Caffeine & Gasoline Car Feature / Car Culture / Cars

Caffeine & Gasoline® Car Feature: Brian Fitzgerald’s Jeepster

Most of the time hand-me-downs are a bummer… a worn pair of blue jeans or a battered and bruised toy. Cars are also passed along and, like toys, some are battered and bruised but others can become heirlooms. Meet Brian Fitzgerald, the lucky sibling left holding the keys to this highly desirable 1948 Jeepster. At its core this is a story of exile and redemption. Like all hand-me-downs the saga starts at the top. “My dad bought the Jeepster in 1955,” says Brian, “so he’s the second owner and he drove it for a few years then my two older sisters each drove it in high school. They are eight and 10 years older than me. After my second sister drove it I am not sure what happened. It was parked… it literally ended up in a barn. The Jeep sat there for six or eight years before I got it. By then it didn’t run… the top was shot… the paint was hurting. It was worse than the typical hand-me-down. I got it fixed up enough to run but it wasn’t the original motor as the engine bay had caught fire at some point and the original flathead was ditched and replaced with a two- or three-year newer L-head four-cylinder.”

“I drove it that way through high school in around 1971. And then I parked it when I went off to college… so it sat, back in that same barn, for a number of years. I rode a motorcycle while in college and sold the bike for $1,500 and used the money to get the Jeepster back on its feet. From there, I drove it as my second car for 15 years from 1979 to 1994. In 1990 I re-did it again and put a Buick V6 in it with a new rear end. I got it painted. It was originally yellow and black. My dad painted it red well before I started driving it, but it was very close to an original Jeepster red so I kept the color. Both my daughters grew up riding around in the Jeepster. Eventually I will hand it down to one of them and keep it in the family. In the last two years I stripped it all down and re-did it again.”

Brian collected parts for years before the re-build… items like suspension parts all the way down to stainless-steel bolts and other Jeepster-specific trim. The Jeepster’s frame-off restoration included a dipped and powder coated frame and a high attention to detail. The old-timer is now powered by a GM 350 crate motor, a Blueprint engine from Summit Racing, that’s been bored to 355 inches. It features aluminum heads and a Holley 600-cfm four-barrel carburetor. Brian reports the small-block is rated at 392 horsepower and 415 lb-ft of torque on the dyno.Brian had Art Morrison front and rear suspensions grafted onto the original frame. This serves to lower the vehicle six inches and update its ride characteristics. The engine is backed by a 700R4 automatic transmission that feeds a Ford 9 inch rear end. Stopping power is provided by Wilwood disc brakes all around and the original hub caps are now affixed to custom 17-inch rollers for a real sleeper look. Wrenching duties were handled by Chris Holstrom Concepts of Puyallup, Washington.

Inside, McFarland Auto Upholstery did the honors. The seats were the big-ticket items. McFarland added new Jeep power bucket seats, chosen to ensure Brian, who stands 6’7″, fits comfortably in the vehicle. The Willys’ beautifully stitched leather interior is joined by a tilt column, Dakota Digital gauge cluster, and pristine carpeting.

The car was completed about four weeks before we spotted it at our monthly Caffeine & Gasoline® open house car show. So when we asked Brian how often he drives the Jeep he couldn’t answer because he hadn’t got into a rhythm yet. “In fact,” he said, “I am still shaking it down and will be taking it back to the shop to tie up some odds and ends but I plan on driving it for sure.”

He was quick to say his favorite part of the Jeep is all the memories it’s generated through the years. “My wife driving it when we went on our first date. When I was a little kid riding with my parents in it. Every time I drive it some little memory nugget pops up… something I hadn’t remembered before. In fact, I plan to make a memory book on the car and will be reaching out to my sisters so they can send memories and any pictures they have of the Jeep. On that first date with my wife we got pulled over by a cop… the car may have had a taillight out but I think the real excuse is he wanted to check out the Jeepster. That’s happened more than once. The funny thing is, according to the literature the Jeepster was Willys’ attempt at a post World War II sports car… they were all two-wheel drive, two-door convertibles… they weren’t off-road vehicles in any shape or form… didn’t have the suspension or gearing, nothing. It’s not real sporty… but the Jeepster has been a lot of fun.”

May the fun roll on for many years, Brian. Thanks for letting us spend some quality time with your ride.

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