Car of the Week: 1941 Willys Custom

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By Brian Earnest

Jim Bleil is one of those guys that waited most of a lifetime to get the car of his dreams. He knew from a pretty early age what kind of crazy machine he intended to own one day, and his vision never wavered.

Bleil might not have obsessed about owning an old school Willys gasser street car every day of his adult life, but the thought certainly never left him for very long. In fact, he carried around a little reminder, to make sure he didn’t forget about his dream machine.

“We grew up in Pennsylvania and for years we watched guys in the gas classes in drag racing, and so many of those guys had Willys,” recalled Bleil, a resident of Boulder City, Nev. “I always had it in the back of my mind. In fact, I carried around a picture of myself with a black Willys from back in 1964. I’ve always said, ‘One of these days I’m gonna have one and I’m going to build it like a gasser.’”

When Bleil finally retired after more than four decades in the diesel engine business, he got some not-so-gentle prodding from his wife, Nancy, to stop dreaming and start planning. “She’s the one that said, ‘It’s time for you to do this,’” he said. “She’s been to so many drag races and she’s seen me drool over these Willys for so long …

“She said, ‘You know, you worked all your life, you’ve always wanted one, I think it’s time you got one.’ She’s the one that pushed me over the top when it came to getting the thing going.”

Bleil enlisted the help of his brother Jack, and together the pair began scouring the country looking for a suitable car. Neither had much luck, but the search never became so bleak that they ever considered giving up. Finally, an unexpected option turned up. “What happens with the Willys is there are no parts for them. It’s not like they’re a Ford or Chevrolet,” Bleil lamented. “So all the ones we found, the bottoms were all eaten off them or they were all smashed up.

“Well, there was a fella in Cleveland that had a real one that had been worked on by this guy [Ronnie Sandifer of Covington, La.], and this guy also built fiberglass cars. And my brother said, ‘You guys gotta stop messing around and go see this guy.’ So I went down there, and holy cow, the car that he was working on looked just like the real thing. Most of the other fiberglass bodies you see out there, they’re all tubbed or the channels aren’t on them or the bodies have [been modified], and they don’t have all the details right. But when you put this car next to a real one, you couldn’t hardly tell it was a glass car.”

One thing quickly led to another and before he left Louisiana, Bleil had commissioned Sandifer and his Hillside Street Rods shop to build a 1941 Willys gasser coupe replica — beginning with the body and chassis that Sandifer makes himself. Bleil had actually planned to take Hillside’s steel frame and fiberglass body and handle the mechanicals and finishing work himself, but he says he got a deal he couldn’t refuse that actually saved him from having to get his hands dirty. “Yeah, I had planned to build it out, but he said, ‘Well, let me give a price for the whole thing.’ Well, I couldn’t have done it myself for the price he quoted me.”

Sandifer and Bleil originally figured the entire process would take six to nine months, but then Hurricane Katrina intervened. When Sandifer couldn’t get parts and supplies delivered to his company, progress slowed considerably. The six to nine months eventually stretched into 2 ½ years. “Well, after that first year, I just figured it’s gonna take what it’s gonna take,” chuckled Bleil. “I was still working at the time, and I’d fly down there every three or four months and see the progress. As long as I could see things were getting done, it didn’t seem so bad. It didn’t work out terribly bad.

“I’ve heard other people who have had cars built for them, and they say, ‘Only 2 ½ years?’” he added with another laugh. “‘That’s not so bad!’”

At the time, Bleil lived in the Phoenix area, and he finally had his car delivered in September of 2007. He had dubbed his new beast “Rambunctious,” and aside from some early engine trouble, it was everything that he hoped for. “I’m just so tickled with the car,” he said. “[Sandifer] really does nice work. The finish, paint, the interior on the car, they just did a fine job all around as far as I’m concerned — much better than I could have done.”

Of course, having a car that looks like a vintage street-and-strip demon is one thing, having one that actually sounds and performs like one — or at least is a reasonable facsimile of the real thing — is quite another. Bleil seems to have accomplished both.

The authenticity starts under the hood, where a bored-out 392 from a 1958 Chrysler provides the motivation. Then as now, if you’re gonna tear things up and be a menace to society, you might as well start with a Hemi! A serious-looking scoop rises up out of the hood, helping feed power through a retro 6-71 GM blower and a pair of four-barrel carbs. The GM 400 transmission is bolted to a nine-inch rear end with 3.89 gearing. If all that isn’t enough to scare away any stop light drag race challengers, the monster Hoosier meats on the back and little 165 x 15-inchers on the front make it clear the car was meant to sprint very short distances in the big hurry — corners be damned.

Modern power discs do the stopping, with coil-over shocks and anti-sway bars smoothing out the road just a bit.

The straight axel and high stance will never help the Willys win any prizes for handling, but the look is certainly authentic. “I wanted that straight axel on the front that would make it stay up high, just like they did back in those days,” Bleil said. “That’s a ’58 Ford [replica] grille in front.

“The last ones they ran like this had Chrysler Hemis in them, so a 392 Hemi from 1958 is right, and the old 6-71 blower is what the guys ran back then. It has two four-barrel carburetors on it. Back then, they ran a lot of fuel injection on them, but injection units are just out of sight for these things.

“Really, it’s pretty close to what NHRA rules would have been for a 1965 gas class car.”

The candy apple red paint is accented by gold and black lettering with “Rambunctious” on the side and “A/GS” — a drag racing designation for supercharged gassers from back in the day — stenciled on the “B” pillars.

Inside, Bleil kept things simple — just two Jegs racing bucket seats, a small console with a Hurst shifter, and enough instruments to make it drivable. “The door panels are all stainless steel,” he noted. “There are just the two bucket seats and a roll bar. With the old gassers, they basically just gutted them, so I don’t have a radio, heater or air conditioning.

“The windows roll up and down, and it has the full trunk. It’s just like if you see with an old Willys that hadn’t had anything done to it. The trunk — you could almost sleep in it.”

Speaking of sleep, Bleil admits he has to be careful that his neighbors don’t lose too much of it when he fires up his retro Willys. The short headers exit out of the fender wells, just as the original gassers did. Exhaust noise control wasn’t a big priority with his dream machine, so Bleil goes out of his way to drive gently when he comes and goes from the neighborhood. “It’s pretty loud,” he laughed. “I live in a town of 16,000 people, and so far the police like me. But I’ll tell you, it’s extremely squirrelly to drive! It takes some getting used to because it’s only got a 102-inch wheel base, and it weighs about 3,000 lbs. and has about 500 horsepower.

“I’m 68 years old and I can scare the [bleep] out of myself in no time flat!”

“But I drive it on the street. It’s a streetable car. The engine has 8 to 1 compression so it’s not high-compression. I drive it on the street — not every day, but if there are local car shows I drive it to the car shows, and there is a bunch of us that get together for breakfast on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, and I’ll take the car. If I’m going out of town more than 50 or 60 miles, I trailer it. If it’s around town, I drive.”

Bleil drag raced a bit back in the late 1950s, and owned his share of muscle and hobby cars in the years that followed — including several Chevelles and a “T-bucket” roadster. None of those cars quite compared to his Willys, however. He is clearly enjoying the trip back in time.

“It’s great when guys walk up with that gleam in their eye and want to talk about the car — they remember the old gassers,” Bleil said. “I’ve never run it on the strip, because it’s not really made for the strip, it’s made to drive on the street … but it looks the part, certainly.

“I guess if you keep working toward your dream, sooner or later you get there. I worked for 45 years, and this is what I get. It was 45 years in the making.”

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