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Classic military vehicles a collecting bargain?

1942 Willys MB Jeep

1942 Willys MB Jeep  (RM Sotheby's)

Black-and-white photos of endless Allied mechanized columns advancing into Germany hint at the unbelievable numbers of military vehicles built to turn WWII’s tide. That flood of jeeps, tanks, deuce-and-a-half trucks and other motorized vehicles illustrated America’s prodigious industrial might at its apex. It’s a scene that probably inspired more than a few people to get into the hobby of collecting military vehicles. Let’s hope they did some homework first.

“One of the first pieces of advice that I give to anyone thinking about a vintage military vehicle is to join the Military Vehicle Preservation Association and take a look at the Army Motors and Supply Line magazines,” said Charlie Kuhn, a specialist for Worldwide Auctioneers and a military vehicle enthusiast.

“Once you’ve done that, think about where you’re going to put it,” Kuhn continued. “The classic GMC CCKW 350 or deuce-and-a-half trucks are huge. You’re not going to fit them in a garage any easier than a Sherman tank. You’ll need a commercial building or a pole-barn for one of those.”

Not surprisingly, Kuhn is a big fan of the WWII-era Willys MB jeep. He bought his first one in 1986. “Over the years, I’ve owned over a half dozen of them,” he said. “They’re what I recommend to anyone starting out collecting military vehicles. The Korean-era jeeps are a bit more numerous, and to the casual observer, the only real difference is the one-piece windshield. I always get a chuckle when I see a WWII movie with one-piece windshield jeeps.”

They’re great fun to drive if you can live with the incredibly choppy ride and unsynchronized gearbox, but they’re not all that useful.

“Maybe for getting around a farm or in town, but 40 to 45 mph is pretty much the top speed, so the Interstate is out,” Kuhn said. “I can tell you from experience, never, ever drive through a school zone in a jeep with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on it.” That is probably applicable advice for any caliber.

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Parades, military rallies and reenactments are the prime use for a vintage military jeep. “You can buy an incorrectly restored WWII or Korean-era jeep for under 10 grand.”  A really well-restored one, loaded to the gills with accessories like a rifle rack, wire cutters and a [deactivated] machine gun, might cost as much as $25,000” he said.

Another option that doesn’t break the bank or require an airplane hangar for storage is a bit less obvious choice: the Harley-Davidson WLA, a militarized version of the prewar WL model. With a compression ratio of just 5:1, it would run on 72 octane fuel, and its olive drab paint and blackout headlight give it a ready-for-action look. According to Kuhn, prices almost track those of jeeps, with projects available for $10,000 or less and nicer examples going for around $25,000.

“If you really want something impressive that will fit in a garage, a Dodge M37 ¾ ton four-wheel drive truck is a great choice,” Kuhn said. “It’s not much bigger than a regular full-size pickup. I just saw a Korea-era truck fitted out as a troop carrier, fully-restored for just $12,000.”

Clearly, the frenzy of some portions of the collector car market has yet to reach military vehicles.

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