1948-1951 Willys Jeepster

The 1948 Willys Jeepster was born shortly after World War II. Like the remainder of its counterparts in the U.S. auto industry, Willys-Overland was eager to resume production of vehicles for the civilian market after the war ended. But, unlike the others, Willys' main automotive product had changed during the war years.

The little Americar of 1942 had given way to the Jeep and light trucks. If Willys was going to return to the car business, it would need something distinctive spun from them.

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1948 Willys Jeepster
The 1948 Willys Jeepster was a phaeton with a
carlike feel that owed much to Jeep trucks. See more classic car pictures.

Truly distinctive automobiles can sometimes come from the least likely places. The Willys Jeepster is a perfect example: Who would have thought one of America's most daring postwar automobile designs would be produced by a light-truck manufacturer? It came about simply because the chairman of Willys-Overland was determined to get back in the business of manufacturing passenger cars.

Willys chairman Ward Canaday was by nature a determined man. After the death in 1935 of John North Willys, who bought moribund Overland in 1907 and made it prosper for a time, Canaday shrewdly engineered a takeover of the now-bankrupt company via a complicated exchange of bonds and warrants for stock shares. For less than $2.5 million, a group of investors led by Canaday gained control of Willys-Overland.

With the threat of bankruptcy removed, the firm was able to get back into the production of cars and trucks. Remarkably, during 1937, its first year of operation, the new Willys-Overland Motors reported a profit of $473,000.

However, the following year the company reported a loss and would have nothing but losses to report until 1941, when sales of its Willys Americar passenger automobiles were augmented by government purchases of the first military scout vehicles that would come to be known as Jeeps.

World War II was Willys' salvation, and the attendant high levels of Jeep production provided funds to modernize and retool the company's aging plant. By war's end, Willys had a modern production system capable of high-volume output, and Canaday was aching to get back into the production of cars.

The responsibility for returning to peacetime production fell on the shoulders of Willys-Overland's president, Charles Sorensen, who landed at Willys after his earlier career at Ford Motor Company ended abruptly. "Cast-Iron Charlie" Sorensen was perhaps the most capable production manager in the world just then.

The first postwar vehicle Willys could produce was a civilian version of the Jeep -- a snap since it entailed minor revisions to an existing product rather than a completely new model. The Toledo, Ohio, plant was soon pumping out civilian Jeep CJ-2As. Still, in order to survive, Willys needed to build something in addition to the CJ.

After investigating the postwar supplier situation, however, Sorensen advised Canaday that Willys would be unable to produce passenger cars in the foreseeable future simply because there were no body manufacturers interested in supplying Willys' minuscule requirements. "Murray, Briggs, Budd-they won't even talk to us," he complained.

But Sorenson would soon solve this conundrum. Read the next section to find out what he did.

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Though at first it seemd that production of the 1948 Willys Jeepster -- a civilian version of a World War II jeep -- would be stalled for lack of a willing body manufacturer, Willys-Overland's resourceful president, Charles Sorensen, soon devised a plan: a company that provided sheet-metal panels to the appliance industry would stamp out body parts for Willys.

The drawback was that the machinery couldn't do deep-draw fenders or complicated shapes. Whatever Willys built would have to be simple and slab-sided-in other words, trucks instead of cars.

1948 Willys Jeepster
Designer Brooks Stevens' concept, the 1948 Willys
Jeepster, was fitted with front doors and a
fixed-position windshield.

Willys had on retainer a designer named Brooks Stevens, a talented young man whose first love was sports cars. Stevens set to work designing a line of postwar vehicles for Willys that included the Jeep pickup, panel truck, and station wagon. Their appearance displayed an obvious kinship with the CJ and its revered wartime predecessor.

Almost as an afterthought, Stevens included a sketch of a sporty two-door car based on the same chassis, a boldly painted roadster with, as Stevens recalled, "a yellow and black color scheme that just screamed at you for attention."

