The Flinders Ranges in South Australia is undoubtedly one of the most stunning regions to visit anywhere on this massive continent at any time of year. Except the vicious middle of summer of course, when even the Prairie Hotel in Parachilna closes down because it is so relentlessly, damned hot. In August or September, while the east coast chills through the tail end of winter, the Flinders Ranges is just about perfect – cool at night but mid 20s during the day.
You’d think then that the highlight for CarAdvice would be the opportunity to head bush in a raft of new Jeep off-roaders, dressed up to celebrate the legendary marque’s 75th anniversary. It doesn’t quite pan out that way though…
A Qantas flight to Adelaide and a charter flight to Leigh Creek is the fastest way out to the Flinders if you don’t want to truck up by road from Adelaide, which will take approximately six hours. There’s not much going on at Leigh Creek, but the runway is sealed at least, so there’s no bumpy dirt track landing. The reward though is the solitude, vast desert landscape and the awe-inspiring colours of the Ranges as soon as you head out of town.
50km or so south, we take the turn into Nilpena Pound, a 200,000-acre cattle station so vast, the acreage doesn’t really make sense when you think about the number alone. Just take in the fact that a fence repair for example could take the owner more than 100km in any direction. It’s an enormous property. It’s here that Jeep has assembled our base point for a few days behind the wheel of the 75th anniversary special editions. The minute we spot the fully restored (and yet faithfully original) 1950 Willys though, we’re a lot less interested in the new metal on display.
Father and son team, Warren and Bronte Hooper, restored this Willys recently but its story goes back a lot further than that. Warren’s father purchased it direct from ex-war service as surplus stock. Warren is a mechanic and Bronte an engineer, so there’s no doubt this restoration has been completed to the highest standards. Every element of it has been done properly, lift the bonnet, for example, and everything looks new. Warren and Bronte have trucked the Willys up from Orroroo, where they live, a three hour run down the highway.
The Willys was to be used as a farm runabout, and has never left the Hooper family. The restoration is fresh too, so fresh that the engine hasn’t even been fully run-in and the new springs haven’t even settled yet. “We can feel the engine loosening up and running more freely with every kilometre we put on it now,” Warren says. “You can see the wonky lean on the suspension too, which won’t go away until the springs settle properly.”
The boys have graciously allowed us to have a drive of the museum piece in one of the red dust bowls littered around the property. There’s a pretty serious 4WD track you have to negotiate to get out there, and the guys don’t seem to care one iota that we’re filling the family’s pride and joy with red bull dust. In fact, it’s clear the Willys is in its element out here in the scrub and they’ll worry about cleaning the dust out later.
As the owner of a 1962 Volkswagen Kombi, I’m familiar with archaic machinery, but unlike my VW, which has been converted, the Willys is still powered by a six-volt electrical system. It runs twin batteries though, because a six-volt system’s main weakness is that the generator doesn’t charge while the engine is idling. Idle long enough, and the battery will go flat. “We use it for the ANZAC parade and other display events, so we wanted to sort that problem out,” Warren tells me.
There’s one crucial difference to get the Willys started compared to my Kombi though. Where my Kombi’s high beam switch is located on the floor ahead of the shifter, the Willys’ button (mounted in a similar position) is actually the starter. A quick run through the controls then, and I’m ready to roll.
Flick the ignition switch – there’s no key because it would only get lost in the theatre of wartime battle anyway – push the floor-mounted starter, and the engine cranks to life surprisingly easily. Once it settles into an idle, it’s quiet and surprisingly smooth. There’s some conjecture as to the size of this engine, with the original displacing 2.2-litres, but some machining work during the rebuild would have taken that capacity out a little. “Doesn’t have much power,” Bronte says. “It’s pretty torquey though, which means it can chug along pretty easily.”
The only other factor you need to keep in mind is the lack of a synchros on first gear. I’ve had old Holdens and Beetles like that too, and you just need to remember not to select first while the vehicle is rolling, unless you’re an expert double-clutcher. It’s been a while since I’ve done it, so I won’t be grinding gears in this Willys while I practice my technique that’s for sure.
The clutch is easy to operate, the accelerator has that beautiful old connected feel that only a direct cable connection between pedal and carburettor can deliver and both are effortless to master. Work the accelerator to build the revs up ever so slightly, let the clutch out and we’re away. There’s only three cogs to work with, so I’m into second quickly and then third, and progress is smooth.
The four-wheel drum brakes work safely too, proving that a well-maintained vintage system still does the job even if it isn’t quite up to modern traffic standards. I see a guy running round Sydney in a LHD Willys through, rain, hail or shine, and he seems to get by just fine. Maybe he’s a glutton for punishment, but you could almost argue that you need an off-roader to negotiate Sydney’s appalling urban road network.
You can imagine proper off-roading would be fairly bouncy with such a rudimentary platform beneath you, and the cabin is quite cramped with two 100kg blokes stuffed into it too. Other than that, the Willys is surprisingly comfortable. The steering is light once you’re moving and the clutch action especially is a lot lighter than I expected. There are no doors, just a safety strap you clip in place, no seatbelts and absolutely nothing that doesn’t serve a specific function.
Following my drive I step out and take some time to appreciate the engineering of the Willys. I’ve seen plenty running round over the years both here and in the US, but never taken a close look at one. The engine and gearbox were designed to operate fully submerged, front and rear diffs are beefy Dana units – a company that still manufactures tough diffs to this day – and there’s a workmanlike feel to the way every element of the Willys has been designed and built. It’s little wonder so many are still around today, so tough is their inherent design.
While seven decades and countless engineering refinements separate the original Willys from a 2016 Wrangler, park the SWB Wrangler next to the Willys and the family resemblance is crystal clear. Climb up into the Wrangler’s cabin and, dare we say it, some of the Willys’ clunkiness remains. There’s nothing technically precise about the manual shift in a new Wrangler for example, although it does have synchros on first gear at least! It’s also got six rather than three ratios, too.
The most obvious improvement in off-roading though is how effortlessly you can tackle rugged terrain while remaining comfortable. Cabins are more insulated (and have roofs and windows), there’s power steering, air-con, electric everything, the list goes on. Imagine punting across central Australia in a Willys in the dead heat of summer. You’d need dust masks as a bare minimum and the heat would be a killer not to mention the extra fuel you’d need to carry to get that small tank to the next fuel stop. Exploring has become so much easier.
Jeep’s 75th Anniversary models are all about celebrating the brand’s heritage, military colours tipping the hat to its birth in the looming shadow of war, badging that echoes an iconic past. That storied past is clearly evident in every rivet and hand beaten piece of sheetmetal of this original Willys. Few vehicles – aside from Land Rover’s Defender – have such a clear and genuine link to the past than the Jeep Wrangler. It’s been a privilege to experience that history side by side with such a stunning backdrop. If you’ve never visited the Flinders Ranges, get out there.