Findlay family owns a so-called unicorn Jeep

The one-of-a-kind Jeep truck was a prototype built in the 1970s that never went into production.
The one-of-a-kind Jeep truck was a prototype built in the 1970s that never went into production.
Published: Jul. 26, 2023 at 6:29 PM EDT
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FINDLAY, Ohio (WTVG) - Millions of Jeeps have rolled off the assembly lines in Toledo through the years. But a Hancock County family has a very special model. It’s a prototype made at the plant in the 1970s. The Jeep is so rare that the family lovingly refers to it as a unicorn. Because it never went into production, they say it’s the only one of its kind in the world.

Family members of the man who built it, have spent years bringing it back to life. The Jeep has been part of Paula Smith’s life since she was a little girl.

“My cousins and I would fight over who got to sit in the back when my grandpa would take us for a ride. We’d wave at semi-drivers and they would all do double-takes. You could tell they were thinking what is this?” Smith said.

Paula’s grandfather, Harold “Pete” Johnson, was the man behind it.

“It was like a child to him. He was so proud of it,” Paula Smith said.

Paula Smith says Johnson was a Research and Development engineering supervisor at the original Toledo Jeep plant. She says Johnson designed the Jeep truck prototype in 1977. It was not picked up for production, and it was supposed to be destroyed. But Paula Smith’s husband Michael Smith says Johnson had other ideas.

“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. When they would leave, the Jeep would come back out and they’d use it to get lunch,” Michael Smith said.

Michael Smith said Johnson was eventually able to officially own his creation.

“The boss at the time he was getting ready to retire let him buy it for $1. He had to trailer it home. He couldn’t drive it off the lot for legal reasons. He used his Social Security number for the VIN,” Michael Smith said.

Michael Smith said that was more than 40 years ago.

“I used to stack plywood on the truck in my shop, I had no idea how valuable it was,” Michael Smith said.

But Paula Smith says restoring the Jeep truck to its former glory became a passion project for Michael Smith.

“He’ll work all day at his job and then come home and work on it until 10,11 at night or even later. I am so proud of my husband,” Paula Smith said.

Michael Smith is a contractor by trade, but he’s loved working on cars since he was a kid. He’s spent more than a decade on the unicorn project.

“They had a home run with this design. They should have picked it up for full production. But because they didn’t, we have a one-of-a-kind Jeep. I was determined to take every bolt out of it and we did that. We labeled them and put them on pieces of cardboard. I took it down to the frame to nothing,” Michael Smith said. “I took the motor apart, the transmission apart. 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. I have gone to great lengths to make sure that happened. I want to thank all the friends and family who have helped make that possible.”

Michael Smith says their unicorn Jeep is certainly a beautiful tribute to Johnson’s career.

“It’s like he’s still here. He’d be proud,” Michael Smith said.

Johnson’s pride and joy will soon be back on the road, so the family can make more memories with their unicorn.

“We’ve met people who remember the truck and grandpa. The neat thing about that is that they have told us great things about the truck project and even better things about grandpa,” Michael Smith said.

Paula Smith says it will be on display at Toledo Jeep Fest.

“I am like a little kid about to go to an amusement park. I am so excited. There are people telling us that they’re going to Jeep Fest just to see this. I wish grandpa was here to see it, but I think he is,” Paula Smith said.

The Smiths took their unicorn to Toledo Jeep Fest in 2019 before it was finished and people were amazed by it then. So it should be an even bigger draw at this year’s Jeep Fest, which runs August 4-6th.

If you’d like to learn more about the Jeep, click here.

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