Words and Photos: Mercedes Lilienthal
From mountain trails to off-roading tales, flat fender 4x4s are the core of off-roading history. Ever since the Willys-Overland “Jeep” debuted in 1941 to serve the United States government as Army vehicles, it later transformed into a civilian Jeep (CJ), hitting dealer lots as a hot commodity a few years later. Little did they know this new vehicle type, the world’s first light-duty four-wheel drive, created a major shift in the off-road world.
More than 80 years later, flat fenders still roam the trails. Many flat-fender originals also flock to Moab, Utah. each year to take part in the annual Easter Jeep Safari, or EJS, an event that just celebrated its 56th year. This weeklong gathering embraces all types of Jeeps, from 1940s old-timers to brand new concepts and everything in between.
“We’re very proud of our military roots,” says Jim Morrison, Senior Vice President and Head of Jeep Brand North America. That’s where the company started. Taking it one step forward, flat-fender owners from across the country come together during EJS for a secret “unofficial official flat-fender fun run.” It’s a way to connect with fellow vintage 4×4 enthusiasts and share stories, it’s a slow-going, bumpy, and absolutely fun time together.
Flat Fender Fun Run
“This is something that has grown over the last couple of years,” mentions the secret organizer with a smile (who wished to remain anonymous, so we’ll call him “Mr. Smith” to keep things easy). “From a few friends to a lot of friends, we get together every Friday of Easter Jeep with all the old Jeeps in town and do something.”
“It could be a hard trail, could be an easy trail,” the fictitious Smith continues. Basically, it could be something not often seen to keep other Jeepers guessing. The suspense is part of the fun of it. So much so that the last few years, the unofficial official EJS flat-fender fun run yielded more than 50 Willys off-roaders.
Held for nearly a decade, the unofficial fun run showcases comradery, challenges, and an overall great time – no matter who has mechanical issues or what the weather may hold. “In general, this seems to be a really good group of people,” Smith related, “that’s willing to do more with less.”
One of these people is Mike Hallmark, the Marketing and International Sales Manager for Hellwig Products, an American-made and family-owned company specializing in premium load and sway-control products for several vehicle types.
“I have been a car enthusiast as long as I can remember and have been off-roading for more 25 years,” Hallmark says. “I have a collection of off-road vehicles ranging from Land Rovers, Volkswagens, Fords, Willys, and even an old Volvo C303.” Although he’s driven old and new vehicles off-road, he prefers old, underpowered analog off-roaders that include “dripping oil and limited suspension.” That’s why he’s drawn to “Willis,” his Willys 1948 CJ-2A 4×4. “Fewer amenities inspire creativity,” Hallmark explains, “and I love to be creative.”
Willis’ Grand Adventures
Hallmark purchased his Willys CJ-2A as part of a bundle vehicle deal from a long-time friend whom he played soccer with in junior high. As he reunited with this person, he learned that each of her siblings and cousins all learned how to drive behind the wheel of “Willis.” This particular Willys had been sitting in a field for 10-15 years before Hallmark started its recent resurrection. With great partners and elbow grease, Hallmark got Willis Moab ready in a short time. “Everything is pretty much stock on Willis except for the engine,” he confesses.
The engine Hallmark’s Willys currently powers is an F-head from a later-model CJ-3B. Additionally, Hallmark replaced Willis’ water pump, distributor, fuel pump, carburetor, brakes, brake wheel cylinders, and gaskets. The refurbished CJ-2A was rewired with the help of Painless Performance and new military-style seat cushions and covers were also added. Front and rear Powertrax Lock-Right lockers added surefootedness while new Firestone knobby 650-16 tires “hook up well on the slick rock and keep the OG look of the vehicle,” Hallmark adds. Icon Vehicle Dynamics provided rebuildable 2.0 shocks, which are joined by factory Willys CJ-2A springs. Finally, new gauges were installed to ensure vitals are easily read while Hallmark bounces down each trail.
He especially loves the flat-fender community which he believes have the skill and dedication to keep these treasures running. “Without the help of this amazing community,” he explains, “Willis could still be a hunk of metal enhancing the look of the old field it rested in for so many years.”
Tons of Stories to Tell
Although a lot of work has gone into Charlie Simpich’s bone-stock 1947 CJ-2A Willys, the only adds were a toolbox, roll bar and a cup holder. It’s been all over Colorado, but had its first Moab showing during the 2022 EJS event.
Simpich’s Willys has a pedigree that include moderately difficult high-elevation trails like Colorado’s Tincup Pass (12,154-foot elevation), Hancock Pass (12,140-foot elevation), and Alpine Tunnel. Staying within the family since 1995, Simpich’s father Ragan gave his young son the Willys soon after he purchased when he wa just 14 years old. The Simpich family’s Willys spent its previous life on a farm in Hanover, CO, where the owner had big plans to fix it up, but never did. Simpich’s father bought it to give it a new lease on life.
Sometimes flat fenders are found in fields or barns with a neglectful past; however, Kevin Boog’s flattie was a cemetery find discovered on Craigslist. Nicknamed “Frankenstein”, Boog’s flat fender was 100% torn apart when purchased.
After 50 pounds of mud was taken out of the frame rails and a blown four-cylinder engine was replaced with a 351 Cleveland mated to a four-speed transmission, this 1960 Willys flat fender spent the next year being transformed. In addition to a yellow metal-flake paint job and tons of upgrades, trashed stock axles were swapped with a newer Dana 27 front axle and an AMC 20 rear axle (which includes a locker) to make it more capable.
“Frankenstein is an homage to a Jeep that I wrecked back in 1980, coming back from ice racing,” the now 66-year-old Boog says. Boog races with others that have vehicle combinations of up to 1,000 horsepower and more, like souped-up LS-motor swapped Willys CJ-2As and CJ-3Bs. The vehicles they pilot “run the gamut.”
Companies like Tread Lightly and various 4×4 groups throughout the country emphasize trail clean-ups and proper trail etiquette. Many off-roaders also help out. If everyone does their part and helps teach newcomers how to respect nature and its surroundings, we’ll help ensure trail enjoyment like those found in Moab will garner great stories for years to come.
In addition to flat-fender owners helping each other when times get tough, good trail etiquette and stewardship are important parts to keep trails open for future generations – no matter what type of vehicle off-roaders are using and what type of terrain they’re on.