decimated all, I got straight to work. My friend and I removed the transmission and completely rebuilt it in a single night. Then we yanked out the engine to try to figure out why that Go-Devil engine under the hood had such low compression.

We came out of the gate hot, but then, somewhere along the way, that heat went cold. I’m not sure what happened, but I just couldn’t find time to wrench on it, and she just sat in my driveway for months, along with my partially dismantled engine.

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This was the state of my project from early November until late December:

Just before I left for Hong Kong for Christmas and New Years, I realized that if I was going to get this Willys to Moab in April, I was going to have to step it up a gear. So I broke out the snow shovels, dug gallons of snow out of my Jeep’s “interior,” and threw on the front wheels.

Then I drove my neglected Jeep J10 out of my garage to make space, towed the Willys a few feet with last year’s Moab Project, and now—as you can see in the photo up top—it’s inside and ready to be wrenched on. And that’s what I’ve been doing since my return from Asia. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been wrenching harder than I’ve ever wrenched before.

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And with each turn of the ratchet, I realize that this project Jeep is an absolute disaster.

I Bought The Crappiest Jeep Ever

The Willys CJ-2A is essentially a modified World War II Jeep, marketed to farmers after the war as plows, trench-diggers and just general workhorses. My example, purchased from Podunk, Michigan, is about as “legit” a Jeep as they come, as it came out of a barn on a very old family farm. But as cool as that history is, it means this Jeep has been totally hammered on throughout its life.

I’ve never seen a vehicle with as many broken or worn-down components as this Jeep. Never mind the fact that the body is only connected to the frame with one bolt, and never mind the fact that the frame has been patched with an old Ford leaf spring— those are immaterial compared to the huge pile of random broken parts I never in a million years thought I’d have to replace.

The Engine And Cooling System

We’ll start with the engine, because it’s the biggest thorn in my side right now. I’ve still got two cut-down studs from my epic struggle to remove the cylinder head. But now, after my friend tried drilling the third broken head stud out, I’ve got a hole going into my cooling jacket.

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Extracting those studs, which have been poking into that rusty cooling system for 69 years, is going to be impossible. So, chances are, I’ll be drilling the remaining two out and helicoiling all three of these things. My god is that going to suck. But those aren’t the only broken studs, I’ve still got this exhaust stud broken off into the block that I need to extract.

On top of that, I need to remove and replace the valve springs (they tend to break), and I have to lap the intake and exhaust valves to see if I can get them to sit better—hopefully that will bring my compression up from a uniform 60 PSI. With my luck, though, I doubt it.

Those seven decades of heavy farm use have done me no favors on the cooling system front, either. In an effort to remove the impeller shaft and bearing, my friend used a press to push through a spring clip that was seized in place. Well, that retaining ring didn’t break. The pump housing, however, did.

The cooling passages don’t look much better, either. There’s so much dirt in the cooling jackets, you could probably plant a few crops in there:

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As for the radiator, I’m just going to pray that somehow, against all odds, it doesn’t leak despite the fact that basically every other part on this Jeep is broken in some way. Gulp.

The Brakes

Brakes are a fairly easy thing to fix on pretty much all vehicles, though on the Willys, like on some other more modern cars, the brakes are captured, meaning you can’t just take off your wheel and expect to change your brake shoes, you’ve got to remove the spindle nut first. And in the back, you have to use a special puller tool.

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But once I was in, everything looked as I expected it to: the brake shoe lining material was worn down all the way to the backing plate, and the wheel cylinders were seized and well beyond repair.

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The master cylinder, too, was filled with rust. The brake hoses, as I found earlier when I replaced them, were also totally shot, and—if I’m honest— even though the hard lines don’t look rusty on the outside, I’m not putting my life in the hands of 69 year-old brake lines.

Oh, and the park brake shoes—located at the back of the transfer case—were also toast, which is surprising, since the vehicle doesn’t have any hardware for a park brake: no handle, no springs, no cable, nothing. But, upon opening the transfer case, sure enough, the shoes were bare, and completely filled with dirt and grime:

So basically, I’m replacing the master cylinder, the lines, the wheel cylinders, the brake shoes, and I’m buying a park brake handle, cable, springs and shoes for that as well. That’s the entire brake system.

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Luckily, I found some great folks over at The CJ2a Page who had some spares sitting around, or I’d be bankrupt.

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The Steering

The steering system is also all sorts of screwed up. There’s tons of slop in that bell crank, which is mounted to a crossmember that isn’t even attached to the frame (the weld, somehow, managed to break).

