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Jeep Flatfender Spotter's Guide

Posted in Project Vehicles on March 1, 1998
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Photographers: David FreiburgerRick Péwé

No matter what body style Jeep you believe is the best, the first Willys flatfender is the original. For that matter, many die-hard purists believe real Jeeps ceased production in 1952 when the last regular flattie rolled off the assembly line in beautiful downtown Toledo. These same oldsters have a hard time acknowledging the other flatfender styles that were produced after this date, all the way through 1968. A '68 flatfender? Yes indeed, and if you include foreign-manufactured flatties you can probably source a '98 model if you try hard enough.

Regardless of where or when a flattie was made, the basic premise of the body design and how to identify the variations are what we're concerned with here. For instance, the main identifying feature of all flatties are the completely flat fenders (notwithstanding dents and depressions from use or abuse). But of course fender ID alone just won't cut it to nail a flatfender, since we've actually seen original flat fenders grafted onto a late-model Wrangler.

For the uninitiated, it's often easier to ascertain what is not a flatfender. For example, the renowned Jeep CJ-5 body style most people are familiar with is a direct outgrowth of the earlier flatfender. While the flatfender had nice angular shapes to its sheetmetal, the CJ-5 was rounded off on all corners and edges. In fact, in the '50s, the director of architecture and design at New York's Museum of Modern Art noted that this later design was "a typical case of styling-and ugly styling at that-ruining a good, clear example of machine art. It is the usual case of bloating used to make cars look bigger by adding unnecessary curves." Perhaps harsh criticism of the CJ-5 styling, but it does reflect nicely on the classic styling of the original flatfender. Hence the phrase, "Real Jeeps have flat fenders."

Identifying a flatfender as a particular year or model is a real challenge, since they were some of the most changed (and interchanged) vehicles ever made. A 100-percent-stock museum piece is easy to ID, but few of these are on the trail today. For the most part, identification depends on how closely you look. From far away the silhouette of all flatfenders is virtually identical, especially if the windshield is down. The closer one looks at distinguishing characteristics, the closer one can get to determining which model the major components are from, or whether the vehicle is simply a combination of nearly 60 years of flatfender parts.

Since the drivetrain is one of the first items swapped in or out of a Jeep, we've decided not to dwell on what came with what model, except for a few interesting parts that can aid in the ID process. For instance, the original engine for all flatfenders from 1941 through 1965, except the CJ-3B, was the flathead four-cylinder (even these have a zillion little variations documented for different years and models). Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. For example, some early CJ-2s didn't have a storage compartment under the passenger seat, and some early MBs lacked a glovebox.

But for the most part, picking a flattie out of a herd of other 4x4s is easy. For any model the major places to look for differences are the grille, the windshield frame, and the body tub. These are the most obvious identifying features, even though they can be swapped among all the flatfender models.

Prewar Flatfenders
Before the standardized WWII Jeep became a reality, three similar-looking designs from Ford, Willys, and Bantam were tested and abused by the U.S. Army. While these prototypes and subsequent low-volume production models clearly show where the classic flatfender evolved from, only a few are around today, mostly in museums and collections. However, the basic concept of a small open-bodied vehicle with a fold-down windshield carried over to the standardized design after Willys won the military contract to produce the Jeep.

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Willys MB and Ford GPW
With the onset of WWII in sight, Willys started churning out the MB model, which stood for Military model B. Lacking sufficient production capacity, Willys agreed that Ford would produce a virtually identical model, the Ford GPW-G for government, P for an 80-inch wheelbase, and W for the Willys design. From 1941 to 1945 the major identifying body features that distinguished these vehicles from later Jeeps were the short, fold-out split windshield, headlights behind the grille, the lack of a tailgate, a glovebox on the passenger side, a spare tire and gas can carriers located on the rear, fuel filler under the driver seat, depressions in the body with brackets for an ax and a shovel on the driver side, and storage pockets in the rear corners of the wheelwells.

