By Brian Earnest
Bill Brown probably won’t be opening a tropical resort anytime soon, but he’s still using his charming little 1963 Jeep Surrey Gala for the job for which it was intended. Brown, a restoration shop owner from Coshocton, Ohio, found his Surrey in his home Buckeye state, but he knew right away that it belonged in a warmer, sunnier world — like the Florida Keys, which is where Brown just happens to have his own getaway home.
The Surrey is now a year-round snow bird in the Keys, serving as a beach buggy and pseudo daily transportation when Bill and his wife, Sue, stay at their southern home. “It’s just industrial-strength cute,” laughs Brown. “When you drive it, people just look at you and smile and give you the thumbs up. It’s just a great little vehicle. A lot of people have no idea what it is or that [Jeep] even made a Surrey.”
Indeed, many people have never seen one in the flesh, because not many were built — probably not much more than 1,000 during their entire run from 1959-’64. A more whimsical vehicle has probably never come from U.S. auto factories, and the original premise for the Surrey seems almost impossible to believe these days in the age of huge production runs, staggering tooling costs and the cold, hard bottom lines that automakers face. The Surrey Gala was a colorful option package for the Jeep DJ-3A Dispatcher intended for use at busy vacation resorts in Hawaii and the Caribbean. They were designed to be low-maintenance, cheap, fun rentals for guests who wanted to get around and do some sight seeing.
They were often seen in pink — called Tropical Rose/CoralMist — but also came in Fountain/Green with Glacier white, and Cerulean Blue with Glacier White. And the Surreys did do their part for tropical tourism for a number of years, serving as guest vehicles at the Hawaiian Village Hotel and the Las Brisas Hotel in Acapulco, Mexico, among other places.
Not many individual buyers wound up with them stateside, at least when they were new, but Elvis Presley got his hands on one and reportedly bopped around Graceland in the early 1960s in a pink example. In the movies, Barbara Eden and Tab Hunter cruised in a Surrey Gala in “Ride The Wild Surf,” and Jerry Lewis piloted one as “The Nutty Professor.”
Brown wasn’t sure he had ever seen a Surrey Gala before in person and had no idea how rare they were before he spotted one in Coshocton. “There was a guy here that had it. His daughter was in high school and they used to drive it around town,” he recalled. “I remember seeing it and thinking it was kind of cute… Well, I had retired in 2000 and we had bought a place down in the Keys, and when I saw it advertised for sale I thought it would be a nice vehicle to have down there.”
So Brown snapped it up and took it to his shop, CASCO Automotive Restoration, and figured he’d eventually get around to sprucing the little Jeep up and making it at least respectable enough to drive. When he returned a few days later, his crew had already started on a full-blown restoration without the boss’s approval. “They had the body off and the frame had been stripped and sandblasted and everything,” he said. “I had just taken it to the shop and told the guys, ‘Let’s see if we can get it running and see what it needs.’ I did not plan to get it fully restored … But I think they were just trying to make a point, you know, ‘Hey, if this is going to be a decent car, let’s do this right.’
“So that’s what we did, and I started shopping around with the Jeep vendors and looking for parts. The big bugaboo was finding the Jeep striped upholstery."
Eventually, Brown hooked up with a Jeep enthusiast from Colorado who used to work for Chrysler. “Chrysler said they would get him the material and he could find somebody to sell them [the interiors] … I had all the original upholstery, but it was in really bad shape… I sent my upholstery to him and he used my upholstery and the material he got from Chrysler and he was able to make everything and I ended up getting all new upholstery, including the side curtains, the top, the seat covers, spare wheel cover — everything.”
Brown also got plenty of help from Jeep historian Ron Szymanski, a fellow Surrey Gala owner from Toledo who also worked as the curator at the Jeep House museum/collection. “I went up to Toledo and talked to him and he had a lot of early pictures and literature that he shared with me,” Brown noted. “And I made copies of all kinds of parts manuals and that sort of thing. Ron was a huge help.”
Brown’s crew had to repair some rust issues and weld in some patch panels, but the body of the Surrey was far from a lost cause.
With their unique upholstery, calling card fringed tops and a scarcity of parts and donor cars, the Surrey Galas are certainly not the easiest collector vehicle to restore. But they are definitely not complicated. The DJ-3 vehicles that served as the basis for the Surreys were among the most bare bones vehicles on the road, with the vast majority serving for many years as mail trucks and small delivery vehicles. The quarter-ton Dispatchers first arrived for the 1956 model year and were low-budget, two-wheel-drive versions of the former CJ-3A. They came as open roadsters or with hard or soft tops — and all were priced between $1,200 and $1,400. They carried the long-running 134-cid inline four-cylinder that pushed out a modest 60 hp. The three-speed manual transmission was shifted on the column.
The Surreys were unveiled for 1959, and though they were more colorful, they were just as simple and utilitarian as the rest of the Dispatchers. Front seat passengers rode in a pair of low-back buckets that folded forward to allow access to the rear seat. A small rear bench seat could carry two more adults in back.
The snap-on side curtains provided a bit of protection from the elements, although many Surreys probably never wore them in their lifetimes. The windshields could folded down flat and there were no doors. The windshield frame, which was painted white to match the grille and fender wells, had a simple vent that could let in fresh air. A metal step hanging from the body on both sides helped with entry and exit from the vehicle.
Ironically, Brown’s Surrey had lived in Florida previously before migrating to Ohio. He’s not sure exactly how long it was out of the state, but the blue Surrey has been a Florida native most of its life. “I don’t know much about it except that the guy had bought it in south Florida,” he said. “He brought it up for his daughter to drive around town as kind of a street-legal golf cart, but actually it annoys me when people call them golf carts because they’re Jeeps!”
Having the Surrey has been a pleasant change of pace for the Browns. Bill is no stranger to vehicles of the era, or of small vehicles for that matter, but the Surrey is nothing like anything he’s previously owned. “I’m kind of a details guy and I’ve been restoring T-birds and Model T’s and other cars for years,” he said. “My business is primarily parts for 1955-57 T-Birds, but I started building cars back when I was in high school. I started way back then doing hot rods and customs for people… At our shop we do a lot of T-Birds for shows. They’re concours quality, you know, where every little minor flaw is taken care of. But I never intended to do that with the Surrey. It’s nice, but it’s not concours quality, because I wanted it to be a driver.”
The one concession Brown says he made to originality with his Surrey Gala was going with 15-inch wheels, rather than the stock 13-inch models. “I liked the way these hubcaps looked, and they were for the 15-inch wheels,” he said.
So far, the Browns have not elected to take their Surrey to any car shows or big old car hobby events. That time might be coming, but Bill would prefer such gatherings be close enough so that he could drive the Jeep there.
“I have not shown it yet. There is a show in Key Largo every February and I was thinking about signing it up and taking it down there,” he said. “I could take it down there and drive it, but that would be really pushing it at 55 [mph]. It’s really comfortable at 45. If I did go, I’d probably trailer it down there, not drive it… That’s another reason to go with 15-inch wheels. With the 13-inch wheels I doubt it would even go 45. But it’s really fun to drive. I suspect it would be a lot like driving a World War II Jeep — even though I haven’t driven a World War II Jeep — but with a column shift rather than floor shift. It accelerates pretty quickly to get going and it’s just fun.
“My wife says it’s a ‘show-off’ car.”