by Doug Mitchel
Is the urge to restore vintage trucks hereditary? It would appear so for the Smazik family.
Mark Smazik is the owner of the Willys-Howe Commando featured here, and his father Milt was a Mack truck enthusiast. Regardless of their favorite brand, each approaches his restoration projects with an unbridled passion that can be seen in the restored machines. After Mark chided his father about working only with Macks, Milt suggested Mark restore a truck of his own so he could see how complex the process could be.
Mark began looking for rare Willys trucks. His search was rewarded in 2003 with this 1958 Willys-Howe Jeep Commando fire engine no. 10313 from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Another collector was thinning his herd, and Mark jumped at the chance to bring the Jeep home.
He found that the Jeep had been first pressed into duty at the Woodville State Hospital in Pennsylvania in 1958. That stint was followed by a visit to a Western Pennsylvania state hospital before its penultimate stop at the Haverford State Hospital, also in Pennsylvania. Not only did the truck never leave Pennsylvania, but also its history was based solely on protecting the property at hospital facilities. This probably limited its list of activities to inspections, although it was built to take on some of the demands of actual firefighting. The Willys may not have been called into action at a five-alarm fire, but it was capable of handling most hospital duties. Heavier equipment would have been called in from other local stations to assist in large emergencies.
The Willys-Overland Motor Co. began in 1908 in Toledo, Ohio, when John North Willys bought Standard Wheel Co.’s Overland Automotive Division. The other part of our featured truck’s pedigree is the Howe Fire Apparatus Co. of Anderson, Indiana. Howe had been producing fire-related gear since 1872 and installed its first pumping unit on a truck in 1907. The result of combining these two companies was a highly workable fire truck.
The Jeep was in running condition when Mark took delivery, but it had no functioning brakes and needed lots of tender loving care. It was lucky that the Smazik family had not only the skills needed for the restoration, but also access to many machines to use as examples when they needed to create parts from scratch. Since the local auto parts store was lacking in the 1958 Willys Commando part selection, Mark used these skills as he set out to complete the project. His initial plans were to polish and detail the complete truck, but after closer inspection he opted to blast the sheetmetal down to raw steel and repaint it. A coat of epoxy primer was followed with Valspar urethane red. The engine was removed and refreshed, and the engine bay was painted and detailed. Many of the trucks in this series were built with an open-cab design, but some were released with the closed-cab layout seen here.
Mark’s truck was based on a one-ton, 4-wheel-drive, Willys chassis. Its 226ci, L-head, 6-cylinder Super Hurricane engine delivers about 115 horsepower. Earlier Willys truck engines, smaller 4-cylinder units displacing 134.2 cubic inches, were not intended for use in a medium- to heavy-duty application. The bigger engines delivered much needed power and torque for a truck carrying water and a gross vehicle weight of more than four tons. This 6-cylinder powerplant was the same one used in passenger cars of the period made by Kaiser, the company that took over the Willys brand in 1953. Period advertising touted the truck to be “Speedy-Powerful-Maneuverable” with a 4-wheel-drive setup suitable for farm operations. Nevertheless, it was also perfect for city use; its compact chassis and steering provided easy maneuverability in tight spaces.
The cab and three-man cockpit are all Willys hardware. The business end of the truck has a Howe bed, replete with the required storage compartments and places to hang hardware. A 42-cubic-foot hose compartment is teamed with the 150-foot booster reel for added capacity. One side is assigned ladder duty while the opposite wears two lengths of hard suction hose. At the front of the truck, we find a Howe service platform fitted with a 500gpm Waterous pump and some gleaming yet expected bits and pieces of firefighting apparatus. Feeding the pump is an onboard 150-gallon storage tank that would be quickly depleted at a fire of any real size.
Remote pump control and heat exchange cooling delivered continuous pump operations in the event of a more serious call. One front fender wears a Mars Signal Light Co. warning light, restored to a high degree. The owner added the light to keep the opposite fender’s Mars DL siren from getting lonely, and together they make a perfect couple. The finished vehicle wears gold pin stripes, accented with the gold leaf department markings on the doors. The “Melville State Hospital” markings are a fictional location, based on the joining of his daughter’s name, Melanie and the original location, Woodville.
Gleaming diamond plate is found where foot traffic would be highest, and inside the rear section we find a nicely polished section of hardwood flooring and matching bench. The Jeep tips the scales at 8,000 pounds—about the maximum weight for a single rear-wheel platform.
Finding a Willys-Howe fire truck in any condition does not happen too often. We have Mark and Milt Smazik’s inspiration to thank for the amazing example on these pages. Milt passed away a few years back, but his teachings of how to restore a truck—any truck—the right way is obvious. Mark was taught not to cut any corners, and he avoided the temptation to save a few dollars. He bucked his father’s trend for leaning towards the Mack brand and, in return, we get to see this far less common firefighting vehicle at area shows.