The wagon models were scheduled for production in mid 1946, with trucks to follow for 1947. Not surprisingly, Willys chairman Ward Canaday also approved production of the sportster. He realized the postwar era would see an automobile sellers' market the likes of which were almost beyond comprehension, literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for companies to earn some serious money. With Stevens' roadster, Willys would at least have an entry in the passenger-car market.

Stevens envisioned the car as a two-seater. However, management realized that two-passenger cars have very limited market appeal so the concept was expanded to fit five passengers.

Before the Jeepster reached production, Sorensen had been booted upstairs as vice chairman under former General Motors man James Mooney, who became both president and chairman of the board.

In December 1947, Mooney talked about the upcoming new car, calling it "a dashing four-cylinder sports phaeton which has captured much of the elusive quality of Continental models," and claiming it had "aroused keen interest and enthusiasm in test samplings of opinion." Production was planned for the following spring.

The 1948 Willys Jeepster was introduced in July 1948. Learn about its introduction -- and features -- next.

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The new 1948 Willys Jeepster was introduced to the public in July 1948. Willys chairman Ward Canaday had hoped to return to the passenger-car market with a mainstream sedan, but in the end he settled for a compromise; a car produced out of mostly truck components.

Although Willys bragged it was "advancing farther into the passenger car market" with the new car, it also admitted the tooling requirement was modest. That was because the Jeepster was based on the rear-wheel-drive Jeep station wagon chassis and shared many of the same parts. Wheelbase was 104 inches, same as the wagons.

1948 Willys Jeepster Go-Devil engine
The 1948 Willys Jeepster featured the Willys Jeep
"Go-Devil" engine, a sturdy 134.2-cid L-head
four-cylinder producing 63 bhp.

The Jeepster was designated Model VJ-2, though some sources list it as a Model 463-VJ-2. But although it shared many truck components, the Jeepster was an entirely different animal. Designer Brooks Stevens had somehow endowed it with a charming, sporty character.

Power was provided by the Willys Jeep "Go-Devil" engine, a sturdy 134.2-cid L-head four-cylinder producing 63 bhp. This engine was based on the old Whippet four, which years earlier had developed a reputation for being rough and unreliable.

However, in the late 1930s, Willys Chief Engineer Delmar "Barney" Roos and assistant Floyd Kishline redesigned much of the engine to improve durability and smoothness.

Water jackets were extended down the full length of the cylinder barrels, a counterweighted crankshaft and aluminum pistons were fitted, the cylinder head got a new combustion-chamber design for increased compression, a new timing chain with friction damping was provided, and larger intake valves were installed. The engine was transformed into the sturdy little wonder that powered the wartime Jeeps.

Hooked to this engine was a three-speed manual transmission with a then-current column shifter. Willys engineers and marketing people wisely chose to include overdrive as standard equipment. Combined with the standard 4.88:1 rear-axle ratio, this provided decent acceleration for the 2500-pound Jeepster, as well as a good cruising speed and excellent gas mileage.

The overdrive was of the automatic type; all one had to do to engage it once the control knob was set was lift off the gas pedal slightly. Pushing down hard on the gas pedal would disengage overdrive for quick passing maneuvers or climbing hills. Four-wheel drive was never offered; apparently it wasn't even considered by Willys.

Rear suspension was by conventional leaf springs, but the front featured Barney Roos' patented "Planadyne" suspension whereby both front wheels were independently sprung by a single transverse leaf spring. Road testers sometimes remarked that the Jeepster had a firmer ride than most cars.

The Jeepster's laminated fabric top was a hand-operated affair that unfolded easily enough. Once up, plastic side curtains could be slid into sockets to provide "all-weather" protection. On warm but windy days, the Jeepster could be driven with the top down and the curtains on.

Next, find out about the 1948 Jeepster's bevy of standard equipment.

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Desiring to make the most of its new passenger car, Willys decided that all 1948 Willys Jeepsters should come with a very substantial list of standard equipment.

The $1,765 base price included many features that cost extra on most cars, such as 5.90 × 15 whitewall tires, hubcaps with bright trim rings, front bumper guards, dual horns, dual sun visors, deluxe steering wheel, wind wings, locking glovebox, cigar lighter, top boot, and a continental spare tire with a fabric cover.

