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Well-hard Willys

Mike took a Top 10 award at the NSRA Supernationals this year


Mike Taylor’s steel '38 Willys coupe (with '41 front sheet metal)  is one hot rod that has made a big impression on the UK scene this year.  It’s not that the car hasn’t been around for a while, as Mike purchased it as long ago as 1982; it perhaps has more to do with his decision to add a blower atop that 355 Chevy motor, which instantly added a “wow” factor to the coupe wherever it went.  If owning a fabulous, blown, steel Willys wasn’t already enough, however, we learned from Mike that this is a former race car from the US.  As he’s a little sketchy on the car’s history, he put us in touch with former owner, Duncan Purssell, who brought the car into the UK, in 1980.

“It was a B/Gas supercharged, Hemi-powered gasser back in the 60s, run by the Orduno Bros – at least, that’s what was outlined on the doors,” says Duncan.  “The car was advertised in National Dragster and pointed out to me while I was at Orange County Raceway, in 1980.  It was advertised for $19,000, as a rolling chassis, which I figured must have been a misprint.  I phoned the owner, one Clifford Clupper, and he told me the price was actually $1,900.  I went to see the car in Arizona.  It had a pretty standard chassis, equipped with an Oldsmobile rear, a straight tube axle, a blown Hemi and was running on magnesium Halibrand wheels.  Equally importantly, the body was straight and rust free.


Here's how Duncan found the car in the US - with groovy green paintwork


“We struck a deal at $1,500, and I then made arrangements to ship the car as a rolling chassis back to the UK, which cost me another $1,500.  It was quite a reasonable sum back then, but now, of course, it’s peanuts and you’d pay double that for the bonnet alone – if you could find one!  Clifford showed me a great photo of the car taken at a US drag strip, with it almost sideways as it went through the lights.  It had obviously been quite a scary moment, and I think that’s why the car was up for sale.” 


one gorgeous looking gasser

Duncan says he has tried to discover more details about the car in recent years, but the owner wasn’t answering calls.  He’s also tried scouring the Internet for more information, but without success, so if any of our American cousins reading this think they can help, then please get in touch at and we’ll put you in touch with Duncan and Mike. 

Once the Willys was in the UK, Duncan dropped in a 454 Chevy motor and ran it around as a street-driven race car, which was extensively featured in Custom Car at the time.  “It created a lot of interest back then,” recalls Duncan.  “The magazine even rigged up a parachute on the back of the car, which they photographed at an airstrip with the ‘chute billowing out behind.


Shot for Custom Car - we think by Mike Key


Mike entered the frame in 1982, when he purchased the car from Duncan, again as a rolling chassis – “I’d always wanted a Willys,” explains Mike.  He then set to, totally dismantling it to create a more contemporary street rod.  The chassis and various other components, including the Cal Automotive five-piece front end, were sold on, with the chassis eventually being used in Barry Smith’s recreation of the KS Pitman Willys. 

Mike decided to build a new box-section chassis (he is a Jaguar mechanic by training, which no doubt helped) and called in the engineering expertise of friend Merv Barnett.  Between them, they created the new chassis with tubular cross-members, a Ford 9-inch rear end narrowed 13 inches and equipped with Strange halfshafts, 3.70 gears and standard Ford drum brakes.  The axle was hung from a custom-built, four-link arrangement with improved location via a Panhard rod.


As street rods go, they don't come much tougher than this!


At the front, they fashioned fully independent double wishbone suspension with Granada uprights, matched to custom-made aluminium hubs equipped with Passat discs and Willwood four-pot callipers.  An Escort Mk2 steering rack was narrowed one inch, before being mated to a home-made stainless steel column topped with a Grant steering wheel.

As discovered during the strip-down process, the steel shell, complete with doors, was in excellent condition, and Mike became determined to find a full set of fenders, a bonnet and the other parts necessary to restore the car back to “all- steel” status.  As a result, he was soon boarding a plane for Oregon, having located a guy with a huge stockpile of Willys components for sale.  After parting with $300, Mike was soon the proud owner of a pair of front wings, a bonnet and other sheet metal.  Sometime later he acquired a 1942 Willys Sedan firewall which was neatly grafted into the shell.  The only non-steel parts remaining are those ‘glass rear fenders.


