Classic car dealer shares his passion for military vehicle restoration
Editor's note: This article was submitted by Mike Atwood, owner of highly rated Big Sky Classic Motors in Bozeman, Mont. Click here for information on how to submit an article to Angie's List Classic Cars
by Mike Atwood
World War II jeeps and military trucks don’t normally come up when car guys are talking about classics, but wait until they hear or see one coming down the street. If you’re a car guy, I guarantee it will stop you in your tracks and leave you staring with a big smile. You might even wonder what it’d be like to drive one of those olive-drab monsters with their go-anywhere, conquer-anything-in-their-way attitude.
Every era of classic cars has its own identity and devoted followers – vintage military vehicles are no exception. The vintage military vehicle craze has been alive and thriving in the U.S. and overseas for many years. Early 1900s military vehicles are among the very rarest MVs, meaning that only the most serious collectors-restorers owning the few survivors.
Strong support from clubs and fellow enthusiasts
Club support is strong for this hobby with military vehicle clubs established in virtually every state in the U.S. and many abroad. State clubs are closely associated with the Military Vehicle Preservation Association, which has some 9,000 members across the globe.
The MVPA is an excellent reference source for all things MV, with members receiving excellent publications full of interesting articles, aftermarket parts sources for restoration and classifieds.
Probably the most comprehensive web site used by collectors and restorers is G503.com, which is named after the military code for the jeep. Personally, I would not have been able to complete my frame-off restoration of my family’s WWII Navy Shore Patrol jeep without the help from the guys in my local club, the Montana Military Vehicle Club, the G503 website and the MVPA publication.
There are still many vintage military vehicles out there in boneyards, barns and garages across the country just waiting for another chance to put some life on their non-directional tires. With the right restoration, they could carry a decorated veteran one more time through a parade of cheering and thankful Americans or maybe just a family joy ride or a club cruise through Yellowstone Park with the top down.
A personal connection
For me, it all started about 50 years ago, standing in our driveway when my father came home with an old jeep in tow – a WWII 1943 Ford GPW jeep he had purchased with a friend and a handshake. They both threw in $100 and wondered what their wives would say when they got home. It was a solid “base jeep,” living most of its life on a California military base. But it was about to embark on its second life serving our family of six, including four boys that loved to go hunting and fishing.
By the time I was 13, I learned to start, stop and shift that old jeep out on a dirt levy at our duck-hunting club in northern California. I grew up hunting with the jeep, my Winchester Model 12 20-gauge shotgun and my black Lab at my side. My family's picture albums and super-8 films are full of pictures from hunting and camping trips with the old jeep loaded with ducks, geese, pheasant, deer and even two huge bull elk from a long trip to Montana and Idaho being towed from our northern California home.
My father passed away in 2003 but before his journey to the ultimate hunting and fishing grounds, we had a chance to visit and he asked me to take the jeep to my home in Montana and restore and enjoy it. When I'm done with it, it will stay in the family and go to my son and his sons, never to be sold. That promise was made and kept with a final hug and handshake, and then I towed it to Montana and embarked on restoring the worn-out war hero.
Owning and working on cool cars has been a passion of mine for many years from my 1966 Sunbeam Tiger to my 1960s Volkswagen Camper. Prior to undertaking the jeep restoration, I had not performed a total frame-off nut-bolt restoration, but my friends convinced me it’s just pieces and parts – dive in! As you might expect, military vehicles are as basic as you can get with simple wire harnesses, a few essential dash gauges and uncomfortable steel frame seats.
If you’re handy and have a shop area and a decent set of tools, military jeeps and trucks are comparatively easy and generally cost effective to restore. They have a simple mechanical drive train and no-frills interiors and wiring. It’s fairly easy to get upside-down financially in a 1960s muscle car or a pre-war classic with typical full restoration costs running much more than the market will support if you decide to sell it.
The market for military vehicles
This isn’t the case with military vehicles. A complete restoration on a jeep can cost $7,000 to $10,000, depending on how much of the work is outsourced. I recently helped put together a sale on a nice restored jeep that was all turn-key outsourced work - from the tires to the top - and the seller had only $12,000 invested in it. So the average hobbyist can generally recover his investment given the strong market demand and a competitive aftermarket parts sourcing.
Correctly restored WWII-era jeeps are averaging $12,000 to $15,000 today, with exceptional examples fetching prices in the low $20,000s. Late 1940 and 1950s Willys M38 and M38A1 jeeps and even later Vietnam-era jeeps – known as M151 A1s and A2s - are running about $5,000 less, on average.
My restoration took me a couple years given a few disruptions for work and family, but with lots of digital photos, a technical manual and some support from a club, even the novice restorer can tackle the job. I spent about $6,000 on my restoration, outsourcing the engine machining and body work to replace some rusty panels. I have helped restore others in our club, and they have run about the same investment if the owner performs much of the work such as paint.
Flat olive-drab Army paint colors are much more forgiving than something like the high-gloss finish on a restored muscle car. The paint job itself can be accomplished with an air compressor, a cheap spray gun and a sunny day with no wind. You can strip, prime, and finish paint all your small parts with basic shop tools and some military-spec zinc-oxide primer and rattle-can the final coats for small parts and touch-ups. If you make it this far in your restoration, make sure you use the correct paint color and sheen for your model and year or you might find yourself court-marshaled!
As with any restoration, assembly of fresh painted parts is very gratifying, and it's much easier with an military vehicle. Everything from installing the rolling frame suspension to mounting that new correct reproduction steering wheel, which is highly recommended for safety, takes less time and is less complicated than a traditional vintage vehicle.
The icing on the cake is when you get to call three or four of your buddies to come over for a beer and to help you lift and set the tub on the frame. You’ll still be a long way to getting it totally completed, but the vehicle really starts to take shape and your friends can say they helped you restore your jeep. I think my wife is still amazed that after a couple years of chaos with jeep parts strewn all over the shop like a battlefield, I actually had a nice looking complete rig that started and ran. My dad would be proud!
Like any big project that tests an enthusiast’s knowledge, skills and patience, restoring a military vehicle is worth the effort and expense in the end, especially if you get the chance to escort a veteran in a Memorial Day parade. The soldier is honored, the vehicle is honored and you feel quietly honored personally for bringing back to life a classic that won wars and the hearts of so many. The next time you see an old vehicle with military lights and grill peering out behind a lean-to or barn – stop and inquire, you may get lucky and I bet you won't regret it.
Mike Atwood is the owner of Big Sky Classic Motors in Bozeman, Mont., a highly rated company on Angie’s List Classic Cars. He’s an avid collector, restorer and driver of classic sports cars and unique military vehicles. In addition to his dealership’s inventory of vehicles, Atwood offers vehicle location and inspection services for classic car buyers.
As of Jan. 17, 2012, this service provider was highly rated on Angie’s List Classic Cars. Ratings are subject to change based on consumer feedback, so check AngiesList.com for the most up-to-date reviews. The views expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of Angie’s List.