Leo Underwood’s Vintage Dodge and Willys Military Trucks
When you talk about cars you are talking “transportation.” Car enthusiasts typically are after speed, a “custom” look, showroom-perfect preservation, etc. But when you talk trucks, you are also talking “work:” hauling cargo, towing other vehicles, pulling out trees in clearing land, navigating difficult terrain, fighting a war, etc. Truck enthusiasts add to the mix of speed and looks the special abilities of their vehicles to do work.
A friend of ours in Melbourne, Florida, has a passion for trucks. He is Leo Underwood, present owner and restorer of two Forties-era Dodge trucks and a 1947 Willys Jeep. His father, Bob Underwood, owns two Dodge M37 military trucks, one of which Leo restored, and a second M37 awaiting attention. (The senior Mr. Underwood is owner of the 1949 Chrysler Highlander Convertible featured as allpar.com “Car of the Month” in December 2008.)
In restoring his 1942 Dodge WC pickup, Leo probably put as much effort into replacing a winch as a hotrodder could put into building an engine for the strip. The payoff he gets is what the truck can do for him. Talking about the aftermath of a storm to hit Florida, Leo recalls, “My place was high and dry because we are built on a mound, but there was flooding nearby. I got into my tall truck and drove roads in water up to the doorstep of homes. Folks waved for me to slow down, to not make a wake. It was terrible.”
The photo that leads this article shows Leo Underwood’s trio of Dodge and Willys Jeep utility vehicles in his driveway: a 1946 Dodge Power Wagon, a 1942 WC-4 model half-ton Dodge pickup, and a 1947 Willys Jeep. Missing from this group, but pictured below, is the Dodge M37 military three-quarter ton vehicle he restored, which is owned by Bob Underwood.
“When I was just out of high school,” Leo recalled, “I had a 1954 Willys Jeep pickup. I put 9.00 X 16 military tires on it and ran it in the open country near our property. Mud, mud, mud! I loved driving in it! And still do! I do get my trucks pretty dirty now and then. I learned a lot about trucks working in our family pool construction business for 26 years. We had a great mechanic for our fleet of trucks and equipment: Doyle Dunham, an old trucker from North Carolina who died a few years ago. He taught me a lot. But I really got hooked on trucks about 9 years ago when I saw a 1952 Power Wagon at a car show.”
Leo has at least one other passion, bluegrass music. He plays mandolin and sings with a band called, Atlantic Bluegrass, and they are in demand to perform around the county (Brevard County). The group has a new CD (hear them on Myspace!).
The Underwood WC-4 has a closed cab. It came out of the factory with a winch, attested to by a built-in winch platform, but the winch was missing when Leo purchased the truck. The WC models that originally had winches were open-cab trucks with longer frames than the non-winch models, so the closed cab on Leo’s truck is apparently not original. It would have been added over the years when it was registered in Maine – where the colder climate makes a closed cab sound like a smart idea.
The 4 X 4 WC half-tons came out in 1941 and ’42 as pickups, panel trucks, weapons carriers, ambulances and command or reconnaissance vehicles. The excellent www.olive-drab.com has comprehensive information on them; Leo believes, based on that site, that his vehicle has the WC-4 frame and bed, and the cab of a WC-12.
Dave Fenner added: A Dodge WC was strictly a half ton 2x4 truck that remained basically unchanged all the way through 1947. The WC-12 and WC-4 were 4x4 trucks. Dodge made many models from the basic VC and WC series, not all of which were half-tons; the WC-63 is a ton and a half 6x6 personnel and cargo truck with a winch; the WC-54 was a 4x4 ambulance; and the WC-59 was a 3/4 ton telephone maintenance and installation truck.
Up front, the vehicle has the cage-like steel radiator and headlight guard that is a common feature of military trucks.
A used winch was eventually purchased from Midwest Military, Inc., in Prior Lake, MN for $1,400, with the PTO (power take-off) unit and driveshaft.