Original magnesium Halibrands evident in this shot


Working on and off on it, the project took 15 years to come to fruition, and during that time, Mike and friend Merv carried out most of the work, with Zane Llewellyn expertly handling the wiring chores.  New custom wheel tubs were fabricated, along with a custom pedal box and pedals, and they eventually dropped in a mildly tuned, four-bolt mains, small-block Chevy, hooked up to a Muncie M21 four-speed.  Breathing through a single Holley four-barrel carburettor, S+S headers and a custom-made exhaust system equipped with Jaguar E-type V12 silencers, the car eventually hit the road in 1988, a trip to the drag strip sometime later netting a standing quarter-mile time of 14.10 secs. 


BDS blower was added this year and has completely transformed the look of the car


In the quest for improved performance and all-out aggression – there are few things to rival a blown Willys in the looks department – Mike removed the bonnet and bolted on a polished, 6/71 BDS blower topped with a pair of 650 cfm Holley carburettors and matching polished scoop.  A return to the drag strip this year resulted in an impressive 13.04 sec e/t at 112mph for the 2700lb car – a massive improvement in drag racing terms, but “just a little disappointing” as far as Mike was concerned, since he was hoping to dip into the 12s.  Of course, a change to slicks and unbolting the exhaust system would undoubtedly help matters, and those are things he’s considering for next year.  The motor is also running relatively high 9.5:1 compression, and this may be changed over the winter, too. 

Inside, Mike wanted to retain a ‘60s race car theme, hence the diamond-stitched black door panels by Chris White and the simple, matching, black Jazz bucket seats.  One slight deviation from the hard-core race look, however, is the inclusion of black carpet and a dark grey, alcantara headliner. 


Interior has a '60s race feel


As for the paintwork, originally the shell was to be shot in an unusual shade of pastel green, but after pondering the idea during a summer holiday, Mike changed his choice to Kia Electric Blue – a shade that certainly suits the car and looks like it could have come straight from the ‘60s.  The colour was laid down by Matt Peel of Peel Motorkraft, about eight years ago, and turned out exactly as Mike had envisaged.   Adding further nostalgic appeal are those rare and original magnesium Halibrand mag wheels, equipped with 16.5 x 31-inch Hoosier Pro-street radials at the rear.



Since completion, Mike has racked up over 15,000 miles in the Willys.  “I drive it about twice a week in summer months, and it gets used extensively at the weekends,” he says.  “I’ve even had planks of wood sticking out of it after a trip to B&Q, hence some of the battle scars on the paintwork.  The next job is to add a new steel bonnet with a cut-out for the blower, but other than that, the car will remain pretty much as is.”  


Hooker Headers decal hides a battle scar - this rod sees serious use


It’s a testament to the engineering skills of Mike and his Bristol-based friends that the coupe has behaved faultlessly since its completion all those years ago – “I’ve never had one problem with the car,” Mike proudly confirms.   As any hot rodder will attest, that is quite an accomplishment!

Finally, Mike would like to thank everyone who helped put this project together,  in particular, Merv Barnett for his engineering skill and ongoing support, to Steve and Ken from Front Port Engineering, Matt Peel of Peel Motorcraft for the paintwork, Chris White for the trimming, Mark Lennard for the body preparation, Zane Llewelyn for the wiring and welding, Phil Mitchell also for wiring, Doctor Bob for painting the chassis (twice), Paul Dominey, Roger Dury and Nick Barnett for general help, Richard Denley for chassis welding, Lorraine, Aimee and Georgia (the Taylors) and the Andy House dynasty for major sponsorship

In the USA, special thanks go to Boby Pentacraft for the front sheet metal, Roger Lyle for the bulkhead and dashboard, Jim Frank for the interior door handles and Willie Dorsey for the second bonnet. 


Story: Andy Kirk & Graham Jones
Photos: Andy Kirk and Duncan Purssell


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