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.
The ’49-54 Chevy passenger-car spindles pinned to the front axle sport Wilwood Engineering’s modern interpretation of brakes popular during the Gasser wars: Airheart discs. Beyond their basic function it’s hardly worth comparing Airheart’s old leaky calipers to the four-pot Dynalite versions on this car, though. Like most quick-changes of the era the rear axle mounts a pair of Ford drums, albeit the latter-day, 11-inch versions.
“One of my close friends who does all of my racing engines, Robin Whitcomb, built the engine,” he notes. He based it on an early-’70s vintage Chevrolet 350 block, which he assembled with a forged crank, a Bullet Racing Cams hydraulic roller, and Manley Performance connecting rods. Dishes in the CP pistons combine with the Dart Iron Eagle Platinum heads’ 64cc chambers to yield an 8:1 static compression ratio, a favorable target for forced induction.
Weiand’s version of GMC’s venerable 6-71 series supercharger creates the engine’s artificial atmosphere. Moilanen crowned it with a pair of Holley 1850-series carburetors that he modified for boost reference. A pair of Offenhauser rocker covers modified with 90-degree Moon breathers flanks that induction system. When capped, the collectors at the ends of the S&S fenderwell headers below those covers feed Hushpower mufflers behind the doorsills.
The engine feeds a TH350 transmission. But this is no ordinary 350. “It’s a TH350 case but it’s all 400 internals: a 400 sprag, heavy-duty clutches, and so forth,” he says. “I’m a drag racer and I run the same transmission in my race cars.” The 3,500-rpm-stall Hughes converter lets the engine spin hard and makes the pickup launch even harder.
“The cowl was cut off right at the windshield and they had the throttle pedal on the passenger side,” Moilanen observes. To make the pickup more streetable he had Hill fabricate a new cowl. To make it plain driveable he had him build the floors as well. Naturally Hill built the three-point cage, too.
“The bed, I made that myself,” Moilanen adds. “The rear fenders are factory Willys fenders but I radiused them to fit the tires.” He also used the Willys stake pockets.
Racers dispensed with Willys front sheetmetal groups for fiberglass, making original pieces exceedingly uncommon. But this one is rare in that way, too: though it came with a fiberglass nose it now has a tin one. “It’s all handmade,” Moilanen reveals. “A guy out of California rolled that front end and it’s an exact match. This guy supposedly did only two sets because, as he explained to me, ‘I can’t charge enough.’
“You know, my painter definitely underbid that one, too,” he adds, chuckling. Rene Crunelle, Customs by RC in Hillsboro, straightened the panels and applied the single-stage polyurethane PPG.
Though now a street pickup, its cab’s innards are just about as simple as any race car. In fact, the seats came from Summit Racing. “They’re actually fiberglass racing buckets that I had to cut down to make look more period correct,” he says. Beaverton Auto Upholstery trimmed them in black vinyl pleats and the floor in black nylon carpet. The Grant 502-series Classic Cruisin’ steering wheel mounts to a Flaming River steering column in classic race fashion: with a quick-release hub.
The truck’s completion was bittersweet according to Moilanen. “Jerry had cancer,” he says. “He was actually going through chemo when he was helping me. He got to see the truck when it was finally done but not too long after that he died.” In fact, this was the last car he helped build.
In fact it wasn’t long after that when the siren’s call of another race car inspired Moilanen to market the pickup. “I found it on eBay,” Ray observes (just to set the record straight, it was an error and not Ray’s doing in the May ’11 issue that credited him for the pickup’s construction). In fact, the only contribution he’s made beyond maintaining the car was switching the rear wheels. “I put on a set of original Halibrands that I’ve toted around for 40 years,” he says. “I bought ’em in 1969 right from Halibrand for $250.” For the record, that’s the same as paying $1,567.34 today. “That’s why I’ve dragged ’em around for so long.”
It might be pretty rare for a car to feature a second time, unchanged, within such a short time. And it’s just as rare that an old race car from drag racing’s golden age survives to tell its tale. But that’s nothing compared to how rare it is for one to go back together so completely bitchin’. We’re confident that it’s worth our repeat performance.