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Car of the Week: 1946 Jeep Hot Rod

What's olive drab, has a V-8 and elicits grins from ear to ear? It's Joel Ponty's 1946 jeep hot rod of course!
Car of the Week 2020
Joel Ponty and his father Mike had already restored three authentic military jeeps when they decided to try something wildly different. The original plan was to turn a 1946 CJ body into a hot rod, but they instead used a reproduction WWII jeep body. Motivation comes from a 5.3-liter LS motor from a Chevrolet Silverado. The Sanderson headers are straight from the classic T-bucket roadster playbook.

Joel Ponty and his father Mike had already restored three authentic military jeeps when they decided to try something wildly different. The original plan was to turn a 1946 CJ body into a hot rod, but they instead used a reproduction WWII jeep body. Motivation comes from a 5.3-liter LS motor from a Chevrolet Silverado. The Sanderson headers are straight from the classic T-bucket roadster playbook.

Not unlike those swashbuckling “Top Gun” pilots Mav and Goose, Joel Ponty was feeling the “need for speed.”

The Madison, Wis., military vehicle lover wasn’t looking to break the sound barrier or do any high-speed tower buzzing, but he was hoping for something more exhilarating than the glacial pace he was accustomed to in his favorite military rigs. He was dreaming of something painted Olive Drab that could both turn heads and keep up on the highway — and then some.

“My dad [Mike Ponty] and I restored three other World War II jeeps: a ’42 Ford Script jeep, and that was from the ground up, every nut and bolt on it. That took us a quite a while,” says Ponty. “We did a ’43 Ford GPW, in the OD green, for my uncle’s 100th Infantry Division; then we did a ’44 GPW in the Desert Rat version — the 8th Army Desert Rats. We needed another project, and Dad said, ‘Well, what do you have in mind?’ And I had seen something similar on Facebook, and I showed him a picture and I told him, ‘Dad, I want a jeep that goes faster than 45 mph.’”

In a quintessential tale of “one thing led to another” the Pontys, together with Joel’s son-in-law Nate, cooked up a wild beast that is part 1946 Army jeep, part rat rod and part T-bucket roadster. Think Rat Fink meets Rat Patrol.

There is nothing subtle about a 5.3l LS engine and Sanderson headers sticking out the side.

There is nothing subtle about a 5.3l LS engine and Sanderson headers sticking out the side.

“My favorite car growing up was ‘The Munsters’,” Ponty laughs. “Many people have said at car shows that this is a cross between the military and The Munsters. And you know what, if that’s the impression they get, then I win. I absolutely win!”

Ponty admits he only had some vague, fuzzy ideas of what he wanted to accomplish when he first started his hot rod project. He wanted something that melded a military jeep with a T-bucket roadster. He didn’t have a final product in mind; he started with an old CJ body and just assumed he’d figure it out along the way.

“A friend of mine said, ‘I think a T-bucket frame would be perfect. I did some measuring, and yup, a T- bucket frame was going to be perfect, so we ordered a frame from Ron Pope Motorsports [in Tennessee],” he says. “We lengthened that frame out a little ways. I wanted the wheels out in front of the grille. So we started with the T-bucket frame and the motor. It was originally going to be a Rat Jeep, with the old CJ body, but as it progressed, my dad said, ‘There is absolutely no way we are putting a ratty old tub on this. Let’s buy an old World War II reproduction body.’ So we got the reproduction body on the frame and it just started morphing into this.”

Ponty is quick to point out that no actual jeeps were harmed as his mayhem machine came to life. He started with a ’46 CJ body, but only used a small part of it. Everything else on the original body went to friends or other hobbyists who could use parts for something. 

Big ol' Mickey Thompsons out back and high rake give the jeep a menacing look.

Big ol' Mickey Thompsons out back and high rake give the jeep a menacing look.

“The only part of the original CJ that we used were the two pieces of the hood,” Ponty says. “For jeeps, you can buy reproduction everything now. Through the magazines and everything … you can buy all the parts for a jeep."

“A lot of the stuff on it is anything we could round up from all our other jeeps, we polished up and put in there. Just military stuff we head laying around. [laughs]. My dad and I are extremely adamant about preserving the history of jeeps. Big time.”

Ponty jokes that he started with the battery box and built the hot rod around that.

 “I knew some of the features. I wanted the military can for the battery box. I didn’t know where we were going to put it … We kind of started to see where everything needed to go, and [it took] a lot of fabricating.”

The jeep rod is outfitted with a .30 cal. reproduction gun mount on the passenger side with another mount in the backseat for either a .30 or .50 caliber. But to have the gun installed in back, Ponty has to ditch the canvas top, which he doesn’t really like to do.

The guns and ammo aren’t real, but almost everything else — tools, bags, etc. — is Army issue stuff the Pontys happened to have lying around. The Beechwood Canvas seats are nice, but the ride is cozy, and breezy!