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Just prior to the war's end, Willys produced prototype civilian models targeted at the agricultural industry. The CJ-2A (Civilian Jeep 2A) was introduced in late 1945 and made until 1949. The nonessential military equipment was removed from these Jeeps and other equipment was improved or modified. Although the silhouette remained similar, larger headlights were mounted in front of the seven-slot grille, the split fold-out windshield was taller, a tailgate was added, the glovebox was eliminated, the fuel filler was external, and the spare tire was moved to the passenger side near the rear. Some very early models were actually called CJ-2s (without the A), and featured a column-shift transmission, parking lights behind the grille à la the MB, and body side depressions for no particular reason whatsoever.

This well-used CJ-2A (with the hood cut out to clear the later F-head carburetor) motors up a hill. The small oval holes near the floorboards are side drains, which WWII models didn't have. These side drains were on all the later flatfenders. The embossed Willys name is clearly visible on the well-worn hood.

The CJ-3A was introduced in 1948, before production of the CJ-2A ceased, with a host of changes that separated it from earlier Jeeps. The windshield was changed from the split-glass fold-out style to a single pane with a one-piece frame. The grille had different headlight bezels and parking lights, the spare tire remained on the passenger side, and the chassis frame was slightly modified. Other than some mechanical improvements, the 2A and 3A are very similar.

A one-piece windshield formed from rectangular tubing was a hallmark of the CJ-3A. The earlier round tubing frame and split windshield of the MB and CJ-2A were interchangeable, but the CJ-2A windshield was taller and provided better visibility.

It's Hip to Be Flat
Ten Things Never to Do to a Flatfender:
1. Install a small-block Chevy
2. Install a small-block Ford
3. Add fender flares
4. Use gaudy paint
5. Chrome the grille
6. Diamond-plate corners
7. Swap in an automatic transmission
8. Install high-back buckets
9. Use the windshield on the trail(unless no one can see you)
10. Install late CJ-5 parking lights in a flatfender grille

PhotosView Slideshow

As the inventory of WWII Jeeps declined, the military decided to have a new Jeep designed to meet then-current mil-specs, and in 1950 the model MC (also called an M38) was introduced. It had a production run of only four years. While it is basically the same vehicle as the CJ-3A, all sorts of military brackets and fittings were included, along with a 24-volt electrical system. Subtle changes were made in the grille, windshield frame, tailgate, and fuel filler. Dashboard changes included a removable gauge panel and a driver-side glovebox. A removable lid was placed on the right side of the cowl for battery storage, and depressions and brackets were placed on the passenger side for an ax and a shovel.

This M38 has the identifiable gas filler, grille, and battery lid on the cowl. The windshield is close to original, but the hinged center vent makes it a CJ-3A.

Throughout production of the CJ-3A, the M38, and even the later M38A1 (a military CJ-5), a unique flatfender was produced. Built between 1952 and 1968 (the longest production run of any model), the CJ-3B is noted for its high hood and grille and short one-piece windshield frame-all due to the taller F-head motor placed in its engine bay. Although it is either despised or loved by Jeep owners, the 3B is becoming increasingly popular.

Only the high-hood CJ-3B has the Willys name embossed on its grille, hood, and tailgate. The overall height of a 3B is the same as a 3A, but the windshield has a shorter bottom section that makes up for the extra height of the hood.

The last vehicle introduced with a flatfender designation was also the version that saw the most varied usage. The DJ-3A (Dispatcher Jeep) signified a two-wheel-drive version. These Jeeps looked similar to the CJ-3A, but lacked shift levers on the floor and the associated four-wheel-drive hardware. They were produced from 1955 to 1965 in a variety of formats, including postals, with the steering wheel on the right side, and Surrey Jeeps for use at Caribbean vacation resorts. Some had integral hardtops, while others had cowl-forward-only sheetmetal for fitting various service bodies.

Most DJ-3As have been converted to four-wheel drive, such as this prime example found out in the rocks. Running gear usually features four-lug or small-pattern five-lug wheels, and they sometimes have the steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle.

To test your knowledge, try to ID this vintage flattie using the aforementioned information. Despite the extensive body modifications, custom top, and blurry photograph, the clues are readily visible. Two hints: the number of grille slats and the height of the windshield (which doesn't say Willys).

Answer: 1942 Willys MB
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