Thursday, June 11, 2020

Bradley Ethington Takes the Classic Road

1949 Willys Jeep, 1947 Kit Kamper teardrop, and canoe built by Ethington

Most of us have either had the experience or heard this story about plumbing: "That drain pipe for the sink is leaking. I'd better tighten it." Tightening leads to replacing, which leads to replacing the faucet above and the drain pipes below the trap. The "tightening" job just keeps expanding.

Tiny trailer and Jeep owner Bradley Ethington had a similar experience, only not with home plumbing but with his camping trailer and tow vehicle. Let's start his tale, using Bradley's own words.
"It all started innocently enough; in 1998 I drove home from New Orleans with a 1949 Willys station wagon that I had purchased from a good friend and customer who was moving to Venezuela. He was starting a new office and couldn’t take it with him, so he made me promise that 'I would take good care of her.'
"I found out later that the wagon body was actually mounted to a shortened (11” removed in front of the rear axle) 1968 Jeep Wagoneer chassis with the stock 327 Kaiser motor and 400 turbo transmission. This conversion was done in Casper, Wyoming, by the prior owner who had bought the wagon at a local sheriff's sale. I contacted this person for details, and he assured me that the chassis work (although crude-looking due to unfinished torch cuts) was done by a certified welder. 
When I got the wagon home (1,300 miles, three break downs and four days later), I decided to repaint it and fix it up a little. I figured three months' total was all I needed to finish the job . . . "
Of course, you know how this story ends from the photograph that begins this article. Six years later, the Willys Jeep is finally finished, and then Bradley has the idea: "How about a vintage camper, too?" Matching his Willys with a vintage camper didn't happen overnight, though. "I searched eBay nightly for twelve years when the Kit Kamper popped up." Talk about perseverance!

One image of rust to be removed and patched.

Bradley must be an optimist because he wrote that "for the most part the wagon was in pretty good shape except for the rusting doors, floors and tailgate bottoms." That's quite a benign statement for stripping and/or sandblasting all the layers of paint and rust off the entire body and sealing it with Sikens epoxy primer (at $45 a quart).

Using photographs, manila envelopes, and milk crates to keep everything organized, Bradley disassembled the entire vehicle, even taking out the windows, which he decided to replace with new tinted glass. "Don’t throw anything away until after the project is finished," he says, "even if you’re sure that you will not use it."

"All parts were stripped of paint and sealed with Sikens Epoxy Primer."

And this is where the rust issue ends and the painting begins. NOT! When Bradley got down to the fine details, he realized that the floors needed replacing. Throughout the renovation, he kept telling himself, "There is no better time than now to do it right.” He couldn’t get to the underside of the floors without removing the body from the chassis, and if he removed the body from the chassis, he had no way of getting to the underside of the floor, so he came up with what he calls the "tilt-a-rack."

Bradley's design for his tilt-a-rack.

Willys wagon bodies are too high for the conventional rotisserie devises, so Bradley needed either a high-ceiling garage or a device to allow him to bring the chassis out of the garage and then tilt it to whatever angle needed to get to the rust.
"The tilt-a-rack is basically a tiltable undercarriage on wheels consisting of 2” x 2” x .25” angle-iron cross pieces which are bolted directly to the body mounting points in three places: 1) in front of the doors, 2) behind the doors, and 3) behind the rear wheel opening. Three 45-degree kickstands are then bolted to each side of the undercarriage to allow the entire structure to be pulled over onto its side. The beauty of this cheap devise is that is allows you to store the wagon body in the garage and wheel it out onto the driveway to tip over and work on the underside." 
Bradley with his tilt-a-rack at work.

Once Bradley had built his tilt-a-rack, he separated the Willys body from the chassis and got to serious work on the rust, removing and replacing the floor panels and also replacing rotten areas in front of the door panels, where the fenders bolt on. "Once the rack was under the body, I began cutting the floors out on both sides from the top. Trying to salvage the cross supports is tedious work. I used tin snips, a pneumatic cut off wheel, a jigsaw, and a chisel to accomplish this," he said. Welding, grinding, and anti-rust treatments finished the heavy work. "After the floors were welded up and all seams filled with 3-M strip caulk and seam sealer, I painted the inside of the wagon and door jams with one step urethane enamel."

"I filled the rectangular gauge area and refitted it to accept Boyd Coddington Series Gauges and a CD Player."

