Costa Rica may not have an army, but you will find authentic military jeeps here, including some in red and yellow as well as old khaki. They belong to jeeperos, members of the Willys Jeep Club of Costa Rica, who get together to compare work on their cars, arrange exhibits and plan trips on which a long line of jeeps cruises the highways and byways, some of which test all the extra gears.
“Everyone loves jeeps,” says Aldo Biamonte, president and founder of the 16-year-old club.
Biamonte is the owner of a restored, authentic 1942 army jeep that includes a rifle holder, entrenching tool and canvas bucket for water. Its special yellow license plate reads “VH 6,” meaning it was the sixth historic vehicle registered in the country. And, oh yes, it passes the mandatory vehicle inspection test at Riteve.
Freddy Fallas and Nancy Mora are proud of their bright red 1956 jeep that’s all original except for the bumpers. License plate number 1387 shows how few cars were on the roads when their jeep was brought here in 1959. The fuel pump has a glass dome, and the jeep goes topless except when it rains. A canvas cover and seat belts are later additions.
The 30 or so jeeps that showed up for a picnic at Biamonte’s farm in Ciruelas, Alajuela, northwest of the capital, ranged from his ’42 model to a late-model power-packed station wagon. Owners ranged in age also, but they all share a sense of adventure, of being able to go where regular cars fear to tread. The mechanical challenges of restoring an old car and driving with the top off add to the attraction. There is pride in having something special. The jeeps’ role in World War II is well-known, and owning one is like a historical link.
Each car came into the country in a different way. Biamonte’s was driven to Costa Rica by a World War II vet living in Panama. It had been idle for 18 years when Biamonte bought it in 1994, and it needed a lot of work. He ordered parts from a military “graveyard” for old army vehicles in Yuma, Arizona, through the U.S. Embassy.
A youthful Manuel Delgado bought his ’75 jeep 10 years ago. It too had been “sitting around” and needed work. The first job was a good cleaning to get rid of the cobwebs and dirt.
“Humans need challenges, and to go on bare trails into the mountains is one of them,” Delgado says.
Fabio Molina, 44, used to have a Volkswagen but wanted a car to get out into nature. Taking little used trails and camping “where only a jeep can enter” are his reasons for driving a jeep. He now owns three: one to drive, one to restore, and one for parts.
Nobody knows for sure how the name “jeep” originated, but according to the club’s historians, Eduardo Rodríguez and Héctor Mendoza, it was either from the term “GP” (general purpose) or from the name of a handy do-it-all cartoon dog in early Popeye comics.
Back in the late 1930s, with war imminent in Europe, the U.S. government wanted to develop a vehicle somewhere between a truck and a motorcycle, able to go from battle areas to the rear. The Germans had a small vehicle that ran on treads like a tank. The jeep used tires because rubber was available in the Americas. Prototypes were produced by car manufacturers American Bantam, Willys-Overland and Ford. The Bantam was the first choice, but the company was too small to produce the numbers needed. Willys-Overland of Toledo, Ohio, made 363,000 jeeps with “Go Devil” motors during the war years. Ford also made jeeps.
After the war, Willys-Overland turned out Agrijeeps to be used in agriculture instead of tractors. (Biamonte says he first saw jeeps on his uncles’ farms.) When the company discovered that the public liked jeeps for sport, they sold them for general use.
The company did not fare as well as its cars. Founded by John North Willys in the early 1900s, it merged first with Overland.
In the 1950s, it merged with the Kaiser car company and later was bought by American Motors in the ’70s and by Chrysler in the ’80s.
Costa Rica’s jeeperos are a self-proclaimed “select group.” Traveling together on paseos, they drive in a line to make sure everyone keeps up.
“One time a jeep broke down, and no matter what the rest of us tried, we could not fix the problem,” Rodríguez recalls. “We finally towed the car all the way to the NicoyaPeninsula and home again.”
Members meet once a month on the second floor of the McDonald’s near Parque de la Paz, in southern San José, to compare work on their very special cars and to plan activities for jeeperos and their families. For more information, visit www.club-jeepwillys.com or call Biamonte at 2439-0437.