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The Oldest Restored Civilian Jeep

Posted in Features on July 27, 2015
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Every ex-soldier remembers the first time civvies were donned at the end of service. It’s a symbolic moment that feels like a skin change, and can precipitate an identity crisis. Mostly, it’s a good feeling … like a weight has been lifted off. The Willys-Overland military jeep put on its first set of civvies even before World War II had ended, but it was people who did the mental flip-flops over it.

Once building Jeeps had settled down to cranking out as many as possible in the shortest time possible, Willys took some time to reflect on the success and popularity of the truck, ¼-ton, 4x4, popularly known as the Jeep. The Jeep had lifted them from a company on the decline and with no clear direction, to one with money in the bank, name recognition, and a lot of optimism for a postwar future built on that little green critter.

The first pilot-model CJ-2s were painted with the same olive drab paint used in regular military MB production. Later pre-production CJ-2s were painted in a couple of civilian colors that translated into the first production civilian CJ-2A Jeeps built in 1945. The canvas half-top with roll-down doors was one of several top designs tried before production. These unique tops and bows were expertly re-produced by Jeff Petrowich and Mike Meyers. A good number of images survive of the CJ-2s being tested, so it was possible to make almost every detail correct, including the “X30” on the rear crossmember. One detail that was impossible to recreate was an experimental left-hand PTO pulley, something this Jeep was known to have, but is now lost to time.

The civilian transformation of the wartime jeep started in 1942, when two standardized military jeeps, one Willys, one Ford, were tested by the Department of Agriculture at their tillage lab in Alabama. The Jeeps did surprisingly well as farm tractors in their military form, but the report recommended lower gearing, a stronger clutch, and accoutrements like drawbars to better suit the work.

By the early part of 1944, Willys found time to start drawing up plans for a post-war civilian Jeep and prepping for a new market. Since 1943, they had been in the process of converting the generic “jeep” into a trademarked “Jeep.” Gaining that trademark was an uphill FTC court battle but one that was finally won in 1950.

One of the trade names seriously considered was AGRIJEEP. The company was still tossing ideas around looking at jobs for a postwar Jeep. The trademark was granted in December of 1944 but was not used for the production models in favor of “Universal Jeep,” which reflected a wider range of uses outside of farming. Many of the pilot models had this data plate.

As plans for a civvy Jeep were being drawn up, a pair of military Jeeps were pulled off the line for some quick-n-dirty test-the-concept modifications. They were soon dubbed “CJ,” for “Civilian Jeep” and when a second iteration was on the horizon, the first ones became CJ-1 by default. These two CJ-1s were modified with tailgates, lower gearing, drawbars, a civilian style top, and other changes for early testing. They didn’t last long because CJ-2s soon appeared and they were the first jeeps built from the ground up for civilian use. The CJ-2 had many significant differences in body features and construction versus the military Jeep. They would evolve more over time, but to name a few changes, they would have tailgates, side mounted spare tires, rear wheelwells modified so the seats could be enlarged, improved, and moved rearward, and new methods for attaching a more weathertight top.

The test CJs were fitted with a number of experimental powertrain components and notations like this identified what was in the vehicle. These decode to 8 1/2= 8-1/2 inch clutch, L.G.R.= 2.43:1 transfer case low-range ratio, T.90= T-90A Warner Gear transmission.

On the mechanical front, the GI 4.88:1 axle cogs were replaced by 5.38:1 ratios, that gearset having been developed for special military projects like the 6x6 MT-TUG. Ditto for the improved Model 18 transfer case, which had a 2.43:1 low range versus the wartime 1.97:1. The weak T-84 3-speed of the GI Jeep was replaced with the newly designed and stronger T-90, which was fitted with a column shift apparatus, and mounted behind a larger and stronger clutch.

The sort of a missing link between the military and the civilian Jeep is that the seats have a little more padding, but not what the production units would have. The glove box from the military Jeeps was eliminated, and Willys was quick to revive the column shift, something they had tried to unsuccessfully foist off on the Army in the Willys MA. Some of the earliest CJ-2As also used a column shift.

Initially dubbed AGRIJEEP, a name Willys trademarked, the new CJs were intended for agricultural and commercial use. To help cement the “Jeep” trademark to Willys, the earliest of the CJs wore cast brass “Jeep” badges visible from the sides, front, and rear. Willys cranked out as many as 40 CJ-2s in two major iterations for testing and development. Even among their generalized groups, each was a little different as they evolved and were modified for various types of work.

