Jeep Brakes and the Wonderful Willys

Jeep Brakes and the Wonderful Willys

Yore Aspen


Jeanne Willoughby Englert sitting atop a 1950s
Willys in front of what later became La Cocina restaurant on East Hopkins
Avenue. (Doris Willoughby/Willoughby photo collection)

Click to
Enlarge





Tim Willoughby
October 13,
2007




Recently a caller to National Public Radio’s “Car Talk” asked if
something could be done about his Jeep brakes. The Magliozzi brothers’ answer
was a derisive laugh. Jeeps are notorious for poor brakes. They became dangerous
when they put bigger motors in them so they could go faster than the brakes
could slow them down.

In the 1950s, Jeeps were the vehicles of choice
for anyone in Aspen who could afford one. They were the perfect match for
Aspen’s unpaved streets and the most reliable way to navigate deep snow in the
winter. The Willys Jeep, made by Kaiser in Toledo, Ohio, was not designed for
fast travel. Speeds over 45 mph could be attained only if you were traveling
downhill on pavement. At 35 mph on gravel washboard surfaces like Maroon and
Castle Creek roads, you signed up for a noisy, teeth-shattering
ride.

But if you wanted to tackle Aspen Mountain
you could slip the Willys CJ (civilian jeep) into four-wheel-low range and it
would purr straight up Little Nell. The low gearing enabled it to climb any
slope at any altitude, even with its low-horsepower, four-cylinder engine.

Coming down was more interesting. You could stand on the brakes and even
at slow speeds you might not stop, at least not for a long, nail-biting
distance. However, shifting into low range held your speed to a reasonable
crawl. Many Aspenites tell stories of careening down Aspen Mountain or Pearl
Pass, top to bottom, with no brakes at all. Not by choice, but because their
brakes had gone out altogether.

Then there was that other Willys
quirk.

While going downhill with the gears holding back the speed, a bump
from hitting a rock (on four-wheel-drive roads that’s all there is) could throw
the vehicle out of gear. The law of unanticipated consequences ordained this
catastrophe when you were on the steepest grade, the sharpest turn and the
narrowest of roads with a precipitous cliff alongside as far ahead as you could
see.

John Healy worked on all the Jeeps in
Aspen, making him the most likely the national Willys expert. He devised and
patented a device to keep jeeps from slipping out of gear, and installed it on
many Aspen jeeps. Who knows how many fatalities he prevented.

Some Jeeps
had a forward-facing back seat, but most didn’t. Children, or any other
passengers, sat facing sideways on the narrow metal benches above the rear
wheels. There was just enough room for a big dog and a small child, or a big
child and a small dog, and a couple bags of groceries.

There was no
upholstery in a Jeep. The only hint of extravagance was a tiny glove compartment
where you could keep a spare fan belt. Early models, which lacked a keyed
ignition, sported a button you pushed to run the starter motor. That was OK in
Aspen because most people, even if they had keys, left them in their
vehicles.

Except for the brake, the Willys was
one of the most reliable and durable vehicles ever built. They started in the
coldest weather and required minimal maintenance. Because you wouldn’t take a
trip to Denver in one, and usually just used them to get around town, even the
old ones had low mileage accumulations.

Those blessed with having one
will never part with it. Admire them, but if you see one coming up fast in your
rearview mirror, then remember their brakes.

Tim Willoughby’s family
story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen
Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native
town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at redmtn@schat.net.

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