1948 Willys Jeepster, front view
The 1948 Willys Jeepster's hood, fenders,
grille, and chassis were borrowed from
the Jeep wagon. T-shaped vertical trim
on the slotted grille was standard.

­Fittings and interior were also deluxe: There were chrome step plates on the rear fenders for exuberant youths who preferred vaulting over the side to get into the rear seat. Instruments included a speedometer plus gauges for monitoring amps, oil pressure, water temperature, and fuel level. Door panels and interior kick panels were finished in a leather-grain Masonite, and floors were covered with a rubber mat. Colorful piping ran around the edges of the seats.

On early Jeepsters, front-seat adjustment required loosening four wing nuts and repositioning the seat; later models got a more convenient track adjuster. In the back, the tops of the rear-wheel housings were padded and used as armrests. A small luggage area was accessible by folding the rear seat forward.

The front passenger seat of the 1948 Willy Jeepster
The front passenger seat of the 1948 Willys Jeepster
tilted to let riders into the rear, where a cargo area
was behind the seatback.

The Jeepster's front end sported a bright T-shaped grille bar plus a chrome bumper with overriders. Most Jeepsters came with two-tone paint, with the secondary color (generally black) edged by a thin chrome strip that began at the cowl, ran along the upper body and doors, and wrapped around the back. (Even Jeepsters without the two-tone paint came with this molding.)

Popular options included a radio and heater. Right-hand drive was also available.

Designer Brooks Stevens bought the first one off the assembly line. He was understandably proud of the Jeepster; after all, it was his first automobile design to go into production.

Company advertising played on the sports theme. "A distinctly personal car. . . . This dashing sports car is truly different," claimed the sales brochure. Sales literature abounded with pictures of young people in Jeepsters going to football games or taking long rides in the country.

What did the critics have to say about the new Willys Jeepster? Get the answer in the next section of this article.

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The automotive press certainly liked the 1948 Willy Jeepster. Barney Clark, of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote that "the Jeepster is unique among full-size American cars for its quick response . . . and agility in traffic."

In stopwatch tests, the Jeepster managed 0-30 mph in 5.3 seconds, 0-50 mph in 14.1 seconds, and 0-60 mph in 21.9 seconds, reasonable performance for that time.

Clark called the engine "surprisingly smooth, though there are certain speeds at which vibration is noted. . . . [I]n the whole lower speed range acceleration is instantaneous and extremely brisk. From 55 on up it is a good deal slower . . . and the car seems capable of something better than 75 miles per hour. The steering is a delight. Firm and solid, yet light, it requires less movement of the wheel than is common nowadays."

1948 Willys Jeepster
Critics applauded the 1948 Willys Jeepster's
smooth and solid ride.

Signifying the importance the company placed on its new passenger car, the front cover of the 1948 Willys-Overland annual report featured just one vehicle -- the Jeepster. Obviously, this was a product for which the company had high hopes.

However, it soon became apparent that sales weren't going to reach expectations. The problems were few, but significant. First of all, the public just didn't like the whole phaeton /plastic side-curtain idea. Convertibles with roll-up windows, many even with power tops, had long since become common and were, in fact, the reason why other car companies had stopped building phaetons.

Second, there was the matter of price. Although Jeepster's $1,765 price sounds good in today's context, back then, a buyer's choices included the Ford V-8 Super Deluxe convertible for $1,740 and the six-cylinder Chevy Fleetmaster convertible for $1,750. Both featured larger engines with more cylinders, and both offered the comforts most people were looking for back then.

A third problem was that the Willys-Overland sales organization simply wasn't up to the job. Too many bad years had thinned out the ranks of Willys dealers.

Finally, the market itself was changing. The sellers' market that had prevailed since the end of World War II was just starting to end. In 1948, the supply of cars was beginning to catch up with demand, and competition was returning to the marketplace.

For its part, Willys tried to train its sales staff in how to move the iron. A guidebook advised salespeople to focus on Jeepster selling points: four-cylinder economy, an easily accessible engine, ease of parking, etc. As an example of how to address the Jeepster's perceived shortcomings, sales personnel were told to "Sell all-weather protection -- not side curtains." However, nothing seemed to help.

