Grandpa saved this 1-of-1 Jeep from the crusher. His grandkids restored it

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Harold “Pete” Johnson was one of a kind. The same could be said for his favorite truck. Today the two live on—one of them in spirit, the other as a popular entry at Jeep shows—thanks to the love and dedication of his grandchildren. And a promise to Pete’s wife.

“We love to tell Grandpa’s story, and the truck gives us the opportunity to do that,” says Mike Smith, who met and married Johnson’s granddaughter Paula in the 1980s. “He was a pretty special person.”

Facebook/Mike Smith

“Special” is also an appropriate (and literal) description of Pete Johnson’s 1977 Jeep J10 extended cab, the only one of its kind; Johnson supervised the prototype project at AMC/Jeep’s Toledo factory. Built on a Wagoneer frame, the extended cab offered a second row of seating, an idea that “was ahead of its time,” Mike says. “Now it’s difficult to find a regular cab these days.”

Johnson and his team created a unicorn, although they didn’t know it at the time. To distinguish the extended cab from other vehicles during production, the word “Special” was hastily scrawled onto the frame. Decades later, that word would help prove its authenticity.

1977 Jeep J10 Extended cab restoration Special frame detail
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The fact that the only Jeep extended cab is still with us is a testament to Johnson’s love for the truck and his tenacity in protecting it. After AMC/Jeep declined to put the special truck into production, Johnson was ordered to crush it, a common practice for prototypes, whether or not the company decides to put them into production. Johnson couldn’t destroy the truck. Instead, he and his team hid it from their superiors behind filing cabinets and debris, biding their time until Johnson’s new boss agreed to sell it to him for $1.

“That truck was Grandpa’s dream,” says Mike Smith, 56. “He drove it every day. Thank God it blew the transmission at 64,000 miles.” The non-running truck sat idle for years, waiting for the right time, and person, to be brought back to life. That person would be Mike.

“I’ll never forget the first time I met Grandpa, which I believe would have been in ’86,” says Mike, who was a U.S. Marine at the time. “He grabbed me by the back of the neck and said, ‘Son, in this family we don’t buy depreciable value.’ I know now that he was probably talking about cars, but at the time I thought, ‘What does that mean?’

“He was old school. He’d explain how they did things [when designing a new vehicle]—how they’d start with a clay mold. You hear the term ‘one-off’ and you wonder, ‘Is this a really big deal?’ But everybody in the family knew that truck was a big deal.”

Following Johnson’s death, the family talked about restoring the heirloom. Paula’s brother Jeff suggested to Pete’s wife, Ruth, that Mike was the one for the job.

1977 Jeep J10 Extended cab restoration cab work
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“He went to Grandma and said, ‘There’s only one person who has the skills and means to do it, and that’s Mike,’” remembers Smith, a contractor from Findlay, Ohio. “I told her, ‘Grandma, if you give me this truck, I promise it will go back together like it came out of the factory, right down to the last bolt.’ It was tough, but I kept that promise. It was critical for me to keep my word to her.”

It wouldn’t be an easy restoration. True to his word, Mike removed every last piece and laid everything out on cardboard, determining what was missing and what needed to be replaced. Keeping his promise, there would be no shortcuts.

“Somebody had started to work on it—maybe him,” Smith says. “The left front fender was missing, and the hood was in the back with a box of parts. I used everything that I could, but I had to get a new fender, and there were things that needed to be replaced.”

Smith did the work himself, including bringing the engine back to life. He also received help from an unexpected source, Zach Heisey, owner of Z&M Jeeps Ltd., in Maumee, Ohio, and a senior manager at Dana, Inc., an aftermarket engineering company. Heisey provided a ray of sunshine during a social media storm.

1977 Jeep J10 extended cab resto engine
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Jeep J-10 Extended badge
Facebook/Mike Smith

“I didn’t realize how radical Jeep people are,” Smith says. “When I went on a Jeep site and said that I owned an original J10 extended cab that had avoided the crusher, literally 500–1000 people called me a liar. I try not to get caught up in the negative, but it did bother me a bit because so many people doubted it. Then one guy saw it and wanted to see it for himself.”

That guy was Heisey.

“He saw the word ‘Special’ and he said, ‘Oh, my God. Oh, my God. This is real. Whatever you do, do not lose this on the frame,’” Smith says. “So we acid-dipped everything but the frame, and we sandblasted that to protect it. If you want to verify a Jeep’s authenticity, Zach’s the guy to do it. He verified what we already knew to be true.”

Heisey also helped procure parts, and when it came to correctness, Smith was like a dog with a bone.

For example, “The original vinyl had small holes in it, like you’d see on seats (today) that air-conditioning blows through. I couldn’t find any to match, so I thought maybe I’d grid out the material and poke holes in it so it looked like the original, but I realized that would never work. I finally found a place in [the state of] Washington that had one roll of the original vinyl left.”

Another box checked.

The Ginger Poly–painted Jeep received further authentication when, in March 2019, the Smiths started a Facebook page so fans could watch the truck’s transformation. Former Jeep employees who had worked for Johnson began reaching out, including the man who wrote the word “Special” on the frame. “We knew those people were telling the truth because I’d ask them what Grandpa would eat for lunch.”

