Auto Tech

Obscure American Car: Willys Jeepster

The year is 1948. A new off-road utility vehicle is rolling off assembly lines. It's geared at World War II veterans and its design is reminiscent of the massive boxes driven during wartime a few years before. Sound familiar?

It's not a Land Rover, but in fact a Jeep. And not the normal frame-revealing box on wheels we recognize today, but something ... sportier. It's the Jeepster.

The Jeepster proudly donned the vertical grill and dual circular headlamps synonymous with Jeeps of the day, but behind the front fascia, things were different. The Jeepster was lower, body lines were less pronounced, and the rear fenders were flared to incorporate the lower stance. It also sported optional white wall tires, and a removable rag-top. For all essential purposes, it was a convertible, yet the Jeepster couldn't be called a convertible as it had no form of windows. This (lack of) design made the it the last Phaeton ever produced.

A blend of the Jeep MG TD and an army-grade Jeep, the Jeepster was marketed as the perfect sports car for the soldier who had recently returned stateside. A 1949 magazine ad tried to sell a dream -- a "daring, fun-loving dream," proclaiming the Jeepster was perfect for back-roads. The ad suggests the driver "take off from the crowded highway, the mob is not for you."

Mechanically the rear-wheel drive Jeepster shared quite a bit with it's 4x4 brethren. A 2.2 liter inline-four pushing 60 horsepower was borrowed from the Jeep CJ2, and in 1949 a more powerful, 73 horsepower model was released using a 2.4 liter inline-six from the Jeep Station Wagon. The Jeepster was also equipped with the Station Wagon's suspension, an unfortunate decision, as handling was not up to par with the sports car image Jeep's advertising proclaimed.

Americans have always had an infatuation with Jeeps. Its masculine characteristics have mass appeal, and have gone on to inspire throngs of off-roaders, notably the Land Rover Series I. Unfortunately, the Jeepster didn't quite fit in, and the dream didn't sell. By Jeep standards, it wasn't really a Jeep. By sports car standards, it wasn't a real sports car. By convertible standards, it wasn't even a real convertible.

In 1950, after selling fewer than 20,000 models, the Jeepster was discontinued. The legacy lives on, however, and the Willys Overland Jeepster Club still meets twice a year. Let's raise a glass to these men and women, for keeping the obscure around to see another day.