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What’s more, the steering gearbox that your steering column goes down into looks like this:

But what it looks like doesn’t really matter; what matters is how it functions. And, well, it doesn’t. Turning the steering wheel moves that sector shaft side to side a disconcerting amount, whereas it should just rotate in a circle.

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Among things I’d prefer not to happen when I’m traversing the technical cliffs of Moab is losing my steering. While I’m sure my death will eventually be at the hands of a junky Jeep, let’s wait until I’m at least in my late 20s, shall we?

The Drivetrain

That picture you see above is a Spicer Model 18 transfer case, which was leaking like crazy. So I bought some new seals, and my friend Brandon and I got to disassembling. But before we could do that, we spent about two hours cleaning the thing with rivers of brake cleaner and engine degreaser. We figured that if we cleaned it first, we could then start taking it apart in my house without it being too messy.

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Turns out that, despite our toiling with rags and cleaning solvents, we didn’t do such a hot job against those seven decades of grime buildup, and my kitchen floor is a very sad, sad place.

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When I said “my house is in shambles,” I really meant it. This is bad this is bad this is bad:

The good news is that we were able to take that T-case apart and replace all the seals. Granted, it took us about six hours, in part because every single seal was seized in place from 69 years of corrosion.

But eventually, we finished it, and now I’ve got a sealed transfer case, and a rebuilt and sealed transmission. So on the drivetrain front, we’re doing OK!

The front diff, I will admit, was a bit of a disaster when I opened it up. The previous owner must have put molasses in there, because it took an hour for that thing to drain, and even longer for me to brake-clean all the gunk off the gears:

Even worse was the fact that one of the ring gear bolts was broken off, and the anti-rotate tab—which was supposed to be holding that bolt from spinning—was just flapping in the wind:

Eventually, I got the diff cleaned, and with a bit of drilling, the broken bolt extracted. I replaced bolt with a new one from the hardware store, and all was well.

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The gears themselves look fine, so all I really need to do at this point is replace some u-joints on the driveshafts, drain and fill the rear differential (and pray it, too, looks acceptable), and my drivetrain will be in good shape!

See, there is some good news.

The Charging System

Oh yeah: the charging system, like everything else on this Jeep, does not work.

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I’ve just started dismantling the six-volt generator, which is a remarkably simple device, so hopefully I’ll be able to rebuild it without trouble.

Sadly, I’m off to a bad start on the whole “without trouble” part, because the two bolts holding the stator windings in place (you can see the flathead on the casing in the picture above) are seized, and I’ve stripped the flathead, so I’ll be drilling that out at some point.

But hopefully a bit of cleaning, some insulating tape and liquid adhesive, and a bit of sandpaper will get this thing back up and running.

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The Suspension

The suspension is actually the best part about this Willys. The leaf springs are basically brand new (in other words, they’ve been replaced in the last two decades), and even though the shocks are junk and there are no bump stops left, replacing those parts will be a breeze if I can get the bolts out.

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That’s actually a really big “if.”

Fuel System

Above is a picture I took down my fuel tank filler neck. There’s a crap-ton of rust down there, which—while not surprising to me, since I’ve been through a few clogged fuel filters— is going to be a bear to clean.

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But if I don’t, I’ll have carb issues the entire way to Moab, so there’s no getting around this. Unless I just used a jerry can as a fuel tank. We’ll see what I decide.

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Other Forms Of Suffering

But of course there are more problems that I haven’t mentioned. Take my headlights for example. This one’s totally on me. I accidentally tipped my grille over, leaving both my headlights in a million pieces on my floor.

Also, a mouse decided to build a little den on my floorboard using old sparkplug boxes I had sitting on the seat. This isn’t a problem, and honestly, the mouse can stay if he wants. But it’s just insulting, that’s all. This is an automobile, not a mouse den!

Obviously, there’s still plenty I haven’t mentioned, like the lack of any electrical system whatsoever, and clutch linkages that are supposed to be circular, but have worn into ovals. And then there’s the fact that the seats aren’t bolted to the body because of all the rust, which is just as well, because that body isn’t bolted to the frame either.

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Honestly, I should have seen this coming, buying a vehicle that has effectively lived three very hard lifetimes. At this point, I should probably just buy this Jeep from Craigslist and start from there, because that’s what it feels like I’m doing:

Photo: Craigslist

But I won’t. I’m going to get my plucky little Willys to Moab if it’s the last thing I do. Yes, it will be miserable with no top, no doors, no seat belts, and a top speed of 45 mph, but I’m stubborn. Plus, there are few things I love more than wrenching on old shitbox Jeeps.

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I’m just saying maybe I went too far this time. Maybe.