People often ask me "What's the best Jeep?" thinking that I have the end-all be-all answer to this magic-bullet question. It's typically asked by someone who is fairly new to Jeeps. Regardless, I always answer the same. For me the best Jeep is probably the one I had the most fun in. I'd love to tell you that it was my '48 CJ-2A that I literally beat into submission on some of the most difficult trails the southwest has to offer over the course of 10 years. I love the utility, body lines and diminutive size of the flattie but it was by far the most high-maintenance Jeep I had ever owned and it wasn't at all that practical for camping or road trips. It's not that I think all flatfenders are piles of junk mind you; it's just that I treated mine that way. My flattie certainly wasn't representative of all flatfender Jeeps; it didn't have a single factory drivetrain or suspension component left in it. But let's just say that the ratio of wrenching hours to wheeling hours was far skewed toward labor-intensive when it came to my CJ-2A. Welding up frame cracks, replacing bent or broken leaf springs, and tightening loose and leaky transfer case bolts became a full-time job.
When the typical Jeep enthusiast is asked what the best Jeep is, they usually respond with a model very similar to the one they own. It sounds a little fishy to me, and it usually is since most Jeep people can't stand to admit they have a crappy model Jeep. But I'll let you in on a little secret. Most of `em are wrong. These people have allowed the incorrect emotion decide for them. So in retrospect the Jeep that I had the most fun in has clearly been my '66 FSJ Panel Delivery.
After a particularly good tax season I had a little over $1,000 slowly wearing a hole through the bottom of my pocket. At the time I was enamored with anything that had a GM V-8 in it. It just so happened the art director for 4-Wheel & Off-Road magazine was trying to sell an FSJ with a GM V-8. And not just any FSJ, a somewhat-rare, 1-of-445 '66 Panel Delivery. In this case rare did not at all equate to valuable or even desirable since he had been trying to off-load it for several years. After an unceremonious cutting up of the body and a drivetrain swap the Panel went to work as my primary trail rig. This meant it had to do everything from blast up Glamis sand dunes and through bottomless mud at 5,000 rpm as well as bash over rocks at, well...5,000 rpm. I figured the Panel had a life expectancy of about two years under the thrashing I was issuing, and I was OK with it. That's probably why it was such a fun Jeep to own. I didn't worry about hurting it. I was going to wring every bit of entertainment from its wrinkled body panels and abused drivetrain parts. It was driven into boulders the size of dumpsters, it was jumped higher than any Jeep should go, and it hit desert whoop sections faster than anything with a bolt-on lift kit should be allowed. About the only thing I didn't do in the Panel was roll it all the way over or onto its side. It was really stable because it sat so low and had a wide stance.
I remember one particular night in Johnson Valley where I was speeding across the dry lakebed in my Panel Wagon with a buddy of mine (Clifton) in the passenger seat. We came up on the old bomb craters left over from military training exercises some 50-years earlier and I began launching in and out of them a little bit. I was probably getting maybe 1-2 feet of air. Then I got the brilliant idea that I could double jump two of the craters (air out of one and land into another on the downside for a smooth landing, like on a motorcycle). So I found a good section and I sped up a bit. I have no idea how fast I was going. The thrashing I had issued to the Panel earlier that night had resulted in a broken front axle shaft and a light out in the speedometer among other things, plus we could hardly see from all the dust and darkness on the lakebed. Anyway, we hit the crater jump face and went airborne. The front end of the FSJ floated in a perfect arc and began heading back down to earth with the rearend following closely; it was a textbook double jump. It felt as though we couldn't have landed more perfect on the downside of the next crater. I even had enough time to look over at Clifton with a smirk of satisfaction and success. He turned his head toward me and I could tell by the look in his face that he was in awe over how smooth the landing was. A millisecond later we realized how wrong we both were. The front end smashed into the bottom of the crater like a rock in a bowl of talcum powder. Dust and dirt shot everywhere and the passenger door flew open. I have no idea how high we were, but apparently we were in the air for quite some time and hadn't landed smoothly like we had originally thought. I stopped, got out and checked for major damage. The only thing I found was the passenger front tire had unseated from its bead. Camp was only a mile or so away so we hopped in and drove back on the deflated tire.
So what is the best Jeep? Ultimately it really depends on what you plan to do with it. My Panel Wagon wasn't the best Jeep for driving to work everyday or carting the kids to soccer practice and a certain police officer in Vernal, Utah, would argue that it wasn't even safe for street use. With all this indecision you may be wondering what the worst Jeep is. Most people will tell you it's the one they just got rid of. In my opinion it's the one that wears out too quickly.