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"The Hippie car" resurrected

original specification included a "blown" small block

Paul Kennedy enjoys supreme bragging rights.  When he watches old cine footage lovingly assembled by the Jackson Brothers for their Gasser Wars videos, he can say, “Hey, there’s my car!”  It’s the same story when it comes to old copies of Popular Hot Rodding magazine and other US drag racing publications from the ‘60s.  The reason is that Paul owns a jewel from America’s rich drag racing past – the Al Hamberis and Mike Mitchell A and B/GS '33 Willys coupe.  Back then, the car carved out a name for itself on the drag strips of the US west coast around San Francisco and California, but today, it can be found enjoying a slightly more sedate existence cruising the roads of England’s northwest coast.

It was later in the 60s when the car was treated to a 392 cu. in. Hemi

This is quite a car and quite a tale, and although we are able to provide details from the time the car arrived in the UK to the present day, there will inevitably be gaps in the story that only our American cousins, who remember the “golden era” of drag racing, can fill in.  In short, this is not meant to be a definitive history of an iconic (in the correct sense of the word) Gasser, but rather, the story of the car’s rebirth in this country, penned by an enthusiastic limey who was still in short trousers when the H & M Willys was tearing up the drag strips of California in the mid-sixties.

Here the car sports a matching dark green grille

The initial question you find yourself asking is how such a valuable piece of American drag racing history came to be exported in the first place.  Paul Kennedy takes up the story: “You have to remember that the car was brought to the UK as long ago as 1986, by UK rodder, Ian Dawes.  At that time, nostalgia drag racing hadn’t kicked in, cars like this weren’t that valuable and there were still plenty of them about.  Ian purchased the car from long-time Gasser builder and racer, Chuck Finders.  It had the original 392 Hemi in place, which Chuck had just rebuilt, and the steel body.”

Final guise for the car was this psychedelic paint job with Cragar wheels, though a new owner later fitted injection to the Hemi motor  

Chuck told Ian it was the old Hamberis and Mitchell car, but that did not mean much to Ian at the time, as the Willys was painted in grey primer .  Chuck was rebuilding the car to put on the street, but due to a change in circumstances, decided to sell it.  Ian had the available readies, bought the car and shipped it back to Blighty.  As fate would have it, though, his wife became pregnant shortly afterwards, and rather like James Nesbitt in the recent Yellow Pages commercial, there was little option but to look for a more practical means of transportation.  That, in turn, meant the Willys had to go.

This picture of "The Hippie car" made the cover of Popular Hot Rodding in November 1968

Fellow rodder, Phil Bowen, who at the time owned a well-known C-Cab called Novel T, stepped into the frame.  Phil purchased the Willys, and moved it to the workshop of his VW servicing business with the intention of carrying through Chuck’s original plan to make the car road legal.  One of the first jobs on his list was to improve the ride, and with that in mind, had famed UK rodder and engineer, Nick Butler, design an independent front end for the car complete with tubular A-arms and coil-over shocks. 

On static display at the Oakland Roadster Show in 1968,where it won a major trophy

With a business to run, though, Phil just couldn’t find sufficient time to work on the little coupe, even though he owned it for about 13 years.  Finally, a sudden illness meant he, too, decided to sell the car on.  He knew Paul Kennedy had a penchant for Willys Gassers, as he had been pestering Phil about the car for years, and it wasn’t long before a deal has been done and the Willys was in Paul’s garage.  This was despite the fact Phil had received higher offers from other interested rodders.

At the time, Paul owned a Fordson van called Mr Torquer, powered by a big-block Chevy LS6 454, which was apparently very quick by road car standards.  It had to go to make way for the Willys, however, and in 2002 , Paul realised his ambition of owning a “proper”, American-built, Willys Gasser – and not just any old Gasser either, but one with a well-chronicled history.

In the UK shortly after Paul had collected the car - very easy to pass by in this guise

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Paul.  “This was the car that Mike “The Hippie” Mitchell had taken down the quarter mile to a best time of 9.24@148.27mph in 1968 and won Competition Hot Rod of the year at the Oakland roadster show in 1968 -  and it was sat in my garage.”  After the initial euphoria at having purchased a piece of US drag racing history had subsided a little, Paul and his pal, Carl, went to work on the body with wet ‘n’ dry sandpaper and carefully removed the primer to see what they could find underneath.  Sure enough, the white and blue stripes of the wild psychedelic paint job the car wore in its final guise were there on the roof, and they also discovered the two greens on the body  – all done in a Candy finish.

The car was now consuming all of Paul’s attention, and having researched the appearance of the Willys during its racing career, he tried to locate the original straight axle in order to return the car to its 1960s’ specification.  Unfortunately, the straight axle had disappeared long ago, and the original, sectioned  front grille was also missing.  It was later traced to original UK owner, Ian Dawes, who currently has it hanging on his wall.

 “It was always going to be a road car,” says Paul.  “I would love to have put it back on the strip, but funds just wouldn’t permit such extravagance.  A friend once said to me, ‘It will grab hold of you and eat all of your money if you drag race it,’ and I think he was right.  I can’t afford to break it, and so I put that notion out of my head, even though it’s been over 30 years since the car went down a drag strip.”  After a short pause, though, he then adds tantalisingly, “Maybe we’ll do it next year.”

Like virtually all competition cars, the Willys evolved in the course of its racing career in the US, and was fitted with different engine and drivetrain combinations.  Originally, it featured a “blown” small-block Chevy motor, simple chassis rails and a four-point roll cage.  Sometime later, however, the coupe rolled – apparently three times – and as a result, the heavily damaged roof was replaced with ‘36 Willys van steel, while a roof infill panel was crafted from the boot section of a ‘68 Camaro.   Clearly, the car had led a hard life while seeing some serious action on the drag strip. 

