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Nuts & Bolts: Restore a 1953 M38-A1?

Posted in How To: Tech Qa on January 11, 2017
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Restore or Restify?

I visited a friend recently, and he proudly showed me a 1953 CJ-5 Jeep that he bought from a coworker. Since I own a Jeep and have been working as an engineer with the auto industry, I took a close look at the old neglected engineering marvel. I noticed it still has the original four-cylinder Hurricane engine, the wiring harness is shot, the transmission is unknown, and the drivetrain is questionable. My suggestion was to bring it to a reliable garage to see what they think. As I see it, he has two options. One would be to get it running with the OE components and gradually update it to a light-duty off-road Jeep. The other is to replace the engine with a newer and more reliable engine with all the conversion and adaptation needed to suit the 1953 model. The budget is very limited and the timing is aggressive. He plans on having this completed by the summer.
Ferd C.
Via nuts@4wheeloffroad.com

The Jeep CJ-5 didn’t enter production until 1955, and judging from the photos, your friend has an M38-A1. This is the military version of the CJ-5 that was produced starting in 1952. Though it is similar to the later civilian Jeep (many parts interchange), several things make the M38A1 unique from a regular CJ-5—though not necessarily more valuable. The split windshield, dog-dish recess on the passenger-side tub, in-cowl battery compartment, hinged grille, factory front shackle reversal, and a few other things are good visual cues that it is without question an M38A1.

The Jeep looks like it is in remarkably good shape and not particularly rusty, which is rare for the era. Since it is complete and not rotten, we would lean more towards restoring or lightly modifying the Jeep as opposed to doing a full drivetrain swap. The Jeep should have an F-head 134ci four-cylinder, a T-90 three-speed transmission, a Spicer 18 transfer case, a Dana 44 rear axle, and a Dana 25 front axle if it is all original. However, don’t be surprised if someone changed one or more of these components at some point in its 63 years. Parts for the Jeep and most of its components are plentiful, and it looks like an excellent restoration candidate.

You mentioned taking it to a shop, which suggests to us that perhaps your buddy isn’t all that mechanically inclined. While these Jeeps are fairly simple, we would caution that it’s not likely your friend would be able to recover the investment it would take to get the Jeep running reliably or even partially restored if he has a professional do the work. Though undeniably cool and certainly not going down in value, the M38A1 isn’t going to be worth the thousands of dollars it would take to professionally restore it. It would probably be worth even less if he did a drivetrain swap because the Jeep would no longer be original. If he isn’t willing or able to put in his own elbow grease, he might be better off selling the Jeep to a collector or restorer and using the proceeds to fund something newer and more reliable. Judging by the photos you provided, it would be kind of a shame to cut up an M38A1 this original and in this good a condition.

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