Did I accidentally buy Don Prudhomme’s hot-rodded Willys CJ-5 for $1600?
I am a sucker for an old car with a good story.
One of the many old-car loves of mine is of the four-wheel-drive variety—the early Willys CJ-5. There’s just something about the combination of a short wheelbase, tall tires, and a driver’s seat directly on top of a fuel tank that does it for me. CJ-5s are generally inexpensive and were particularly so back in 2008 when I bought this one, good ol’ #5754821076.
I was living in Nashville, Tennessee, and found the jeep on Craigslist for the princely sum of $1600. I went to go check it out. As I had surmised from the grainy photos, there wasn’t much stock about it. The Willys did indeed have a Chevrolet V-8, a jacked-up suspension, oversized tires, and a roll bar, and it did run and drive, although you could tell it hadn’t been on the road in a while.
The smaller details made me the most curious, though. The body was the same one the jeep wore when it came off the line in 1955, and it showed very little rust, if any. Not normal for a backwoods-lookin’ jeep in the Deep South. The air cleaner and body wore several stickers from “Valley Head Service”—a pretty famous engine shop in Southern California—stickers that looked like they had been there a long time. Seats from a 1966 Mustang and a red metal-flake steering wheel completed the vibe.
What exactly is going on here?
The seller sort of shrugged and said he had bought it “a while back” from a guy that used to live in California, who might have gotten it from Don Prudhomme, the champion drag racer, for running in the sand dunes.
I’m sorry, what was that again?
“No way to prove it,” he says, “and I don’t have any paperwork.”
Fantastic. I used all my shrewd negotiating skills to pay him the full asking price.
I got the jeep home and dove in for a more detailed inspection. My Chevrolet V-8 casting-number book told me it had a late-’60s 327 coupled with a Muncie four-speed from the same era. The front driveshaft was missing, and the rear driveshaft was connected to a narrowed Ford 9-inch with quick-change axle shafts. This thing was getting wilder by the minute.
Behind the wheel, this Willys was nuts. Turn the key and the noise of that V-8 blasted out from the sidepipes exiting just under your ear. The gauges were all vintage Stewart-Warner, sun-faded but operational. I remember gripping that bass-boat steering wheel for dear life as I ran the thing up through the gears for the first time under full power. This had to be the most unsafe way to accelerate to 80 mph I’d ever experienced. It was absolutely ridiculous. The fact that I had also removed the hood and windshield only added to the experience!
Alright, so I had an operational jeep. Good start. I wanted to lower it back to the stock suspension height and swap the crusty old 33-inch tire-and-wheel setup for the more historically accurate, skinny steel versions. During this process, one of the items I had removed from the vehicle was the rear spare-tire carrier. As I looked at the giant Goodyear tire on the floor of my garage, something caught my eye.
Written in ink on the tire were shipping instructions from Goodyear Tire to Don Prudhomme, listing an address in Granada Hills, California! Did I actually have proof of a link between one of the greatest drag racers of all time and this crazy hot-rod jeep? I didn’t have any paperwork, but this stamping was a pretty incredible connection. For the time being, I decided to put the tire aside and move ahead with the project.
Over the next couple of months, I painted the jeep myself in a nice desert tan, removed the shackle extensions, sourced some correct-size wheels, and installed the first top it had enjoyed in 40 years. I kept the steering wheel, Mustang seats, and racing stickers, since I thought they gave an appropriate nod towards its earlier history. I also kept the driveline intact, as that race engine was just too much fun to remove. I was feeling pretty good about my $1600 jeep at this point, especially with the “ironclad” proof of celebrity ownership.
One day, I decided to channel my inner drag-racer and launched it. Insert your own Batman comics word balloons, but I think WHAM! BANG! POW! work pretty well. In one swift clutch drop, I shattered the ring and pinion. Crap. I had to get a buddy to tow-strap me home (always a fun call to make on the side of the road). Thanks to those quick-change axles (this might have happened before, methinks) pulling the pumpkin out of the Ford 9-inch wasn’t too bad of a job, and it forced me to learn another mechanical task I hadn’t yet tackled myself. The mishap certainly made me a little more wary of the power under my right foot!
Fast forward to August of 2010, and I was at the Pebble Beach Concours. Who do I see walking up the lawn? None other than Don Prudhomme himself! Fortunately, Don is a great guy and didn’t mind me sidling up into the crowd that was starting to form around him. Everyone was asking the typical questions about his racing history, so my query—“Hey, I think I own your old jeep, do you remember it?”—got his attention. I showed him a photo of the tire on my phone and he smiled. Yes, that was his old address in the 1970s. But he had never owned an old jeep that he could remember—the people that worked for him would buy tires on his sponsor accounts, though, and they probably shipped them to Lerdo Street. “Why would I have an old Jeep?” he added. “I’m a drag racer!” We laughed about it for a minute, and the brief conversation was really nice, even though I didn’t hear exactly the news for which I had hoped.
Shortly thereafter, I sold the jeep to another local guy in Tennessee so I could focus up on other projects. Who knows if the mystery jeep is still on the road somewhere? Oh, and I still have the tire—one day I’ll make a glass-top table out of it. It’s always a reminder to trust, but verify, any automotive “provenance”!