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Jeep: The First 70 Years Part 2

Posted in Project Vehicles on March 1, 2011
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Photographers: Courtesy Chrysler Group LLC

Swords to Plowshares:
CJs, 1944-1971
The World War II military jeeps had many attributes, comfort not being among them. Willys knew the jeep was at least a base hit, if not a triple, that might turn into a home run when the war ended. As early as 1943, they were able to devote some time to developing the jeep for civilian use. From these efforts, the CJ ("Civilian Jeep") was born. The first prototypes, called the CJ-1, were pulled from the military line and adapted with tailgates and the addition of accessories. After various tests, the vehicle was fine-tuned mechanically for the agricultural/commercial use that was seen as its primary postwar role. Many of the improvements, such as lower transfer-case gears, lower axle ratios, and a stronger transmission were things that had been developed for other wartime projects. In 1944, the first CJ-2 emerged as a substantially altered design, not merely an adapted military jeep. It could have been just a dolled-up GI jeep, but it was much more. It wore work clothes but was far more capable in every respect than the wartime jeep, and more comfortable.

1944 CJ-2
The CJ-2 was the first civilian Jeep. A small number were built for testing, and this is the ninth built of approximately 45. The brass "Jeep" tags were fitted to a number of these prototypes. Some of the early units had data tags marking them as an "Agrijeep." Willys envisioned Jeeps becoming the new farmer's best friend, and that's why many of them were fitted with V-tread (tractor-style) tires. This restored CJ-2, one of a handful of CJ-2 survivors, belongs to Jeep historian Fred Coldwell.

The production CJ-2A emerged in late 1945 and, even though surplus military jeeps were a dime a dozen, they sold well enough to make Willys happy. The beginning of the Korean War in 1950 both helped and hurt Jeep development. The military contracts were helpful, but materials shortages and a slack economy were not. Historians have speculated this was why the civilian round-fender (later known as the CJ-5) didn't appear in 1952 with the military version. The upgrades made to the CJ-3A weren't earth-shattering, but in those lean times Willys needed some hoopla-even if it only filled a shot glass. Kaiser Industries bought Willys-Overland in 1953 and injected some much needed cash and stability.

When the 1955 CJ-5 and CJ-6s debuted, there was a lot more to talk about. The new bodies offered much more interior room, more comfort, and an array of features and options that expanded rapidly as the '50s became the '60s. In 1957, the T-98 four-speed and the Powr-Lok limited-slip were added to the options list. In 1961, the Perkins 4-192 diesel was added as an engine option. Also that year, the Tuxedo Park option came available, which added more comfort and style accessories. Likely the biggest bit of hoopla for the '60s was the addition of the 225ci V-6 to the line in 1966. With 160 (gross) horsepower on tap, it gave the CJ some muscle to flex. When Jeep passed to AMC in 1970, the CJ line was in pretty good shape.

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The New Jeeps:
The Jeep CJs were good as far as they went but the market was narrow. By the end of World War II, Willys-Overland's thoughts returned to cars-but as a carmaker, they were little more than an also-ran behind the Big Three and several other larger car builders. By developing new lines of trucks and station wagons, they carved themselves a unique niche in the market. Though there was resistance internally, Willys management eventually decided to focus on utility vehicles. A line of innovative cars was produced in the early '50s, but they were generally unsuccessful in the market and discontinued by 1955. From there, the die was set, and the core business for the company, eventually to be owned by many corporate entities, was utility vehicles. "Jeep," once an obscure generic term with multiple meanings, became the trademarked name for a particular vehicle in 1950 and had evolved into a corporate identity by the '60s.

