I stared at the old van on my computer screen. I saw an unremarkable rectangular box, slightly sloping in the front, void of style or much personality; there was little inspiring about the van. It looked like a 'ran-when-parked' vehicle that hadn't run in decades, left to rust, more dead than alive. As I surveyed it, I struggled to write something interesting about it, other than it was something I'd never seen. As with all posts published on my vintage jeep site, eWillys, I wanted to add some useful information about the van for readers. However, this van wasn't a normal Willys or Jeep.
It was August of 2011 and I'd seen enough jeeps to know when something is and isn't a jeep. I use very broad search queries when looking for them, so I often receive odd ball results. But then, that's the point; to find the oddballs that others miss. In this case, I discovered the van as part of my daily search on Craigslist. The only reason I found it was that 'Willys' was mentioned in the title. The only identifying mark on the van was a Willys Overland script logo, similar to the logo you could find on an early Willys Truck or Wagon. Other than that, there was nothing obviously Willys about it. And, as usual, the vehicle was too far away for a personal visit, located in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, several thousand miles away from me. In fact, I pondered whether to list it at all, because I wasn't altogether sure Willys was involved in producing it. I even wondered if someone stuck a Willys Overland logo from another vehicle onto the front of the van, just because they could -- maybe it was an old general motors van of some kind. However, if there is one thing I know after researching jeeps every day for the past five years, never say never when it comes to Willys Overland or Kaiser Jeep.
Despite my misgivings, I posted it. I figured that if I didn't know what it was, maybe a reader might. Also, I knew that prior to the jeep, Willys Overland built similar step panel vans, like this one. Willys also built truck platform's that could be used in different ways, as this pre-war Willys truck ad from Canada demonstrates. Finally, I knew Willys used their jeep, truck and wagon chassis for fire trucks and other utility vehicles, so the possibility was there for a step van, too. But, based on the images I saw on the Craigslist ad, the lack of any Willys post war styling characteristics or any other Willys Overland labels besides the logo on the grille indicated to me only a slight chance of it being a Willys. Even the early responses by readers weren't too positive.
But then, almost magically, Glenn Byron produced a sales brochure tucked away in his files. When he first obtained the brochure in 2010, he contacted other jeep experts asking if they had seen an example of the step van, but no one knew anything about the model. After spotting the van post on eWillys, he excitedly emailed me the brochure. According to the document, the van was called the Urban Package Delivery Van, or P.D. for short. It was built on a 2WD Willys Pickup chassis, but not at the Willys Overland Toledo Plant. Instead, Plaza Motors, Inc., out of Englewood, New Jersey, manufactured the body with Willys-Overland Factory Approval. Following more discussions, Glenn, along with Colin Peabody, believed that the van was probably produced during 1947 or 1948 and probably the only one left in existence.
A few days after posting the van for sale on eWillys, Mike Nellis from Lake Geneva, Ohio, left a note there saying he had purchased the step van. He wrote, "I love stepvans... didn't know I might be getting the last one of its kind." It was in such bad shape he only paid $430 for it. At the time he noted the van had a 5x5.5" bolt pattern, a sure sign it had Willys DNA. Mike also left some email information, leading several readers to contact Mike with offers of help and additional information in an effort to support the restoration of this unique vehicle. He was thankful for the support, as he knew little about Willys.
We all thought that was the end of it, expecting at some point to see an update on his progress. Instead, several months later in April of 2012, Mike sent Glenn a message indicating he wouldn't have time to tackle the van restoration and wondering if someone would like to have the van for free. He just wanted to see someone save it.
His generosity spurred the vintage jeep community to band together. First, Jesse Ybarra, contacted Craig Brockhouse of the FC Connection to see if he could bring it to Phoenix, because he was already coming out to his place with an empty trailer to pick up two vehicles on a large heavy duty trailer. Then Jesse contacted Roger Martin of Waynesville, Ohio, to ask if he could go up to Lake Geneva, Ohio and make the impossible happen, because the van had no tires and the wheels were rusted on the bottoms, so it had to be dragged up onto a trailer. With the transportation tentatively arranged, Jesse asked his friend Ken if he would agree to work on one more project; he agreed that it needed to be saved. So, Jesse called Mike and the agreements were finalized. Then, Craig volunteered to transport the van from Missouri to Phoenix. Finally, Roger Martin agreed to pick up the van in Ohio and bring it to his house to make Craig's trip from Missouri shorter. With plans in place, Roger began the relay.
