Jeeps are one of the most capable off-roading vehicles in the world, but not all Jeeps are slow and curious. Some are fast and furious, such as the new pavement-pounding Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. Or for an old school approach, the recent “flat rod” craze is bringing classic flat-fendered Jeeps to the forefront of hot rodding.
Flat rods are often referred to as rat rods, but Shaun Gober’s 1949 Willys Jeep is an exception. This is no rat rod. Lets simply call it a “Jeep rod” or an exceptionally badass hot rod that wasn’t made with a cookie cutter.
It’s heard long before being seen: The Jeep’s rumble echoed through the Zoomie exhaust, which tickled my eardrums and put me on full alert. When it turned the corner into sight, it made me stop dead in my tracks. The iconic Jeep grille is the last thing I expected to see linked to the deep engine rumble, and it sits just inches from the ground between skinny front tires. As the rod rolls closer, wide rear meats become clearly visible, so much so that it took effort to peel my eyes away as I admired the straight, rust-free yet subtly fabricated cab.
There was something more going on here, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I swooped in for a closer look just as Shaun parked it at the Hagerty Cars and Caffeine in Traverse City, Michigan.
Shaun has owned several vehicles over the years. Each one was chosen based on his keen eye for the unique, always shying away from the mundane. Like many kids that growing up in the 70s, his dad had a muscle car, in his case a Chevelle with big rear street tires. “We would cruise around in that car, and that was it: I wanted one too.” His dad also taught him how to work on cars, perform engine swaps, rebuild transmissions, do tune ups and even lay down paint. “He was a great inspiration to me growing up,” he said.
When it comes to the hot rod culture, Shaun loves the unique visions people bring to fruition. His Jeep is the product of one talented fabricator’s vision, Ricky Franks Jr. of Detroit, Michigan. It began as a “some assembly required” project. You know the type, you never know what it might entail until you dig in. The car’s original owner had it in pieces for at least a decade, but as years passed and his health left him, the realization settled in that he needed to find someone who could finish it.
Shaun also saw the Jeep’s potential and struck a deal with Ricky. “Ricky’s ideas and creative vision for one-off vehicles is outstanding,” he expressed. When committing to the project, Shaun didn’t give strict specifications. “All I asked for was a very unique, loud and fun to drive vehicle, and he exceeded my expectations.” Shaun put his full trust in Rick, gave him as great foundation to build on, then simply turned him loose. The result? A head-turning, smile-inducing Jeep rod that sparks conversation whereever Shaun drives it.
To match the lowered stance, Ricky chopped the cab’s top by 5-inches. The roofline was so low that he had to form a curved fiberglass roof to allow enough headroom for its occupants. Pinstripe details are strategically placed around the entire vehicle, including the hood, rounded cab corners, and the tailgate.
The name “El Chapo,” meaning “shorty” in English, is scripted across the cab’s rear. Classic bullet-style taillights add a sleek look to the otherwise traditionally boxy truck bed.
Out of all of the Jeep’s features, the NOS bottle that peeks out from under the driver’s side fender commands the most questions from curious people. No, silly, it doesn’t actually have Nitrous Oxide. Yes, that’s an energy drink can that works as the coolant overflow.
The beating heart is a tall-deck Ford 400 V8 engine fed by an Edelbrock four-barrel carburetor. The torquey Ford 400 engine has longer stroke than its predecessor, the 351 Cleveland, which means that it has the longest stroke of any Ford pushrod V8 engine.
It weighs about20-percent less than other similar big-blocks of its time, and was used in Ford’s big, heavy full-sized vehicles for its brisk acceleration made possible by the insane torque at low engine speeds. The engine is mated to a C6 transmission. Known for its strength and durability, is considered by many as the best automatic transmission Ford ever built.
The stainless-steel fuel cell rests under a custom-made, push button release tonneau cover. No truck bed is present, because who needs to add that extra weight? When the cover is folded back, the Ford 9-inch rear axle and QA1 coil over shocks are clearly visible. Hidden behind the pinstriped rear diff cover is a Positraction differential, which increases the grip of the massive 31” by 18.5 inch Mickey Thompson tires.
For the front, the stock 1949 Willys two-wheel-drive axle was used. Custom ladder bars and hair pins were added for optimum weight transfer during hard acceleration. A Flaming River rear steer rack provides the clearance needed for the Ford engine’s oil pan.
The interior is a balance of classic metal details incorporated with simple modern elements, such as the custom AutoMeter gauges. Matching pinstripe designs adorn the driver and passenger sides of the dash. The metal hollow, drilled steering wheel feels lightweight and grippy through every turn.
The Mexican-style blanket that covers the bench seat has a story of its own. “The blanket is a little sentimental, to say the least,” Shaun said with a shy smile. “It might actually be my favorite thing in the Jeep.” Long story short, he and his friend purchased the blanket on the way home from a long, freezing road trip to get another project car home in the middle of winter.
They were so cold that they were shivering and quivering uncontrollably, and may or may not have been huddled together to share body heat. “What happens on the road, stays on the road,” he said. (Sorry, Shaun.) By the time they spotted the blanket at a gas station, all that he could do was point and excitedly yell, “Blanket!”
The stock Willys front drum brake assembly is the only thing Shaun replaced on the Jeep since it shipped to his home in 2017, and it was just a minor repair. “I love it just the way it is. I don’t anticipate making any changes. The only plan I have for this build’s future is to drive the tires off of it every chance I get.”