Enterprise Dispatch, Nov. 28, 2005
Historic vehicles live on in Dassel
By Dave Cox
A hobby combined with a love of history has grown into a global business for Jim and Kristi Rorah.
Northstar Willys in Dassel is one of only about 10 full-time Willys dealers in the US.
Jim began collecting Willys Jeeps about seven years ago. By 2000, he had collected four of the vehicles, and his garage and storage shed were full of Jeeps and spare parts.
“They kept following us home. Most of the people in the hobby have multiple Jeeps,” Jim explained.
“Usually to the wife’s dismay,” Kristi was quick to add.
They reached a point where they had to make a decision. They would have to either scale back the hobby, or get into the business.
The Rorahs knew Louis Larson of Minneapolis Willys from their many visits to his shop.
Larson had been a district rep for Kaiser Jeep during the 1960’s.
He started out selling parts out of his garage in the mid-1970s, and later turned it into a full-time business.
The Rorahs purchased the business in the spring of 2000 and moved it to Dassel.
Sales have doubled during the five years they have owned the business.
“The Internet has taken it to a whole new level,” Kristi said.
Northstar Willys has customers all over the world. People from Australia, Japan, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, Great Britain, Spain, Italy and South America regularly contact the company for parts.
Northstar Willys ships several international orders each week, as well as to all parts of the US.
Parts comprise the main part of the business, but they also do service and restoration work.
They specialize in parts for vintage Jeeps that were built between 1941 when the first Willys Jeep rolled off of the assembly line, and 1971 when Kaiser Jeep was sold to AMC. They can also get parts for newer models.
The shop and warehouse are full of transmissions, engines, hoods and every other imaginable part.
Jim marvels at the endurance of what were designed as “disposable utility vehicles”.
“The ones that were built during WWII had about a three-month life expectancy, and it went down to about six weeks at one point. Some of those vehicles are still around today, over 60 years later,” he commented.
Collecting Willys Jeeps has been popular since the 1960s, but it has really taken off in the last 10 years, Jim said.
According to the Rorahs, there are many reasons for the vehicle’s continuing popularity.
They are simple and small. They don’t take up a lot of garage space. They are easy to work on and make a good father-son restoration project.
Collectors come from all age groups and economic backgrounds.
Hunters are one group that is rediscovering the vehicles. Jim said that many hunters stopped buying Jeeps 20 years ago when ATV’s began to gain popularity. People are starting to come back to the Jeeps because they can go almost anywhere an ATV can go, but they are also street-legal so at the end of the day you can still drive them into town.
Another reason for the popularity of these vehicles is the incredible number of ways they have been used. In the period just after WWII, they were marketed to farmers for agricultural applications. Some Willys Jeeps came equipped with PTOs and could perform a variety of tasks around the farm. Some were equipped with a three-point hitch and could even pull a small two-bottom plow.
Other Jeeps were equipped with fire-fighting equipment and were used to combat brush fires or industrial fires.
Some of the vehicles were set-up for more unusual applications. The first Zambonis were either modified Jeeps, or were built on Jeep Chassis.
The Rorahs say that many people are interested in the vehicles because of the history that is associated with them.
Some people credit the scrappy little vehicles as being one of the key reasons the Allies won the war.
Over 650,000 were built during the war years 1941 to 1945. Of these, two-thirds were built by Willys, and the rest were built by ford.
The Willys MB and the Ford GPW were identical. Government contracts required that parts be interchangeable so that field repairs could easily be made.
There are a number of organizations that bring together Willys collectors from all over the world.
Among these are the MVPA (Military Vehicle Preservation Assoc.), Mid-States Jeepsters, and the Midwest Willys Reunion which sponsors events each spring and fall.
Along with parts and service, Northstar Willys provides information.
Jim is a walking encyclopedia of all things related to Willys Jeeps.
He knows the history down to the most obscure detail, and he is happy to share his knowledge with other enthusiasts.
Jim says that the term Jeep is not derived from “general purpose” as many people think.
During the WWI era, any new piece of ordinance was referred to as a Jeep. This term may have just stuck with the Willys vehicles when they are introduced.
The other widely accepted theory, according to Jim, is that the name came from a character from the Popeye cartoon series that was popular during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Eugene the Jeep.
This character had magical powers and could go anywhere, and to a Willys enthusiast, this description is a pretty good fit for the vehicles.
People passing through the Dassel area might spot Jim driving one of his Jeeps around town.
His favorite is a Model CJ2A, serial number 87, which was one of the first civilian models produced following WWII.
Jim has traced the history of this vehicle from family that he purchased it from in Park Rapids, MN, all the way to the dealer that originally sold the vehicle in 1945.
Jim says Jeeps can be found on every continent, and along with the Volkswagon Beetle and the Landrover, they are among the most recognizable vehicles ever produced.
If Jim and Kristi have their way, people will go on recognizing them for a long time to come.