By Vern Parker
Thornton Race didn’t want his son, Rick, to be in danger as he motored to high school, so he provided a sturdy secondhand 1948 Willys Jeep station wagon. It was a strong, slow car, and ideal for a teenage driver.
The steel-bodied vehicle had the nose of a military Jeep and was powered by a 134-cubic-inch L-head, four-cylinder engine that produced 63 horsepower. Rick Race says that as a young driver he was happy to have any kind of transportation, “It was like driving a refrigerator.”
Life moves on, and the wheels were eventually run off the old Jeep. Decades later Race saw a maroon 1948 Willys wagon at a service station near his home.
The steel sides painted to simulate mahogany and birch paneling looked pretty good. It was in great shape, so he inquired whether the Willys was for sale. The owner said yes, but he had already agreed to sell it at an auction.
As Race inspected the car more closely, his memory was flooded with long-forgotten incidents involving the similar car of his youth. From the nine-bar grille in front to the “Willys Overland” indentation in the rear bumper and everything in between, this 1948 station wagon was captivating. Race happily overlooked the fact that the brakes were bad, the 6.70×15-inch tires were shot, and scratches marred the paint.
He decided right then, “It is coming home.” Armed with information about the auction, he shared the good news with his wife. Race arrived early at the auction to give the Willys a once-over. He noted the odometer had counted only 38,000 miles since 1948. He also spied two prospective buyers discussing bidding strategy and how high they thought they should go for the vehicle that cost $1,645 when new.
Race entered the conversation and simultaneously ended it by announcing he was prepared to bid five times more than they were. He was determined to become the third owner of the remarkable Willys. After the bidding dust had settled, a victorious Race had the station wagon trucked home.
All of the instrumentation is located in a panel in the center of the dashboard, just below where the two pieces of the windshield meet. In the center is the 80-mph speedometer. Clustered around that gauge are the fuel, oil, temperature, and ampere gauges. Along the lower edge of the dashboard are the choke, ignition, map light, and a steel plug where an optional cigarette lighter would have gone.
Both doors are equipped with an armrest, window crank, and push-button door release. The steering wheel is dressed up with a full horn ring, even though the vehicle when new was considered more of a truck than a car.
The 63-horsepower engine is assisted on the highway by the overdrive unit to keep engine speed down while keeping road speed up. Race installed a new clutch. With the engine rebuilt, he reports that it performs like it did in 1948.
Because the vehicle sits so high, storage room is available beneath the front seat, with access via a drawer in the step-down area when the door is open. When the tailgate is lowered, the single taillight, mounted on a swiveling bracket, swings down so it continues to be aimed to the rear. When the tailgate is open, a pair of steel rods on each end offer support; unfortunately, those steel rods rattle constantly when the tailgate is closed and the station wagon is in motion.
Nine longitudinal oak slats protect the steel floor against cargo as it slides in and out. Attached to the right side of the cargo bay is the spare tire, which Race is proud to say, is the original tire that came with the Willys.
“Besides being a trip down memory lane, we use this car,” says his wife Suzanne.
For your car to become the subject of the Classic Classics column, e-mail us your .jpeg image, plus brief details and phone number. Type “Classic Classics” in subject box and send to [email protected] Or, send a photo (frontal 3/4 view) plus brief details and phone number to Vern Parker, 2221 Abbotsford Drive, Vienna, VA 22181.