Only 10,326 of the 1948 Jeepsters were produced and many of them remained unsold when the 1949 models debuted. Apparently, the unsold Jeepsters were retitled as 1949 models. Read on for more details on the 1949 Willys Jeepster.

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To its credit, Willys-Overland took several steps to improve the Jeepster's competitive position. Price was believed to be the single greatest objection, so for the 1949 Willy Jeepster, Willys fielded a new Jeepster model with a much lower price tag.

The VJ-3 was tagged at $1,495, but some formerly standard features were now extra-cost options. The fancy "T"-shape grille trim, bumper guards, whitewall tires, wheel trim rings, and second horn were options now. Thankfully overdrive was still standard equipment.

1949 Willys Jeepster
Most 1949 Willys Jeepsters were four-cylinder
models, but a new VJ3-6-with a 148.5-cid L-head
six was added during the year.

Toward the middle of the year, an additional Jeepster model, the VJ3-6, powered by a new six-cylinder engine, was added to the lineup. It featured the smallest six on the market, an L-head of 148.5 cid producing 72 bhp, but it offered greater smoothness than the four. Willys priced the six-cylinder Jeepster at $1,530.

"The smartly styled Jeepster enjoyed renewed popularity this past summer as a result of improvements added to its comfort and convenience and substantially lowered price," claimed Jim Mooney, but he was whistling in the dark. Jeepster sales may have picked up for a while, but production for the year totaled only 2,960 units. Of these, 2,307 were equipped with the four-cylinder engine and 653 with the new six.

Clearly, things weren't going well. A carryover line of 1950 Jeepsters was announced in the fall of 1949, but they were destined to be only interim models.

1950 Willys Jeepster
The 1950 Willys Jeepster sported five horizontal
chrome bars, and the formerly blunt-faced
fenders gained some roundness.

In March 1950, all senior Jeep vehicles, Jeepster included, got a batch of revisions and improvements. On the mechanical side, Willys introduced its new "Hurricane" four-cylinder engine, based on the Go-Devil but featuring an F-head with the intake valves located m the head. This allowed for larger intake valves, improved breathing, and more power.

The Hurricane four produced 72 bhp at 4,000 rpm, a pretty good improvement over the Go-Devil. "There's magic under the hood of Willys' smart new Jeepster," ads proclaimed, "Hurricane power!"

Meanwhile, the Willys six-cylinder engine got a bore increase that hiked displacement to 161 cubic inches. Although it retained its flathead design, the increase in displacement boosted output to 75 bhp at 4,000 rpm.

Jeepsters also received new frontal styling, including rounded fenders with a handsome peak on the forward edge, and a stylish new vee-shaped grille with five horizontal chrome bars. A redesigned instrument panel debuted as well.

Because the new models arrived midyear, there were two series of 1950 Jeepsters. The earlier, first-series fours were designated VJ-3 463; the first-series sixes were VJ-3 663. Jeepsters carrying the new four-cylinder engine and revamped styling were designated VJ-473, while six-cylinder models were dubbed VJ-673.

Also shown that year was an aluminum-bodied Jeepster coupe prototype. Produced by Alcoa to test ideas in automobile body panels, the two-seat coupe's lightweight structure had a pleasing flair. Two different front-end styles were shown, so it's possible that two coupes were built.

Not that any of this did much good. Total 1950 Jeepster production was 5,845 units, of which 4,066 were four-cylinder models and 1,779 were sixes. And even though production nudged up a bit, sales remained in the basement.

Next, find out how the Jeepster weathered model year 1951.

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The 1951 Willys Jeepster looked very familiar. After poor sales in 1950, the decision was made to end Jeepster production, but Willys, stuck with a number of unsold Jeepsters, decided to retitle the leftovers. Thus there would be a line of 1951 Jeepsters, at least in name.

