by Bill Preston
There has been a certain amount of speculation (on this website at least) about which Willys flatfender Jeep actually served as Tonka's prototype for their famous series of Jeep toys, with one contender certainly being the DJ-3A (see Dispatcher Details: How to Date Your Tonka Flatfender).
I have also suggested that the Tonka actually looks more like a CJ-3B (see Tonka Jeeps Are CJ-3B's), but in the article below Bill Preston describes two pink DJ-3A Surrey Jeeps purchased by Tonka. They likely provided Tonka with both design inspiration and promotion, and years later Bill restored one of them to its original condition. -- Derek Redmond
In about 1982, Grant Wenkstern commissioned me to do the restoration work on one of his two pink Surrey Jeeps. The deal was that I could have one of the Jeeps for the labor to restore the other... not a very equitable trade at the time, but then I was young and only half realized the historical value of the Jeeps.
At this time the two Jeeps were about 20 years old. I believe they were titled as 1962 and looked their age. They were now basically used as junk haulers around the golf course that was owned by Mr. Wenkstern. Grant owned Lakeview golf and Red Oak golf, both in the Lake Minnetonka area of Minnesota.
Grant's dad's was Russell Wenkstern, who was the chief executive of the Tonka Toy Company from about 1961 until 1977. Russ was instrumental in purchasing 2 new pink Surrey Jeeps in the early 60's. I remember Grant showing me a picture of some Tonka execs, including his dad Russ, with one of the pink Jeeps in front of the Mound, Minnesota assembly plant. They were scaled and used to create the Tonka Surrey Jeep that for years was one of Tonka's best selling toys.
At the time I received the two Jeeps, I was working at Chemtool Inc. in Loretto, Minnesota. The building was once a creamery in the early 1900's and oddly enough in the 1960's was also home to Tonka Toys plastics division. My mother worked for Tonka Toys in the early 60's and she spent her work days in this same old brown brick building with its many wood and metal additions. I remember the rows of large plastic presses and how hot it got in the plant in the summer time. Two shot molding was pretty new back then but Tonka did a nice job of molding the two-tone stripe seats and surrey top that were used on that toy.
The two Surreys were purchased by the Tonka Corporation; they were both pink and the serial numbers were consecutive: 56337 21560 and 56337 21561 (the one I restored.) I had both of the vehicles in my shop for about a year while restoring the one, and these two pictures show 56337 21561 before I began.
The restoration consumed my spare time for many months and I can remember certain things about the project. Grant took the engine to be rebuilt at a tech school in the area. I painted the wheels early so that Grant could take them and have new wide whitewall tires put on. I did the color match by mixing the primary pink with a light base until the lighter shade matched an un-faded sample from behind the headlight doors.
I repaired cracks in the steering wheel on a picnic table while on a long weekend vacation with the family near Motley, Minnesota. It took three tries over several months for SIS upholstery in St. Cloud to dye stripe the seat and top fabric so that it would bond properly. Nowhere was pink fringe available for the top so my wife and I dyed yards of new white fringe in a big bucket of RIT outside on our deck.
See also a right side view (160K JPEG).
Soon after the Jeep was completed and delivered to Grant I asked him if I could take it to a show. When I went to load it on the truck, I was shocked to see that Grant had drilled a couple of holes in the hood to mount a Tonka Toy Pink Surrey Jeep with a u-bolt from the hardware store.
This picture was taken at the Jeep show, at Louie Larson's company Willys Minneapolis, in Lakeville. This would be in the early or mid-1980's.
As promised, Grant signed over the title to the "other" Jeep to me. At this point I was totally burned out on the first project so the second Jeep sat in the shop waiting for me to forget the pain of the ordeal. Later I decided to just sell it to Willys Minneapolis. Louie Larson was happy to be the new owner and I knew it would be in good hands. Thanks to Louie for this photo.
A decade later, after moving to the Seattle area, my wife Laurie and I were visiting family in Minnesota and we heard that Grant's pink Surrey was being displayed for sale in the showroom at Ellington's Car Museum in Rogers, MN. Of course we had to take a look, and sure enough there it was in the main showroom with a $12,500 price tag.
Several months later I spotted that same Jeep listed for sale in the July 1999 Hemmings for twice that amount! As I was writing this story, I called the number on the years old ad. I talked to Mr. Jim Miller who did purchase the Jeep from Grant but sold it some years ago. He said that the Tonka Toy Jeep on the hood had become faded so he replaced it with a new old stock toy from his collection. When I told him I was the one who restored the Jeep he had to bring up the U-bolt drilled through the hood. I assured him that I wasn't the culprit to do such a deed. He said he once had a copy of the picture of the Tonka execs standing around the Jeep but thinks it went with the new owner.
This picture appeared on eBay when 56337 21561 was offered for sale there in 2000. The description read: "Vehicle is in good overall condition. Originally owned by Tonka Toy Co. and the inspiration for the famous Tonka Toy Jeep Surrey, 'the world's most famous Jeep.' This fancy Jeep is a real crowd pleaser. A great addition to any collection or museum! Car is individually owned and titled in Minnesota."
Louie Larson still has the other Surrey 56337 21560, and has shown it at events including this 2009 Midwest Willys Reunion, before the seats were recovered. It has about 12,000 original miles on it, and is now restored to original except for the top. Thanks to Louie for this photo.
And thanks to Bill Preston for his story of this interesting pair of Jeeps. -- Derek Redmond
See more DJ-3A Surrey Gala Jeeps on The CJ3B Page.
Also on The CJ3B Page, see more DJ-3A Surrey Toys and other Tonka Jeeps.
Return to the Toy Jeeps Pages.
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