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Prototypes are so cool. It doesn’t matter if it’s an early model Fender Stratocaster or a Jeep pickup truck; seeing the early iterations before something classic took its final form is fascinating. An incredible 1977 Jeep J10 prototype was just found in its original, unrestored condition. This prototype features a one-of-a-kind feature for the model that never made it to production. Prototypes are supposed to be destroyed. Somehow this one managed to survive. 

The Jeep J10 prototype survived the crusher

No companies want their half-cocked engineering prototypes out in the world. While this seems extremely lame at first, the thinking makes sense. Jeep doesn’t want someone getting a hold of an experimental J10 that might not have all the kinks worked out, or worse – it might not be safe in its prototype form, getting out into the public. In order to make sure prototypes can’t hurt anyone or give a company a bad rep, OEMs almost always crush them as production begins. 

Thankfully, a Jeep employee named Harold “Pete” Johnson took a shine to the only extended-cab Jeep J10 prototype he was working on. Johnson wasn’t just a line worker for Jeep; he was the Research & Development engineering supervisor at the time. Jeep never officially made the extended cab J10. After the prototype was finished, Jeep decided to scrap the model and move on. Johnson wasn’t having it. As a supervisor, he worked his magic to somehow extricate the felonious J10 from the factory and into his garage. Now under the stewardship of Johnson’s granddaughter, Paula Smith, and her husband, Michael, the big J10 prototype lives on as a Johnson family heirloom. 

“He loved it so much he would hide it in the factory in the file cabinet room. When the higher-ups would come in to find it, he would put files in front of it,” said Michael Smith, adding, “When they would leave, the Jeep would come back out, and they’d use it to get lunch.” The family told 13ABC, a local news station in Toledo, Ohio, that their grandad didn’t steal the truck but instead cleverly bought himself time until he retired. At that point, he leveraged his time with the company to purchase the truck that he loved (and help design) for $1. 

Another one-of-a-kind prototype used as storage

Michael Smith standing next to the Jeep J10 Prototype
Michael Smith standing next to the restored Jeep J10 prototype | YouTube: WTVG 13ABC

His granddaughter knew her grandfather loved the truck but had no clue what the value was. Her husband said that they used to store wood on top of it and in the bed. But when Johnson’s wife passed, the family promised they would restore the vintage pickup truck to its former glory. The family completely stripped the truck down from soup to nuts – the engine, transmission, all of it. It all got completely rebuilt, refinished, and put back together. 

Restoring a one-off prototype can’t be easy. The Smith family poured a lot into the restoration. “I looked for three months for the interior headliner because I promised grandma on her deathbed that I would put it back exactly the way grandpa had it,” said Smith.

The old Jeep boys even got in on the action

1977 Jeep J10 Prototype
1977 Jeep J10 Prototype | YouTube: WTVG 13ABC

While the family was working on Grandpa’s truck, they documented the journey on Facebook. During the restoration, some of Johnson’s old workmates reached out to the family, telling them old stories about the truck and working alongside Johnson in the 1970s. As with all inherited car projects, the family has used the J10 rebuild to connect with their deceased family member.

Us car dorks are always jabbering on about how cars are more than just cars. For some reason, these machines can hold a piece of someone. They connect with us, and that connection can even comfort others later. It’s a beautiful thing to see someone process the loss of a loved one by restoring something that the person loved. That said, I feel that the process of restoring a car is unique – special in some way that I can’t specify at the moment. It takes sacrifice. Restoring a vintage car is hard, expensive, time-consuming, and downright frustrating at times. This is what connects us to our loved ones. It’s not cruising around in the thing; it’s the struggle and commitment it takes to get it there that allows us to feel them again.