Leo acquired the half-ton in 2003 from a seller in Freeport, Maine. With his wife, Cindy, and their dog, Champ, they towed it home to Florida through New York City! The truck presently has 76,000 miles on the odometer. The engine is a 218 cid in-line six-cylinder. Since our first interview in Feb. 2009, Leo has reported he is repairing minor rust on the half-ton and repainting it “desert sand.”
1946 Dodge Power Wagon
Dodge introduced its one-ton Power Wagon in 1946, the first year the name was used. Among many differences between WCs and the Power Wagon was leaving off the radiator guards of the military era. But many features of the Power Wagon evolved from the WC series of vehicles in service by the military in World War II, and it is considered the first civilian truck of its size with true four-wheel drive.
The Power Wagon came with a two-speed transfer case and a four-speed transmission with PTO unit, sending power fore and aft to run auxiliary equipment. Dodge also sold half-ton pickups in 1946 but not with four-wheel drive.
Leo first saw the Power Wagon advertised in a classified listing at dodgepowerwagon.com. Its serial number, 88750235, indicates that it was assembled at a plant in San Leandro, California (closed in 1954). The truck was never registered outside of Oregon. Leo purchased it from a second-owner in the mountain town of Grants Pass, Oregon, towards the end of 2007. The seller was a fishing guide who had used the truck for 23 years in building a house in the area and moving gear in connection with his guide service.
The Power Wagon has a 126-inch wheelbase. Standard tires are 9.00/16 on 16 X 6.50 inch 5-stud wheels. It is powered by a 230 cid “L-head” six cylinder engine. The purchase price was $10,000, with $3,000 estimated into the restoration – not including Leo’s labor.
On New Year’s Day, 2008, with Siskiyou Summit in the background, Leo and his co-driver, son-in-law Kanaan Minks, pose with the trailered Power Wagon before leaving Grants Pass to return to Florida. Their route had been Interstate 10 from Florida west to California, and north to Grants Pass on Interstate 5. It could have cost about $6,000 to have the truck transported from Oregon to Florida. “Driving to get it myself was a good option,” Leo said. “And I had never seen that part of the country. Kanaan and I would drive 36-40 hours in a shift, and then layover at a motel. Hottest part of the trip was crossing the Mojave Dessert.” They logged 6,885 miles, round trip. Eight days: three out, five back with the truck in tow.
In starting the restoration, Leo says, “I worked on just the back end first because I don’t have a lot of room in my garage. I did the frame, then the side and back panels. Then I did the front.”
The bed of the Power Wagon is bigger than that of the WC.
This photo shows the thorough clean-up Leo performed on body components. ”The truck had a lot of surface rust when I got it,” he explained. “I took the whole thing apart and stripped it. Coated parts with paint remover, a piece at a time. Then pressure washed at high power: 3500 psi. The pressure wash gets right down to bare metal. Then I treat with Ospho. Cleaned and prepped everything with an etching primer, and also an epoxy primer. Then I sand . . . and work and work, and finally paint with base and clear coats. Did all that in my garage and driveway when the Florida weather would allow. Local automotive paint supplier matched the original color, which I think is called ‘hunter green.’ Black fenders are not standard, but I like black fenders.”
Turning to the engine, Leo said, “It ran fine when I picked it up, so I kept everything original except the wiring harness. They wanted $1200 for a harness for this truck and said it would take 13 weeks to get it. I went ahead and did my own wiring harness. I drew diagrams as I removed the old wiring, color coded everything, wrapped and rewired.”
The condition of the motor before Leo cleaned it up; it sat for 10 months while he worked on the body. “Finally I just did maintenance on the engine,” he says. “I put in new plugs and points, rebuilt the carburetor. When it started, there was all kinds of noise coming out of it. To tell the truth, I put in Marvel Mystery Oil, ran it for a half hour, it smoothed right out, and still runs fine.” It runs fine on modern fuel, but ethanol seems to be a problem and he has to watch his fuel filters.
