First Drive: The Original 1941 Willys MB

Rugged and a blast to drive. Bare bones and awaiting any modification you can think of.

Driving an old car from the 1940s can be a punishing exercise. Less refined and comfortable than modern-day vehicles, it can make you forget the phrase: "They don't make 'em like they used to." But the 1941 Willys Jeep MB is not only a pleasure to drive, it's an honor.
To mark the 70th anniversary of Jeep, Chrysler allowed AOL Autos to take the grand-daddy of them all for a spin around its Auburn Hills, Michigan campus. It's not certified for on-road driving, and it's no wonder. No safety belts, or doors for that matter.

My first move was an attempt to move the seat back from the wheel. Silly me. This was built in 1941. Besides, the wheel-well is jammed up right behind my seat. I squeeze in, making it over the awkward access cut-out in the steel side. If I was in the motor pool back in '41, I might have taken a welder's torch to the side and made hopping in and out a bit easier.

Where's the key? No key. The starter is actually a button on the floor. It wouldn't do, after all, to have to get into a Jeep having just run 100 yards from a pursuing enemy, jump in and find you had dropped the keys somewhere.

There is a choke on the dash, which my first car, a 1964 Volkswagen Beetle, also had, so I am familiar. The 60 hp engine turned right over. It is, of course, a standard three speed, with a long skinny shifter, which was the norm for the day.

The backseat was really meant for one, and that's a good thing considering its small size. It also served as a place to carry wounded, with a stretcher that clamped onto the back of the Jeep.

The ride is jouncy to say the least, especially on the pavement. The MB's suspension was sprung for optimal performance on dirt roads and fields. On a smooth road, it can be jarring.

What comes across when you drive the 1941 Willys Jeep is how much fun it would have been to own one back in the day. There is virtually nothing you could do to hurt the steel body. And there would be no end of modifications or bolted-on accessories one could hang on this bantam-weight off-roader as long as you had a drill, a wrench and a welder's kit.

It is funny to think back to 1940 and the fact that neither Ford, nor General Motors or Chrysler even offered a design to the War Department when they asked car companies to come to the rescue. It was a little company, Bantam Motor Co. in Butler, Pa., whose design won out. And it was Willys-Overland that supplied the engine and further modifications before Willys and Ford took on the task of building more than 600,000 during the war.

At the end of the 1970s, the Defense Dept. decided that it could no longer get along with the Jeep and truck brigade it was using for troop movement, gun placement, reconnaissance and the like. It needed a much more modern, rugged, heavy-duty vehicle. Out of that came the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or Humvee, which was developed by AM General, a division of American Motors Corp., which was also the owner of Jeep at that time.

I have driven the Humvee, both the military version and the street version. I understand the need of the Humvee, and the inevitable replacement of the Jeep that was necessary. But if I was going to choose between the two, to own one or the other as a collectible or for weekend fun, I'd go for the '41 Willys in a heartbeat and every time.

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