1977 Jeep J10 extended cab resto frame special marking
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That simple sentence requires a little more explanation. “Grandma and Grandpa were inseparable; they loved being together; they always held hands,” Smith explains. “She’d often fix a big dinner for everyone, but Grandpa loved tomato soup and noodles—we called them ‘Grandpa noodles’—and he always had ice cream for dessert, so she’d always fix that for him no matter what everyone else was eating. I’d ask the people who worked with him what he ate for lunch, and they’d all say, ‘It’s the strangest thing—he only ate ice cream.’ That’s because he could only get Grandpa noodles at home, so he’d only eat ice cream for lunch when he was at work.”

Smith says telling stories like that helps keep Pete and Ruth Johnson’s spirits alive. The extended cab provides the vessel. Although an entire team of workers built the truck, the family doesn’t have to look far to find Pete’s personal handiwork. “The front seat slides all the way forward and tips forward to the windshield to let people get in the back seat,” Smith says. “Grandpa made that bracket himself.”

After completing the restoration, the one-and-only 1977 Jeep J10 extended cab has been shown at the Toledo Jeep Fest and the Great Smoky Mountain Jeep Club Invasion in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. There are plans to show it far and wide, including (but not yet confirmed) at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, October 31–November 3.

1977 Jeep J10 extended cab resto side
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Facebook/Mike Smith

Sadly, Pete and Ruth Johnson never saw the completed truck. Mike Smith imagines how they would have reacted.

“I’ve actually had a dream about that,” he says. “The two of them were there, and Grandma did this [restoration] to surprise him. I think once their tears stopped, Grandpa would say, ‘Well done.’ I think he would be very proud and happy that someone cared about it almost as much as he did.”

 

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Comments

    I’m glad he saved and restored it to original. Honestly, if I were putting that much money in rebuilding a truck I’d at least put a good EFI system on the AMC 360, and there’s a better chance I’d re-power the whole thing with a Toyota 5.7 or something… just not an LS because EVERYBODY uses them (I know, very good reasons for it, great aftermarket swap support and all, but…). I’m an AMC guy, and the old 360 is just as good as any other carbed motor of the time (1977 Chevy 350, Ford 351… I’d say better than the Ford or Chrysler 360s though, but that’s just an opinion). But it’s not a modern motor. A better cam, intake, and EFI would REALLY liven it up and bring it up to more modern standards, and make it much more enjoyable to drive. But it wouldn’t be restored… resto-mod at best. Something like this is best perfectly restored! There is one (of three made) AMC/Jeep “Cowboy” small truck prototypes still around, but it was altered in the late 70s with the addition of a 73 Hornet front end, making it look more like an ElCamino/Ranchero competitor than a truck (originally it had a 70 Gremlin front end). That’s exactly what people think when they see it, not the utility vehicle it was intended to be. It would be less visually appealing if restored though.

    This is one of the best Hagerty stories I have read. Just amazing, the truck, the people, the writing style. Exceptional overall.

    Cool story, enjoyed reading
    My old Jeep has dents in the front fender that I covered up with Wile E. Coyote decals,

    Yes I remember walking around war hoops junkyard in Sterling heights in the late seventies. There was a lot of cool stuff there!

    That’s awesome 👏, As a life long Jeep enthusiast I really enjoyed reading about the J10, I’ve had many Jeeps, Willys ect . None as Special as this one , I did buy a J10 out of a local junkyard, vowing to only use the running gear . It was originally a government vehicle never titled and complete with Dept of the Interior markings on the dash . Curious I tried to see if I could obtain a title thru contacts I had the VIN number put into the DMV computer. That stunt almost landed the junk yard owner and myself in jail. After many heated exchanges He collected the rolling chassis and other parts I hadn’t used to satisfy the Feds . Lol

    A local Pontiac Dealer ordered 2 Fiero cars to be delivered to him and when the truck arrived, they were unloading one car and it slipped and dropped a couple of inches onto the one below. The top one had an exhaust that was bent up and the bottom one had damage to the roof. GM and Pontiac sent a message to the dealer to have them both crushed because of the insurance and if someone would buy one and find out they were damaged, they could sue GM. Pontiac made a deal where the cars would be donated to a local Tec School with the stipulation they could never be sold to the public. The school used them to teach the students and were constantly being take apart and the motors rebuilt. As far as I know, they are still at the school. Both cars were the GT model with V6 and 5 speeds.

    M company leased cars from Wheels inc. and they were delivered to a local dealer for pickup by our employees. One man was waiting for his van for what seemed like a too long time. We worked in business suits, and he went to the dealer to check on his van, and the salesman thought he was the insurance adjuster because the van had a damaged roof. He took him out behind the shop and showed him the roof had been majorly damaged. “We will just cut the roof off and replace it.” Our employee then told him it was his van, and he will not take it. We called Wheels and they just ordered another van. I just wonder who ended up with that van.

    Rear jump seat sideways seating like my old S-10 king-cab. We went on some long road trips in that thing! I sat back there some on long trips. Awesome times!

    I read the headline and saw the photo, and said to myself, “Damn, I’ve never seen an extended cab Jeep pickup.” Happy day that it was saved.

    I too really love jeeps and suppose I always have. Almost bought a used 1976 CJ7 in 1980 but didn’t, drove a Grand Cherokee to school and on lots of road trips and have an 89 sitting in the barn waiting for a bit of spare time to get out and ride topless. Really appreciate the uniqueness of this truck and always wonder what happened to the scrambler, rarely ever see them around as there were so few and as with many things of the era rust was an issue.

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