The CJ-2 Go-Devil L-head engine was largely the same as the wartime Jeep but used a different carburetor and ignition system. For PTO use, Jeeps also needed an engine governor, and this one still has it’s original King Seeley unit.¬ The engine and trans are not original to this Jeep, but Cooper searched far and wide to find replacements built at about the same time with the same features, stampings, and casting numbers.

The pilot-model Jeep you see here is CJ-2-06, the sixth CJ-2 built and the third earliest Civilian Jeep known to survive (CJ-2-03 and -04 are still around), but this is probably the most complete and accurately restored. Ten of the approximately 40 CJ-2s built have survived, though some are hardly more than a pile of parts. CJ-2-06 was assembled sometime in the summer of 1944 (exact date unclear) and given the experimental number X30.

Mixing with the high and mighty. The CJ-2-06 X30 in late 1944 is seen here with Charles “Cast Iron Charlie” Sorensen (left), the recently installed president of Willys-Overland Motors, and Ward Canady, Chairman of the Board. This shot was taken at CESOR Farms, a large farming operation owned by Sorenson where the first civilian Jeeps were tested, photographed doing farm work, and eventually introduced to the press on July 18, 1945. In the collecting world, provenance doesn’t get any better than this. You can see the left-facing PTO pulley in this photo that Cooper longs to find or reproduce.

During testing, it was assigned to Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. It was eventually sold locally, and reportedly spent a long period in a scrapyard schlepping a welder around before being purchased by a Jeep collector, who only did a little cosmetic touchup. Noted Jeep collector Tremaine Cooper bought it in 1999, and started a nut and bolt restoration that was completed in 2007. With the expert body help of Brian Haner, and the research wisdom of Jeep historians Keith Buckley, Fred Coldwell, and Todd Paisley, Cooper was able to recreate the Jeep as it was in late 1944 during tests. There were plenty of available photographs, and the historians pulled informational rabbits out of their hats so that few details had to be left to chance. Correct restoration of a prototype is the most difficult to undertake, but Cooper was patient, methodical and got the job done.

The 2015 Spring Willys Reunion featured the first gathering of CJ-2 Agrijeeps since July 18, 1945. Four of the remaining 10 were in attendance, though six had been slated to appear. From left to right: Andrew Poncic and CJ-2-32 X56; Tremaine Cooper and CJ-2-06 X30; Fred Coldwell and CJ-2-09 X33; Todd Paisley and CJ-2-37 X61. CJ-3-32 and -37 are slightly evolved late-build units more similar to the production CJ-2A. One big difference between the early CJ-2 and the production CJ-2A is “JEEP” stamped into the sheet metal. The early CJ-2s had the brass badges, and the production CJ-2A had “WILLYS.” Incidentally, Coldwell and Paisley are notable Jeep historians and probably know more about early civilian Jeeps than anyone still living.
Badges? We NEED Those Stinking Badges! The brass badges lasted only through about CJ2-20 or 21, units that have been dubbed “pilot models,” because they had so many differences from the production civvy Jeeps. The badges were placed on the hood sides, the windshield cowl, and the rear body to the right of the tailgate. From about CJ-2-21 or so on, the pre-production models were stamped with “JEEP” into the hood sides and cowl, as well as into the tailgate. You won’t see either of these features outside this narrow range of about 40 vehicles. Aside from the experimentation on how to properly identify these new rigs, there was a legal method to this madness. Willys-Overland was fighting a legal battle over the use of the name “JEEP” as a trademark. Part of the bonafides in gaining a trademark is to show use. By using it on as many vehicles as possible and making sure pictures of them appeared anywhere and everywhere, the company bolstered is case … and public recognition. Imagine how history would have been di
The ag tires are correct, and these Jeeps endured a lot of farm field work, some of it at CESOR Farms, near New Hudson, Michigan. The devices clamped to the front bumper are weights equaling approximately 265 pounds. This was the amount Willys engineers calculated necessary to maximize drawbar pull for tillage work. In production these were replaced by a one-piece, 265-pound weight that sat between the frame rails behind the bumper. The chaff screen looks goofy but it’s the original one to the Jeep and protected the radiator from being plugged by wheat chaff, corn husks, and the like.

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