Once the body was getting there, it was time to customize the chassis and drive train. It's best to let Bradley explain to the gearheads his innovations.
"New GM 350 motor! I chose the GM 350 (four bolt main 69 to 84 applications) due to its low cost and common availability of parts. The motor mounts and those nice shiny headers are from No Excuses in Pemberton, NJ, 609-758- 2600. The other reason I chose the 350 is because I could mate it to a GM turbo transmission, which mates PERFECTLY to the DANA Spicer 20 transfer case. One very important thing to keep in mind during engine mounting is DRIVELINE PHASING: “The output transmission shaft must be parallel with the axis of the pinion gear.” Otherwise, you will experience a host of driveshaft problems, including vibration and universal joint failure. Driveline phasing is explained in detail in the book Practical Engine Swapping." (John Thawley, available at Amazon.) 
"I mated the 350 to a rebuilt 400 turbo transmission which is in turn mated to a rebuilt 4 position Spicer 20 transfer case. The rear axle is a Dana 44, and the front is Dana 27 from the 1968 Wagoneer drive train. Along with rebuilding the transfer case, I added new leaf springs on the rear and installed all new SS brake lines. I also treated the chassis with POR-15 rust inhibitor."
"The sound of an unmuffled engine is a beacon that draws the neighborhood guys over."

On his first go at getting the Willys painted, Bradley used an amateur who assured him the job would be done right . . . wrong! Missed spots and thin spots left his labor of love poorly attired, so Bradley filled in the weak spots himself and decided to call the job a "preliminary paint job" until the professional, master painter was available. Remounting the body to the chassis, Bradley said, "Now the fun begins!"

"Getting the body back on is essentially a one man job with two transmission jacks and several blocks of wood."

Wiring and tricky steering set-up were done, then, Bradley says, "I painted the grille, fenders and inside hood in my driveway and installed the nose."

"I installed a new power steering pump and power brake cylinder and booster. Not quite original but much more comfortable."

The Willys prior to the final paint.

Front and back seats are full-size Bronco, Eddie Bauer Edition, found at a swap meet.  Bradley located many parts for this project through Ebay, including the Rebuilt Tilt Steering column from a 1970’s Chevy van and the Willy’s horn button. The new gauges are from Boyd Coddington, Hot Rod Series.

The Willys then went to get its final paint scheme, a green mahogany and birch masterpiece. The paint preparation was a long drawn out process of wet block sanding the entire body . . . again. "Each area was squeegee’d to make sure the surface was flat (no orange peel). so the finished body would look like it was 'dipped' in paint." Darren Brown, the master painted, explained the importance of a paint job: “You can spend countless hours and thousands of dollars on a restoration, but if the finished paint job isn’t given the same amount of attention, all that time and money spent was wasted.”

Painting the Willys was a four-step process, completed over a weekend (with very little sleep, according to Bradley).
  1. Base coat, clear coat the roof and the front clip first (minus the hood and upper tail gate, which would get separate attention). 
  2. Covering the front and roof and spraying in the dark brown. (Bradley had painted the door scheme previously as a test panel).
  3. Covering the brown and spraying the tan.
  4. Clear coating the brown and tan panels together. 

"Out of the spray booth at 7PM Saturday evening. Done in 24 Hrs!"

Continuing with the days (and years) of customization of the interior: headliner, door panels, door handles, and cargo area, all that tinkering finally came together. At that point, Bradley's kids reminded him that he had promised to let them be in a parade with the Willys--and their reminder came with an application form to be filled out for the next town parade!

Proudly displayed parade entry.

The Jeep restoration was finished the summer of 2004, and after searching Ebay for twelve years, the Kit Kamper popped up, which  Bradley bought in 2016 in Baltimore. The previous owner had used it while camping in Colorado, saying he had purchased it completely restored in its original design.


Picking up the Kit Kamper in Baltimore

Buffed and with fenders that match the tow vehicle

After getting the camper home, Bradley says, "I added some aluminum angle reinforcements along the inner lower sidewalls, repainted the fenders and Harley Tombstone twilight housings to match the Jeep, repacked the wheel bearings, and buffed the heck out of the aluminum exterior." The results amply paid back all his efforts.

The unit was rebuilt prior to Bradley's purchase

Asked about his camping adventures with his classic tow vehicle and trailer, Bradley said that his camping experiences so far have been in the boonies enjoying solo wilderness camping with kayak and canoe. "The place I go only permits hiking or paddling in. It’s perfect for me because there’s hardly a signal for anyone to reach me. I’m paddling carbon fiber kayaks and canoes these days because they’re much lighter than my earlier homemade versions." He does plan this summer to take his daughters to a conventional site, where they will all enjoy the classic camper.

After Bradley's epic restoration project, the effort of many years, he now intends to just enjoy the fruits of his labors. Come to think of it, though, he's probably already got another project in mind! He has learned from his efforts, and passes along some pearls of wisdom.
  • Do not set a deadline.
  • Just have fun.
  • There's no better time than now to do it right.
It's Bradley's final words that warmed my heart, though: "All I know is my SUV is ready for the open road, and I’m very happy with the way it turned out." He wishes us good luck on our projects, and we wish Bradley happiness on the open road. After all, he's earned it!

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