WWII Jeep Restorations

Some car passions stay with you for life – for Jack Groom, it’s the love of Jeeps. DAVID CLAYTON meets Jack, his family and their iconic engines.

I’ve lost count of the number of war movies I’ve seen where a jeep drives into shot, a chiseled-jawed actor delivers some poignant lines to the beleaguered troops and drives off, “Good luck men!”

The American Jeep was the ubiquitous and utilitarian vehicle that kept World War II moving, not only for the Americans but also for our forces. Under the “Lend Lease” system, many were sent over for our soldiers to use in the European theater.

When the war ended there were a few left behind by the returning forces. And in our part of the country, where the Americans were, you could pick up an old Jeep in the immediate postwar years for next to nothing, and that’s where this story begins.

Young Jack Groom would go and help his father on a farm near Wells in north Norfolk.

“There were hardly any tractors after the war, so old jeeps were used to work in the fields. I used to help my dad load straw bales onto an old bomb trailer attached to the back of a jeep. From then on, I vowed to have one of my own.” It was in the early 1950s.

It took a chance meeting in 1986 for Jack to finally acquire his own wartime Jeep.

“An E-Type Jag broke down just outside our cottage here in Binham,” he tells me. “The clutch had gone and while help was on its way I invited the owner over for a cup of tea. We were talking about old vehicles and I told him I’d always wanted a Jeep. He knew of one for sale in Runcton Holme.”

To make a long story short, Jack went and bought it. The rear wings were a little rotten and it had a glossy paint job, but he started restoring it, removing it and putting the right kind of matte paint on the body.

“It still has the same tires on it from when I picked it up,” Jack proudly declares.

It cost him £3,000. “I had quit smoking and worked hard,” he tells me, in case he needed to justify the expense. “I was chuffed to pieces to finally have my own Jeep.”

It’s a family affair … Jack Groom with granddaughter Sylvie and daughter Helen.
– Credit: David Clayton

Six years later, another Jeep was a little harder to justify buying, but Jack did it. “This one cost £1600, a friend down the road told me about it.”

Having been manufactured in 1944, it was two years younger than Jack’s first Jeep and had been auctioned for £200 in 1958. Now knowing something about the mechanics of the vehicle, he took it apart and gradually put it back together.

A few years ago, Jack and his wife Jane decided to each give a Jeep to son Kevin and daughter Helen. They were willing recipients. While I was talking to Jack, Helen showed up after picking up her 10-year-old daughter Sylvie from school in her 1942 Jeep, which must have turned a few heads.

“It’s fun. It’s cool,” was how Sylvie summed it up with a big smile on her face.

Helen is very attached to the Jeep: “I’ve always loved it. I know how much it means to Dad.”

She has her own happy childhood memories of trips out in the jeep, heading for picnics in stubble fields around north Norfolk. The off-road capability of the vehicle allowed them to go virtually anywhere. I wondered if Helen had been behind the wheel as a youngster, because it didn’t always have to be driven on the right roads.

The ‘Jeep’ that Jack built … Helen and Kevin Groom in the early 1980s in the mini Jeep built by their father, Jack.
– Credit: Jack Groom

She laughs: “Dad told me I couldn’t drive it until I was 25, something to do with the insurance.”

“I made that up,” Jack says, laughing.

Helen has researched the Jeep she now owns.

“You can’t really find out where it was during the war, or what it did,” she explains. But she has discovered that it later served with the British Army in West Africa and was used by them until 1959. Interestingly, there is evidence of what may be bullet holes in the rear wing. There is no other reasonable explanation for the irregular series of round bumps where the holes have been filled.

Helen’s Jeep still lives at Jack and Jane’s house, which isn’t a problem since she lives nearby in Binham. Kevin is further afield in Nottingham. So it’s the best of both worlds. The Jeeps have been passed on, but Jack still has them.

It was at this point when I was talking to the Groom family that Sylvie disappeared into one of Jack’s sheds. An engine started and out came his father in a mini jeep.

“I built it in 1976,” Jack tells me. “It’s mine now,” says a delighted Sylvie. History repeats itself as Helen told me how much fun she and her brother had as children driving it around their large garden and the fields outside.

It’s a family of Jeeps with a family of Jeep lovers. No better demonstrated than when Helen threw an 80th birthday party for her Jeep a few months ago.

“We decorated it and had cake,” she says, as if that’s the most normal and logical thing to do for an old vehicle. “I’ve often wondered about the life it had,” she says wistfully, “it’s priceless. It’s love. It’s alive.”

Jack Groom with his daughter Helen and her jeep decorated with bunting on his 80th birthday.

Jack Groom with his daughter Helen and her jeep decorated with bunting on his 80th birthday.
– Credit: Jack Groom

A warhorse that keeps going

The saying “Necessity is the mother of invention” has never been better applied than to the World War II Jeep. With war becoming inevitable, in 1940 the US government asked its auto industry to come up with a lightweight, four-wheel-drive vehicle prototype so the military could give it some rigorous testing. The catch was that it was only 49 days to have something ready…

The First World War had largely relied on the horse to quickly transport men and munitions around the battlefield, but time had marched on. In the end, Willys-Overland and Ford were awarded the contract because they had the capacity to produce the approximately 600,000 that were eventually needed.

No one is quite sure where the name Jeep comes from. One theory is that the initials for General Purpose Vehicle, “GP” became slurred into the word Jeep. That was indeed claimed by the Willys-Overland president who says he was the one who did it first. The second theory is based on a character in Popeye’s cartoon just before World War II, called Eugene the Jeep, a fictional creature with supernatural and magical abilities. The theory is that the soldiers named the vehicle a Jeep because, like the character, it could seemingly solve problems and go anywhere.

Dwight D Eisenhower said the Jeep was one of three decisive weapons the US had in World War II, and General George Marshall, the US Army Chief of Staff, claimed it was America’s greatest contribution to modern warfare.

The Jeep’s versatility was demonstrated many times. The flat hood was used as a chart table and sometimes also an operating table for surgeons in the field. Stretchers were mounted on the vehicle to evacuate the wounded and there was even an amphibious jeep.

They were supplied to all allies during World War II, including Russia, and the vehicle continued to serve in the Korean War with more upgrades and adaptations.

They say the sun never sets on a Jeep, anywhere in the world.

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