Understandably, Paul wondered what the rest of his recent acquisition was like under the “patchwork quilt” exterior, and began systematically to take it apart in order to reveal the bare chassis.  A decade of no-holds-barred racing had taken its toll, and Paul therefore set about adding new cross-members and bracketry specifically to ensure the Willys would be both reliable and safe in its new life as a road car.

The powder-coated chassis and repainted motor ready for the body

The Nick Butler-built front suspension was retained, on the basis that Paul couldn’t locate the original tube axle, while the car‘s narrowed, Chrysler 8 3/4 rear axle, complete with coil spring suspension, remains in place, albeit with new coils fitted.  Earlier photos of the chassis, taken in 1966, show the Willys with a leaf-sprung, I-beam front axle and matching, multi-leaf spring set-up at the rear.   The back axle is interesting in that the bearing sizes on either side are different – suggesting the two shortened tubes were sourced from different axles. 

Original chassis was very primitive and featured four point roll cage - but it was state-of-the-art at the time - photos circa 1966 taken from magazine article - hence poor quality

Steering is via rack and pinion of unknown vintage, and mates to a home-made column topped with a period-style steering wheel that Paul cheekily admits was removed by a friend from an arcade games machine many years ago.and was previously fitted to his Mr Torquer Thames van  “It looks a bit rusty, but has a great patina,” he says.

A lot of people consider the '33 ugly, but it looks a gem here

As for stopping power, a Ford Scorpio gave up its front discs and callipers for the project, while the rear brakes are the original, reworked 11-inch drums, which Paul reports work well in conjunction with a small servo unit pirated from a Bedford Rascal van.  With the rolling chassis finally deemed up to the job for road use, the whole lot was powder coated to keep it corrosion free. 

'Chute adds to visual appeal - well it's an ex-race car after all

Next on the list was the fuel tank, and with a blown 392 Hemi installed, Paul knew he needed a serious-sized unit if he was to avoid filling up every 50 miles or so (the engine slurps down fuel at the rate of 15 mpg at 70 mph).  In the end, he managed to fit a 16 1/2 gallon aluminium tank into the relatively limited confines of the Willys trunk, which results in a 200-mile range between refills.

Fuel tank dominates the trunk

According to the engine numbers on the block, the 392 Hemi was removed from a 1958 Chrysler New Yorker and is, as far as Paul can ascertain, the original Hemi used in the ‘60s car.  As mentioned, the motor was rebuilt by Chuck Finders over 24 years ago, and has seen just 1,400 miles of road use in the last 6 months since Paul cranked it into life about four years ago.  It runs a relatively low, 8.0:1 compression ratio in deference to the 6/71 GMC blower, which sits atop a Cragar manifold. 

Open headers hint at what this car must have sounded like on the track-awesome!  Paul reckons he spent three days on each of those Halibrand wheels

The engine is mated to a 1968, 727 Torqueflite transmission, which again came with the car and is thought to be original.  The Willys may be dimensionally compact, but with that driveline combination in place, a beefed-up chassis, new aluminium fuel tank, and interior appointments, the car now tips the scales at 2800 lb, which is not exactly light.  With so much “grunt” on tap, however, Paul reports he is never short of horsepower. 

Classic nose in the weeds stance give the car real attitude

Paul thoroughly researched the livery of the car as he was putting it back together, and after due consideration, decided to repaint it in the original, two-tone green colour scheme as he thought the ‘hippie’ colours might be a bit to much.  The only deviation was that Paul felt Metalflake rather than Candy would be more appropriate for a car of this vintage.

Here you can really see the Metalflake glow

Fortunately, he knew top UK painter, Tracy Chantrey, who agreed to lay down the multiple green hues and countless layers of lacquer on the coupe. The result is a beautiful finish, further enhanced by the masterful lettering and logos on the doors, applied by prolific automotive artist, Chris Froggett.  Finally, Paul had friend, and 75-year-old pin-striper, Stan, add the finishing touches to the rear three-quarter panels, just as it might have been done in the ‘60s. 

Chris Froggett was responsible for the trick logo and lettering - it's just like the original car

As for interior refinements, there are two period-perfect bucket seats, imported for Paul by USAutomotive, and a glorious “surround-sound” system, provided by the awesome Hemi motor.  What more could any rodder want?  The only job remaining on the “to do” list is to cure an oil leak on the crank seal, and this will be attended to over the winter.

A couple of bucket seats in black diamond stitch to match the door panels and thick carpet are the only creature comforts 

We asked Paul how it felt to own a car like this, and he responded without hesitation.  “I love the car.  I love the history of the Gassers, and in particular, the ugly ’33 Willys. It’s been a fascinating history lesson putting this car back together, and I’ve learned so much about it.  The car was chronicled in the Gasser Wars videos a few years ago, and now they’ve included extra footage of it racing, which is just great.  

“The car was advertised for sale in the US during the mid-1970s for $2,500.  I’ve had recent offers from the US which I’ve refused.”

DRCReview bumped into Paul at the recent NSRA Supernationals, where we were able to photograph the Willys in detail and talk to its enthusiastic owner.  It was clear that Paul, who in 2005 was diagnosed with Leukaemia, was enjoying the car to the full. 

“Ultimately, it will go back to the US,” he says.  “I would love to take it to the Bakersfield nostalgia meeting, as the car is originally from Southern California.  It would be like taking it back to its spiritual home.” 

Story: Andy Kirk & Graham Jones
Photos: Andy Kirk

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