Restoring Old Army Jeeps

Watkinsville man bitten by the vintage jeep bug.

Daryl Gay | April 2, 2024

Dane Schroff (driver’s seat) in a 1949 CJ-3A jeep that he drove the author and Larry Mullis (back seat) around in recently. The author was amazed at the smooth ride and just how simple and effective 75-year-old technology really is.

GP. General Purpose vehicle.

Believe that designation. Dane Schroff certainly does. And he has tens of thousands of miles bouncing behind the steering wheel to prove it.

He also had a couple of barns packed with GPs.

“It is,” as he says, “an obsession.”

Today’s fancy new side-by-side vehicles­—Kubotas, Can-Ams and Gators—have taken the outdoor world by storm, and especially among hunters and farmers. However, the legends that started it all hit the ground running 80-plus years ago with the Willys MB and Ford GPW. Think U.S. Army trucks.

If you want to know just who invented what we know today as a Jeep, you are welcome to delve deeply into a catfight involving roughly a dozen felines and take your pick. Even the name’s origin is a toss-up: one version goes that soldiers called GPs “jeepies” or “jeeps,” which led to the trademarked “Jeep.” (Following decades of litigation!)

We’re not here for a history lesson, but this original vehicle set massive historical precedent. A brief overview:

When America was forced into World War II, our nation was woefully unprepared and far behind Axis powers, especially in on-the-ground troop materials. Our guys needed sturdy, dependable, off-road-capable workhorses. And that is exactly what they got in the legendary Willys-Overland and Ford vehicles.

These became the first mass-produced 4-wheel-drive vehicles, with more than 640,000 produced from 1941 to 1945. They went on to serve in the Korean War, as well as other conflicts worldwide. Willys turned the MB into the Jeep CJ-2A in 1945, the first mass-produced civilian 4-wheel-drive, and Ford completely redesigned it in 1960—which saw copies begin springing up worldwide.

Bantam, Willys-Overland and Ford eventually made so many trademark and copyright claims that the Federal Trade Commission got involved…

None of which matters to

Dane Schroff! The guy can rattle off GP, MB, CJ and a hundred other designations, and then tell you what they mean and how they came about. But mostly, he loves digging into one. The older the better.

“My first ride was in Arizona five years ago,” says the New Mexico native, who now lives in Watkinsville. “That ride kind of changed my life. It was called the Go-Devil Ride, because that’s what the soldiers called the engines in the originals. They would ‘go like the devil.’”

Those engines were 134-cubic inch, 60-horsepower marvels of simplicity and functionality. “Go” was what they did, during days and nights on end when travel meant victory or defeat, life or death. And while it’s one thing for domestic manufacturers to squabble over who designed what, it’s quite another for that soldiers who sees a need and adapts on the fly. Overall, you’re looking at a massive team effort of both military and civilian engineering.

“It’s amazing what these things can do,” Schroff says. “They’ll go almost anywhere and can be altered to do almost anything! You can add a two-point or three-point hitch and hook up all kinds of accessories. They’re more comfortable than a tractor and will go places you’d never get a tractor into or out of.

“We have a local club—Athens Vintage Jeeps—and have a ride about every six months. We go farm to farm and run lots of different trails. We have one member who’s 80 years old and has been on his property since 1971. He said he has accessed places that he’d never seen before because his tractors wouldn’t go in there without getting stuck. He’s got four jeeps now; seems like nobody ever has just one.”

This 1962 Willys DJ-3A came from the factory with 2WD, all pink with a surrey top. Only 200 were ever produced in pink. It was converted to 4WD and repainted before making a run in Moab, Utah.

Bitten by the vintage jeep bug shortly after that Go-Devil Ride, Schroff began his own quest.

“The first ones I came across were at an estate sale in Dahlonega—and I bought six of them,” he laughs. “Now I have 34 in this barn and six in another over by my shop. The oldest is a 1942 Ford GPW.”

The barn he refers to was formerly a chicken house. Now it’s packed with rows of vehicles, most featuring patina from decades of use. The shop is part of that life-changing experience.

“I’ve been restoring these things for the last two years, and I’m a year and a half out on taking new business. These things are so simple, which is what made them the legends they became. I sank one over in the Alapaha River a while back, with water running through the seats. None got in the gas tank, and there are only two bolts and four screws on the carburetor. I keep a full tool kit with me and took the thing off and cleaned it up. We were rolling again in about an hour.”

Schroff never served in the military, but many members of his family did. That background has led to him remaining true to the heritage of these vehicles.

