’49 Willys is a monument to off-road rugged
In 1994, Tom Malone went looking for the skin and bones of an automobile suitable for building into a hot rod. He came home with just about the exact opposite. He was hunting a hare; he bagged a tortoise.
Almost 25 years later, his unsought find stands as a show-quality example of the prototypical sport utility vehicle. Officially an early 1950 model, but actually built in 1949 by Willys-Overland Motors of Toledo, Ohio, the four-wheel-drive wagon is the granddaddy of them all.
Malone bought the wagon from the family of its original owner in Texarkana, he said.
“The grandson of the man who bought it new was supposed to inherit it, but he thought it was ugly,” Malone, 68, of Galveston, said. “The younger man’s mother told me she knew it was ugly and nobody wanted it.”
Of course, ugly also is in the eye of the beholder, and Malone is among a substantial population of gear heads who can appreciate the beauty of a relatively indestructible steel box capable of propelling itself over almost anything.
The wagon spent its early years as a work truck, then retired to a deer lease for a second career before Malone bought it, he said.
“I was looking for something for a hot rod, but I never considered doing that after I saw it,” Malone said. “I thought it would be a lot more interesting to restore it back to original. You can stick a big motor and big tires on anything.”
The meticulous, frame-off restoration took four years and the biggest challenge often was in finding parts, he said.
Soft materials in the ‘49, including woodwork in the cargo area, are reproductions, but most of the steel is restored original, he said.
The Willys is powered by a Go-Devil inline four-cylinder of about 134 cubic inches producing about 60 horsepower. It’s mated to a three-speed transmission with a gear ratio that starts in the basement and never reaches the first floor. Malone removed an aftermarket set of Warn Industries locking front hubs during the restoration, so the little engine is driving the back axle and dragging the front in two-wheel drive mode, just as Willys intended.
While some sources put the wagon’s top speed at about 60 mph, Malone said it’s more like 30 for rational people.
Malone, who was born into the auto-repair profession and ran Malone’s Paint & Body in Houston for years before he retired, did all the work except the paint, which he entrusted to a talented hand on his staff.
“This thing went into the paint booth six times,” he said. “The colors are original, but we had to mix them ourselves.”
The rig is a monument to rugged, brush-busting, rock-hopping, fix-in-the-field transportation, but that’s all symbolic. It’s a showpiece now and has won some trophies.
At the suggestion he drive it a little way up a dirt road for a photo shoot, Malone declined.
“It’s never been on a dirt road,” he said, leaving “and won’t be anytime soon,” unsaid.
The best thing about the wagon is its workaday, everyman appeal and its place in automotive history, Malone said.
“When people see it, they tell me ‘My father had one of those, or my grandfather had one,’” Malone said. “And it’s a piece of history; this is the grandfather of the modern SUV.”
Malone said he drives the Willys around the block once a week or so to keep it limbered up.
He has put 355 miles on it since the restoration was completed in 1998.
“These last 20 years have been the easiest of its life,” he said.