Obviously, there was nothing new for 1951. Apparently all the year's Jeepsters were merely retitled 1950 models, although one source claims that a handful of actual 1951 Jeepsters, perhaps nine in all, were produced by Willys to use up leftover parts. Corroboration for that is hard to come by, though.

1951 Willys Jeepster
The 1951 Willlys Jeepsters were merely retitled
leftovers from 1950.

In the Jeepster's four model years, a total of 19,131 were produced. However, its popularity among die-hard fans was such that Jeepsters became collectible almost from the time they went out of production. Clubs sprang up for devotees, and to this day they remain perhaps the most collectible of all Jeeps.

In fact, the Jeepster has resurfaced twice since 1951. In 1962, designer Brooks Stevens created a restyled version of the original for possible production in Brazil. Unfortunately, the factory lacked sufficient spare capacity to build it and the project had to be dropped.

But so strong was sentiment for the fancy Jeep roadster that in 1967, Kaiser Jeep -- successor to Willys-Overland -- introduced an all-new Jeepster. Sharing almost no parts with the original, the new four-wheel-drive Jeepster and Jeepster Commando enjoyed some success before being replaced by the Jeep Cherokee in 1974.

Long before that, though, Willy chairman Ward Canaday finally got the thing he wanted so badly. In 1952, Willys brought out a new passenger car, a two-door sedan that was the spiritual successor to the prewar Americar. Canaday was certain Willys would reap great profits from it.

For Jeepster specifications, check out the next section. It lists models, prices, and production numbers for the 1948-1951 Willys Jeepster, plus details on the 1949 model.

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Here are selected specifications for the 1949 Willys Jeepster, as well as models, prices and production numbers for the 1948-1951 Willys Jeepster.

1949 Willys Jeepster: Selected Specifications
Wheelbase (in.)
Overall length (in.)
Overall height (in.)
Overall width (in.)
Tread, front /rear (in.)
Weight, 4-cylinder (lbs)
6-cylinder (lbs)
inline L-head 4-cylinder
Bore × stroke (in.)
3.13 × 4.38
Displacement (cid)
Horsepower @ rpm
63 @ 3,900
Compression ratio
Main bearings
1-bbl Carter
inline L-head 6-cylinder
Bore × stroke (in.)
3.00 × 3.50
Displacement (cid)
Horsepower @ rpm
72 @ 4,000
Compression ratio
Main bearings
1-bbl Carter
3-speed manual with overdrive, synchromesh in 2nd and 3rd, column-mounted shifter
1st: 2.60:1; 2nd: 1.63:1; 3rd: 1.00:1; overdrive: .70:1; reverse: 3.53:1
Ross cam and lever
Turns, lock-to-lock
Turning circle (ft)

independent upper A-arms, single transverse leaf spring
semielliptic leaf springs, torsional stabilizer bar
4-wheel hydraulic drum
Drum diameter (in.) 9.9
Lining area (sq in.)
Tires and Wheels
Tire size, 4-cylinder 5,90 × 15
Tire size, 6-cylinder 6,70 × 15
pressed steel, drop-center rim

1948-1951 Willys Jeepster: Models, Prices, Production
1948 Weight
Price Prod
463 VJ-2 (wb 104)
2d phaeton
2,468 1,765 10,326
VJ-3 (wb 104)
2d phaeton
2,468 1,495 2,307
VJ-3-6 (wb 104)
2d phaeton
2,392 1,530 653
Total 1949 Willys Jeepster
VJ-3 4631 (wb 104)
2d phaeton
2,468 1,495 --
VJ-3 473 (wb 104)
2d phaeton
2,459 1,3902 --
VJ-3 6631 (wb 104)
2d phaeton
2,392 1,530 --
VJ-3 673 (wb 104)
2d phaeton
2,485 1,4903
Total 1950-51 Willys Jeepster 5,8454
11950 only. 2$1,426 in 1951. 3$1,529 in 1951. 4Includes 4,066 four-cylinder models and 1,779 six-cylinder models. Sources: Encyclopedia of American Cars, by the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide®, Publications International, Ltd., 2002; Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942, 2nd ed., by Beverly Rae Kimes and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Krause Publications, 1989.


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