1949 Station Wagon
The Willys Wagon made its debut in 1946 but wasn't available in four-wheel drive until 1949. That year, they still had a flat nose and the two-tone faux Woody paint. The only engine available was the 60 hp Go-Devil, but this rig was useful to a lot more people than the original jeep. This one belongs to the Chrysler Museum. (Photo courtesy Chrysler Group LLC.)
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Defining Sport Utility:
By the mid-'50s, the Jeep station wagons and pickups were getting dated, and engineers started on a process to modernize them. The merger of Kaiser-Frazier and Willys-Overland in 1953, to become Willys Motors, had moved that process along handily. By the late '50s, Willys Motors had prototypes of a new vehicle that merged the station wagon with the 4x4 in a way that no truck-based carryall, such as the GM Suburban, could match. It evolved through several looks and names but emerged in 1962 as the Wagoneer-a name with almost as much recognition now as Jeep itself. Near that time, Willys Motors became Kaiser Jeep, ensuring everyone knew the name of the man who signed the checks.

1964 Jeep Wagoneer Two-Door
For 1963, the Wagoneer debuted as both a two- and four-door model in two- or four-wheel drive. An independent four-wheel drive front suspension was optional, as well as an automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes and comfort features that equaled a mid-level station wagon. Power came from a sprightly OHC Six. This rare, low-miles original two-door belongs to Jim Marski.

For 1967, the late-'40s Willys Jeepster concept was dusted off and refined into the Jeepster Commando. The original Jeepster was touted as being a "sports" car. Its anemic four-banger performance did not live up to that term, even by 1948 standards. With a snappy V-6, the '67 C-101 Jeepster Commando was different, plus it had four-wheel drive, which the original Jeepster did not. It was a modest success as a sport-utility rig. After the 1970 American Motors takeover of Kaiser Jeep, the Commando evolved a new snout and sported a new AMC Six and a V-8 option, but was replaced in the lineup after 1973 by the SJ-based Cherokee.

During the '60s, the Wagoneer gradually moved upmarket. One notable sign of that was the '66-'69 Super Wagoneer, which was a luxury version that rivaled cars for comfort. This was the first factory-built luxury SUV, and Jeep gets the credit for it.

1966 Jeep Wagoneer Four-Door
For 1965, a bunch of new stuff was added to the Wagoner lineup. The full-width grille was just one. Under the hood, a new V-8 option appeared in the form of the AMC 327. The OHC 230 Six left in favor of the AMC 232. The options list and packages were already showing a swing towards the high end at this point.

But moving the Wagoneer upmarket left a hole at the bottom. That hole was filled by the Cherokee in 1974. The Wagoneer had debuted in both two- and four-door models. The two-door option faded away by 1968 but was resurrected for the Cherokee, which was initially offered only that way. Later, a four-door Cherokee S was offered. Though it was offered with plenty of options, the Cherokee had plenty of basic and middle-range options the Wagoneer didn't.

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The New Trucks:
When the Wagoneer debuted, so did a new line of pickups that used a similar style and shared the same chassis. Where the old utility pickups had been at least a generation behind in many ways, the new J-Series trucks were on par with the cutting edge, if not ahead of the curve in some ways. Available independent front suspension in the 4x4s from 1963 to 1965 was an industry first. A staggering array of GVW, bed and wheelbase combinations were available initially. The truck line evolved with Jeep, but with the heavy competition in the truck markets, they began to get less and less of a development budget. As business got tighter and tighter, and with each successive new buyout, Jeep truck production numbers dropped and the model lines were consolidated. The Chrysler buyout in 1987 ended Jeep truck production altogether, except for the XJ-based Comanche midsize truck which continued through 1992.

1964 J-300 Thriftside
The Jeep Thriftside bed is what people today call a stepside. It was a carryover of the long, narrow bed found on the old-style Willys pickups, and trucks so equipped were a few dollars less than the more stylish Townside models. In the '63-'70 Gladiator era, signified mostly by the "bucktooth" grille, Jeep trucks were offered in a staggering variety of configurations, three wheelbases, and around 10 GVWs. Through 1964, the only engine was the 230ci OHC "Tornado" six. It was snappy enough, but Jeep needed a V-8 to compete. That came in '65 in the form of an AMC 327. AMC's 232 OHV Six replaced the Tornado. Kevin Banonis' '64 Thriftside represents the last of the Tornado era at Jeep.
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