Echoes of My Grandfather in Coffee Country

Where old jeeps find new life

Whatever I expected from the small towns in Colombia’s coffee-growing valleys, it wasn’t to be reminded of my Grandpa Howlett on every street corner.

According to family stories, at the beginning of World War II, my grandfather worked for an advertising agency, one of whose clients was a vehicle manufacturer named Willys-Overland Motors. At the time, Willys-Overland was trying to get a government contract to build jeeps for the U.S. military, and my grandfather was assigned to that effort.

In a famous publicity stunt (which we like to think he helped organize), two members of Congress drove a Willys jeep up the steps of the Capitol to prove its capability. Willys got its contract and went on to build more than 300,000 jeeps for the military during the war.

Line of red Willys jeeps

The Willys company closed in the early 1960s, the Jeep name and design passed to other automakers, and my grandfather went on to other things. But the name Willys-Overland remained a piece of family lore.

So imagine my surprise in Colombia when I asked how to get from one mountain town to another and was told that I’d have to take a “Vilees.” It turns out that in Colombia’s coffee-growing regions, jeeps—many proudly bearing the Willys name—are the preferred mode of public transport on the rough, often unpaved roads between small towns.

Man sitting on rear of a parked red jeep
Transport jeeps line several streets, parking in spots that have their destinations painted on the curb

A coffee-themed museum explained that the first 100 Willys jeeps came to Colombia in 1950, and they quickly proved popular on coffee and banana farms in areas with steep hills and rutted roads. A “yipao” (derived from the local pronunciation of jeep) became a unit of measure for coffee and bananas: the number of bags of coffee beans or bunches of bananas that can be carried in and on top of a jeep.

During World War II, an advertising slogan used by Willys-Overland (maybe coined by my grandfather?) was “the sun never sets on the mighty jeep.” In the mountains of central Colombia, that’s certainly true.

I think my Grandpa Howlett would have been delighted to know that his wartime project had become an important part of local culture 75 years later and a continent away from the United States.

Green Willys jeep with coffee bags on top

Photo Galleries