Unless it’s undergone some dramatic metamorphosis, it’s rare for a car to appear twice in a given magazine within, say, 40 years. It’s harder yet for one to return after appearing in a readers’ rides column; in fact, unless a car is under construction when first shown, it’s pretty much unheard of. So you could say it’s a pretty rare occasion that Ray Simpson’s ’41 Willys pickup reappears as-finished in print, especially since hardly a year has passed since its debut as a finished car in the May ’11 Readers’ Rods column.
But this isn’t the pickup’s first curtain call as a hot rod, either. Its most recent creator, Woodburn, Oregon’s Bryce Moilanen, remembers it from the repair shop he worked at in the late ’70s. “My boss was actually a drag racer and that Willys was an old Gasser truck,” he begins.
Though his boss never raced it, “… he always intended to do something with it—you know the old story,” he continues. “So he proceeded to slowly make it into what he called a shop truck.” Only it was the ’80s, the era of the GM subframe and showground cruiser, and he modified the truck to suit.
“I happened to go back to visit him in 2006 and lo and behold there’s that truck sitting in the corner with inches of dust on it,” Moilanen continues. So he inquired. “He hemmed and hawed but he called me a couple days later and I bought it.”
Time isn’t kind to old racers and this one suffered accordingly in the 25 years since they met. “There really wasn’t that much that was salvageable,” Moilanen notes. “He’d already thrown away all the good parts, like the front axle and the original frame. So basically the only thing I really used off the truck was the cab, the doors, and the rear fenders. Through a lot of pictures and Gasser videos I tried to build a car that was exactly what somebody would’ve built in a garage back in the day. You know, the bracketing, the ladder bars—I tried to keep it on that theme.”
It was an inspired decision. Moilanen noticed some things during teardown. “One of the doors was kind of reddish brown and said something about trucking,” he says. That means something to Gasser historians: the Panella Brothers, trucking operators out of Stockton, California, campaigned a number of Gassers in the ’60s, one of them a candy red ’41 Willys pickup in B-Gas. “Someone who was close to [Bob Panella] told me that they couldn’t find the original truck but I could never verify whether or not mine was the same one,” he says. “So I just went with the look. If you ever see the Panella truck you can see the resemblance.”
To create that resemblance he hired race car chassis builder and drag racer Jerry Hill to fabricate a 2x3 perimeter frame. “Jerry was a personal friend of mine for 30 years,” he says. In fact Moilanen, who has a drag-racing history of his own, commissioned him to fabricate components for his various race cars over the years. “He was around in the Gasser days but he was more of a dragster and Funny Car guy. I gave him blueprints of what I wanted and he bent up the framerails for me and did the welding.”
The chassis’ front suspension consists of a Speedway Motors Gasser axle kit, including the company’s straight-tube axle, semi-elliptical springs, plate steering arms, and tie rod. The Speedway draglink connects to a reversed Corvair steering box. The rear suspension boasts a pretty serious piece of hot rod hardware: a Winters Performance quick-change axle. “The ladder bars were custom-made by Jerry and me; they don’t make ’em that long. I’d say they’re closer to 55 inches,” Moilanen notes. QA1 coilover dampers suspend that frame over the axle.