WAR HERO: 1942 Willys MB in the South Australian desert: the origin of the Jeep species as it celebrates its 75th anniversary.
WAR HERO: 1942 Willys MB in the South Australian desert: the origin of the Jeep species as it celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Classic Test: 1942 Willys MB - the very first Jeep

REMEMBER those war films you watched as a kid?

One constant for any set during World War II was the military Jeep, normally with our hero behind the wheel.   

What leading man could resist boosting his idol status by being seen in one? There are few vehicles through history quite as iconic - or cool - as the original Jeep (or Willys MB to give it the proper name) and this year the marque celebrates 75 years since the first was created.   

As part of Jeep's celebration to honour the milestone, I was given the opportunity to sample one of the originals, a 1942 Willys MB, in the South Australian outback.   

Dream cars come in many guises, and while exotic Italian supercars and historical race cars are obvious fantasy drives, the experience of piloting such a wartime and silver screen legend was impossible to pass up.  

1942 Willys MB, Flinders Ranges, South Australia
1942 Willys MB, Flinders Ranges, South Australia

Family farm hack

Our '42 Willys boasted impressive single-family ownership since 1950, with current custodian being Bronte Hooper from the quiet town of Orroroo in rural South Australia.   

His great grandfather bought the vehicle as a farm hack all those decades ago, with family stories recalling Bronte's grandmother learning how to drive in the old war hero. A WW2 Jeep as a first car trumps a Ford Laser hands down.

Australia used about 15,000 Willys MBs during wartime efforts and they were sold off at auctions after the war.    This example first arrived in Australia in late 1943, and it is known to have been used by the 1st Aust Corps in the New Britain/Bougainville regions of the South Pacific.   

What happened between its auctioning off by the army in 1946 and its 1950 purchase is unknown, but Bronte said it has remained in the family since that time, with his grandfather telling him stories of going spotlighting for foxes in it using a Villiers-powered aircraft generator to power the spotlight.  

Ultimate school project

The Willys had led a rough rural life and was quite dilapidated by the time the family retired it to a shed, where it remained until Bronte decided to resurrect the family heirloom as a Year 10 school project. Why can't all school projects be this cool?  

"It has taken a few years, a lot of money and plenty of elbow grease to finish it," he said, insisting it has been repaired rather than restored.   

1942 Willys MB beside its modern interpretation, the 75th Anniversary Jeep Wrangler. Photo: Iain Curry
1942 Willys MB beside its modern interpretation, the 75th Anniversary Jeep Wrangler. Photo: Iain Curry

It is no polished "too perfect" example, rather a genuine looking and very tidy Willys MB with its fair share of body panels a tad dinged in places.   

Most importantly, it has the same chassis, engine and body number as when it was produced and imported to Australia.  

And doesn't it look fabulous in such a setting? Complete with painted white military numbers on its bonnet, axe and shovel mounted to the body's side, Jerry can at the rear and the open-top no-doored body coated in red dust it's as if it has rolled off a Hollywood set.  

Driving the legend

It's not the hardest thing to drive either. It's a bit of a clamber in to get your behind on the flat canvas driver's seat, and your knees squeeze under the giant thin metal steering wheel.   

The dashboard layout is so simple with minimal switches and gauges, while there's no modern nonsense like carpeting or padding, just plenty of green-painted bare metal.  

Flick a dash switch, squeeze a little button behind the gear stick and give a bit of throttle and the 45kW four-cylinder roars to life.   

The gear shifter feels a bit flimsy in the hand with its long, thin stalk but the throw is quite short and it's simple to engage first gear in the less conventional (these days) bottom left of the gate.   

1942 Willys MB cabin. Photo: Contributed
1942 Willys MB cabin. Photo: Contributed

There's synchromesh on all but first gear so there's no gear graunching as you move into second and then third with no fuss at all.  

It actually feels like it gets up to speed at decent pace, but this isn't unusual for anything when the driver is this exposed to the elements. Even so, with 142Nm of torque the 4x4 Willys has impressive pull; its torquey engine one of the main reasons Willys Overland scored the contract to build these wartime legends.  

Desert storm

A beautiful hard sand bowl in view of South Australia's Flinders Ranges was the test setting, and over the flat surface the Willys smoothly cruised along in a manner a General would appreciate.   

I went through a few deeper tracks and the live axles on leaf springs began to bounce quite significantly cutting the comfort level down, but heck, there was a war on; comfort takes a back seat to getting the troops out of a town about to be bombed out of existence.  

The giant steering wheel and a fair whack of body roll means turning the Willys is best kept to low speeds, but beyond that, I'd have been comfortable throwing this classic onto some serious off-road tracks (I didn't, it is a 75-year-old war veteran after all), as it still feels a very solid and capable unit light enough to bound over rough terrain.   

Some of the wartime promotional videos show exactly how capable these things were; and how eager they were to get some air over the bigger jumps. Mind your head on that metal steering wheel on landing though.  

After my short drive in the Willys MB and then hopping in to its modern Jeep equivalent, it was very apparent how spoiled we are today.  

We think nothing of travelling for hours on end in air-conditioned comfort with all the entertainment you could reasonably wish for, and we typically hop out at journey's end feeling perfectly refreshed. A few minutes in the Willys and I was a dusty mess with a numb bum. We have gone soft these days.  

Iain Curry in a 1942 Willys MB, FLinders Ranges, SOuth Australia. Photo: Thomas Wielecki
Iain Curry in a 1942 Willys MB, FLinders Ranges, SOuth Australia. Photo: Thomas Wielecki

All-American hero

The Willys MB has been described as America's greatest contribution to modern warfare, and that it influenced every 4x4 that followed in its tracks. It'd be hard to argue too strongly against either.   

Back in World War II troops needed to be transported vast distances over tough terrain, and the vehicle chosen to do this had to be simple, agile, sturdy, capable and tough.   

While ticking all the above boxes the original Jeep of 75 years ago also became a motoring style icon, its familiar grille and angled wheel arches still a staple of the Jeep brand today.   

Having the chance to drive the origin of the species - which also just happens to be a much-loved war hero - was a privilege, history lesson and an American-sized dose of fun.  

1942 Willys MB. Photo: Thomas Wielecki
1942 Willys MB. Photo: Thomas Wielecki

Vital statistics

Model: 1942 Willys MB.  

Details: World War 2 military 4x4 utility vehicle built between 1941 and 1945.  

Number built: 359,489 (MB only). 

Engine: 2.2-litre four-cylinder Go Devil with 45kW and 142Nm.  

Transmission: Three-speed manual with two-range transfer case.  

Suspension: Live axles on leaf springs.  

Weight: 1113kg (empty).  

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