The exhaust system was intact; he cleaned that and painted it with heat resistant POR 15.
The interior has auxiliary controls and 4-speed transmission. Gauges have been refurbished by APT Instruments. The metal trim of the gauges was rechromed but the glass is original. The odometer, which couldn’t be read before it went to APT Instruments, was reset to zero. Several months after the reset, it’s showing about 1,000 miles logged.
Dash plaques on Power Wagon’s glovebox door explain controls and operating limits – with some redundancy! New replica plaques were purchased from Vintage Power Wagons, an aftermarket supplier based in Fairfield, Iowa.
Power Wagons were supposed to mate with Bush Hog mowers, saws, rear winches, and other equipment powered by a driveshaft coming off the PTO unit on the transmission, and that required displacement of the normally-centered differential.
Would anyone want to estimate the maximum load rating of the Power Wagon’s stock heavy-duty pintle hook bolted to the frame's rear crossmember? My guess is the truck doesn’t budge before this thing breaks! The tab at the bottom releases its grip.
Leo uses his Willys Jeep, model CJ2A, mostly as a hunting vehicle and runabout on his family’s acreage. He bought it, painted gray, from his father for $4500 and put about $3500 into the restoration. He repainted in a Willys stock color: “harvest tan.” Orange wheels, “sunburst,” are also standard.
The engine is the 134 cid four-cylinder L-head, and it has an aftermarket “Supersonic” head. “It has about 85,000 miles on it, drives comfortably at 30 or 40 mph, and gets great mileage” Leo said. “It runs a long time on a tank of fuel. Not sure exactly because the gas gauge doesn’t work. I use a stick in the tank and carry the spare can. There’s a cloth top for it. They call it the ‘Summer top.’ You can still buy one from Kaiser Willys Auto Supply, LLC, in South Carolina. Last time I looked the price was $600. There are all kinds of aftermarket tops and enclosures for Jeeps.”
Bob Underwood’s M37 military three-quarter ton truck hails from Wisconsin. Leo says he had to remove three layers of paint during the restoration. Graphic details identifying the truck came clear as the paint was removed. The “WI-NG” on the bumper signifies the Wisconsin National Guard.
The senior Mr. Underwood, a former member of the National Guard, bought the truck in 2003 while staying at a family residence in Smithville, Tennessee. He saw it advertised in a car magazine, had it transported to Smithville, and drove it around the mountains for the Summer. Eventually Leo moved it to Florida where he restored it.
M37 trucks were used in Korea and Vietnam. The Underwood vehicle is set up as a troop carrier, with longitudinal benches along the rear bed. The “pioneer tools” (shovel, etc.) mounted on the tailgate and the spare tire off the driver’s side door are typical of the troop carrier function. On other profiles the spare would be mounted in the rear bed against the back of the cab.
The electrical system of this version of the M37 has a 100-amp alternator and a rectifier to convert AC current to DC for operation of electrical equipment such as a radio. The rectifier, barely visible in this picture, is mounted between the radiator and grill. The side panels of the rear bed accept wooden “bows” that hold up a canvas cover.
Maybe credit is due to the Wisconsin National Guard for taking good care of this truck, because Leo didn’t have to take it all apart. “I just stripped it down and painted it,” he says. It went really nice. And it’s a super running vehicle.”
With sealed spark plugs and a throttle setting on the dash to keep the engine running, the M37 can get through water up to 48 inches deep. With an optional snorkel kit max depth in water is 84 inches! Leo says he has a video showing the truck taking a bath. The driver is standing on the seat!
The finish on the M37 would be traditional Army olive-drab, non-gloss. But after painting, Mr. Underwood didn’t like the flat finish. He and Leo decided to clear coat it. “Now it’s a handy truck for parades! And it’s got a low gear; you can just crawl it.”
Is Leo in the market for any other Mopar utility vehicles or parts for them? “I’m always looking, if not always buying.”