“When I call up my regular parts suppliers, they all know what’s coming,” he says with a smile. “I want American parts. ONLY. Most of the reproduction parts for these vehicles are made in Asian countries. If I call for a part and the dealer doesn’t know where it was manufactured, I’ll tell him to look on the box. My customers seem to feel the same way. Henry Ford was very adamant about warranty and backing up what he produced. You can look closely on these Ford engines and see a tiny Ford “F” in script on every bolt head. Collectors go nuts for those things. Or this hood chain. It’s like picking up a gold nugget to run across one when you’ve just got to have an original.”

The chain was maybe 8 inches long, with small links. Nothing fancy; but to the right person…

And there’s more than one reason for staying true to his roots.

“Early on, I did a restoration for a customer, took the jeep out for a test run the day before he was to pick it up and everything ran fine,” Schroff recalls. “This was when I learned my lesson. I had installed a complete new ignition kit in it, including a condenser right out of the box. It was of foreign manufacture, but I didn’t know any better at the time. When the customer arrived, the thing wouldn’t start. Talk about embarrassing!

“I never throw anything away, and up on a shelf was an old, original condenser from another vehicle. I put in on, and the jeep started and ran like a sewing machine. These things are so popular that parts are still being made in this country, and that’s all I’ll use.”

When you’re standing amongst three dozen or so rolling historical artifacts, the urge to get out into the wind is irresistible. So we jumped into a recently rejuvenated 1949 CJ-3A…

You may have heard talk about how slow these old sardine cans are, or how rough they ride. Well, hit DELETE on that info. The trick is finding the right setup, plus the guy who knows what that is and how to make it happen.

Meet Dane Schroff.

Hike your leg over the side, and don’t worry about bumping a noggin on the top. Because there’s not one. Want the windshield up or down? It folds and latches into place both ways. She fires right up, and off we go.

“Sometimes when I’m talking with a veteran, they’ll mention one of two things about the jeep: how it sounds or how it smells. There are so many memories triggered by those two things. Just about anyone who served in the military has had routine, daily contact with them. They’re everywhere.”

On the highway, things are perfectly smooth.

“Tires,” Dane says. “They make all the difference, as well as how much air is in them. They can ride smooth or they can ride rough. If you get stuck, let some air out for more traction. I always carry a small portable compressor just in case. Four-wheel  drive is great, but a locking differential with low tires can also get you out of a lot of places. Just don’t get back on the highway without replacing that air. Talk about rough…”

Dane Schroff says, “The first ones I came across were at an estate sale in Dahlonega—and I bought six of them,” he laughs. “Now I have 34 in this barn and six in another over by my shop. The oldest is a 1942 Ford GPW.”

On the highway, 55 mph. No top and no windshield (hold your hat!), we carried on a conversation at normal voice levels. Later, off-road cruising through the woods on narrow dirt, it was amazing how ridiculously simple 75-year-old technology made things.

I’m accustomed to the 4-wheelers and side-by-sides of the last few decades; they tend to be noisy, bumpy and bulky. The ’49 has a three-speed floor stick, 4-wheel shifter down low beside it, and—wonder of wonders—a hand throttle that pulls out of the dash like an old choke.

In low gear, with the throttle out just a touch, this thing would run a million miles at 3 miles an hour, never missing a beat! The mind’s eye brought images of European battlefields’ cratered terrain: the start of it all.

“These things are so quiet,” Schroff is saying. “With the new stuff, there’s always a lot of noise, whether it’s mufflers, whining belts or blasting sound systems. This is the original 4-wheel-drive. You can roll right up on wildlife, and with the windshield down, the view is unreal. I sell them to real-estate agents who work with large properties, and a lot of times they have to remind their clients that they may want to stop looking at the deer and look at the property!

“They’re low to the ground and so narrow they’ll go where side-by-sides or tractors can’t.”

When it comes to going, Schroff once took a 1,200-mile spin in a 1962 Willys DJ-3A, part of 2,800 miles in three months. Obviously, they’re habit-forming.

“The ultimate goal was to have four or five to run well and play with, but it’s obviously gotten out of hand. I have so much respect for these things, and I love refreshing and getting them back on the road. I stay busy, have sold some, and I do have four or five that I would sell now. They keep me as busy as I want to be.”

But I learned quickly that Dane is never so tied up that he won’t put his enthusiasm on display when it comes to a General Purpose vehicle. If your interest has been piqued, contact him at [email protected]

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