According to Craig, "If you check out the early link to this truck on eWillys you'll see that the Delivery Van was hopelessly non-movable even with a gang of strongmen pushing on it. Roger took his truck and trailer on a 600 mile round trip journey and single handedly winched the Frozen beast onto his gooseneck and brought it back to his place where it made the task of loading it onto my trailer like a walk in the park . . . . Many thanks to Roger for starting this adventure as if it weren't for him it might still be mired in the dirt on the Ohio/Pennsylvania border!!!"
A few days later, in early June of 2012, Craig picked up the Van from Roger and brought it back to Missouri, where it spent the summer. In June Jesse flew out to Craig's to look at it in person, and get measurements and an idea about the frame and chassis. In late September 2012, Craig and his friend Steve made a quick weekend 1,500 mile trip to Phoenix to deliver the van to Jesse's house, arriving last Saturday afternoon and leaving again late Saturday evening after loading a K-30 4x4 Chevy tow truck chassis for Craig's M-677 and a Willys FJ3 Fleetvan on the trailer to head the 1500 miles back Missouri for their 2PM work shift on Monday (Craig reports he made it home two hours before work started!).
Saturday evening, Colin drove a few miles from his house in Phoenix over to Jesse's to see the delivery of the van and check it out in person. He reported on it the next day, "the van body is aluminum over a square tubing framework and Jesse thinks they will take all the panels off and straighten them. The rear doors are inside the body, but he thinks he will build a new door, single rather than double for the rear. He is going to try to retain as much of the original sheet metal and stainless as he can, to include the grille. The grille has the 1946-49 Willys Overland script(used on the tailgate of the station wagons) on it still, placed at an angle across the top of the grille under the windshield. It has a Willys pickup steering wheel (different from what the station wagons and Jeepsters had), same basic style, but different, a column shift for the 3 speed transmission, and the gauge cluster (speedometer, oil, temp, gas and amp) are all there in its original engine turned nacelle identical to that used in Jeepsters and Station Sedans from 1948. The chassis under it is very light and wouldn’t be suitable for use today and because of the rust isn’t in very good shape at all." The original frame is actually different from the Willys pickup frame, as it has a much longer wheelbase.
Despite its shortcomings, age and condition, if anyone can breathe life back into the tired van, it is Jesse. Jesse has rebuilt vehicles all his life, still owning the first vehicle he modified as a youngster. For those that haven't seen Jesse's work, his beautiful built M-677 is evidence of his well deserved reputation for excellent work.
Jesse has already developed a road map for this unique van. As Colin mentioned, Jesse knows the chassis is unsuitable for use, so Jesse picked out an updated chassis, a 1990 GM, P-30 that started life as a thirty-one foot Fleetwood Southwind Motorhome. Jesse shortened the wheel base to 118 inches and removed the unneeded length from the back. He chose this frame because it has a flat top and it will fit the underside of the 1948 Willys Van well. It will also have a "massive rear end and monster brakes", but will still have the soft ride of the A-arm front end, as the front coils and rear leaf springs have been changed to new GM 3/4 ton. Powering the updated van will be a newly rebuilt and balanced 1970 Cadillac Eldorado with 400hp / 550lb tq @ 2000rpm (Eldorado has the rear sump). Moving the engine power to the rear will be a is 472 RWD TH-475 transmission.
So, this van that began life with a unique Willys-made-Van Truck Chassis and almost died a rusty death, will have a new life thanks to a community effort. With its new chassis and original exterior it should have many more years of life. I have no doubt, whether he finishes it or not over the next six months, it will be a crowd favorite at the 2013 FC Roundup next spring.
Thanks to Colin, Glenn and Jesse for sharing the information necessary to report on this unique project! Stay tuned for updates as the project moves along!