The guns and ammo aren’t real, but almost everything else — tools, bags, etc. — is Army issue stuff the Pontys happened to have lying around. The Beechwood Canvas seats are nice, but the ride is cozy, and breezy!

 “If you put the .50 on there, it actually looks kind of mean, with the .50 and the .30 on the side. But as soon as we put the top on, there was something about it. I haven’t taken the top off yet. People like it with the top on!”

The jeep is fully outfitted for almost any assignment — weapons, bags, radios, tools — you name it. If Ponty could find a place to store it or hang it, it’s on there. Probably his favorite touch is the aluminum grenade shifter handle. 

“I got that from a collector one time, and as soon as I got it in my hand, I said, ‘This has got to be a on a shifter someday. It’s gotta be!’”

Ponty said one of the biggest early challenges in the build turned out to be a big blessing in disguise. He hadn’t thought much about raising the back and/or adding a lot of rake to the car’s profile, but some logistics made it turn out that way. 

Digital gauges help keep an eye on the vitals.

Digital gauges help keep an eye on the vitals.

“The ladder bars, when we first put them on with the flat CJ tub, we had no issues. Well, on the WWII jeep, there is a fuel sump, because it’s a 15-gallon tank, so we ran into some issues with clearance. So we had to raise the body up a little bit. The body is higher than it was originally gonna be. It’s got coil-over adjustable shocks … We raised the body and gave it some rake — higher in the back, lower in the front. And it just worked. Nate said, ‘I like that. We couldn’t have planned that any better!’”

The 5.3-liter V-8 came from a mid-1990s Chevrolet Silverado, according to Ponty. 

“It’s nothing fancy,” he says. “Nate put a cam in it. It has about 300 hp.” The biggest challenge with the engine was finding headers and pipes that worked."

Eventually, Ponty stumbled upon some Sanderson headers that he said looked like they were made to order.

“LS motors, most people are sticking them in cars. So [the headers] come out and go down right away. I wanted something that came out,” he pointed out. “It was like these were made for it. It was incredible how that fell into place, too.”

The five-speed manual transmission is mated to a Ford Explorer rear end. 

“Again, nothing fancy there, either,” he says. “They are fairly bullet proof."

“We had to step back a bit a couple times. Nate was scared quite a bit of the way, ‘I don’t know how you’re going to do this, or do that.’ But each project that came along, we worked through it. With the radiator, we had to do a lot of modifying. But we got that done and that worked. We were a little worried about the driveshaft, because of how short everything is. The driveshaft is probably only about 18 inches — it’s a tiny little driveshaft, custom made by a guy near Footville, Wisconsin.”

The disc brakes and hydraulic clutch assemblies were both from Speedway Motors kits, and both are hidden underneath the vehicle, mostly out of sight. The 15-gallon fuel tank is under the seat, which was done by Beechwood Canvas in New Jersey.

Big Daddy Roth would no doubt approve of the monstrous 18.5-inch Mickey Thompsons in back. The gaudy, chrome steering wheel somehow seems at home in the cockpit as well, as do the simple LED gauges. 

“The steering wheel kit is from Speedway Motors. The steering wheel itself is just something that we found at a swap meet … I got it for 15 bucks! I wanted something small, because we don’t have a lot of room with the controls the way that they are. A jeep steering wheel is big!”

These days, Ponty laughs at the notion that he wanted something that would go fast. The T-bucket jeep, with its exposed engine, growling pipes and huge rear rubber, certainly looks the part, but it’s definitely more tortoise than hare. 

“The highest I’ve had it is 65 [mph]. And I’m like, ‘I’m old, I don’t need to go any faster!’ Nate might have had it up a little faster. With the top on, you don’t want to go very fast. If you took the top off, you could go a little faster, if you wanted to. But even at 50 mph, [the wind is] whipping around pretty good."

“This isn’t the most comfortable vehicle, as you might guess. It’s got no padding in the seat. Because we do have the coil-overs adjusted high, it’s a little stiffer than I would like it to be. And because there is no weight, if you get on it … you gotta be careful with it. It can get out of hand, if you let it.”

For now, Ponty is having a blast with his combination rat rod/hot rod/jeep, showing it off at local car shows and chatting it up with the many folks who want to know how on earth he dreamed up such a beast. He is always quick to point out that no real jeeps were sacrificed in the project. He jokes that his son-in-law, Nate, will get to field all those questions some day.

Ponty and his one-of-a-kind hotrod jeep

Ponty and his one-of-a-kind hotrod jeep

“I have two daughters, so my wife said, ‘You know, Nate is going to get that when you’re gone.’ And I said, ‘Yup, he helped build it, so he can deal with it.’ I have no intention of ever selling it. A lot of people have asked to buy it, but I said, nope, it’s not for sale. If you want, we can make you another one, you just gotta start collecting pieces. Get your tires and your frame and motor and we can go from there!"

“I don’t know what’s next. I might retire from doing that. But we did talk about doing a mail Jeep! [laughs].” 

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