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Jeep Flatfender Spotter's Guide

Yellow Jeep With Cj3a Grille And Cj2a Windshield
Rick Péwé
| Four Wheeler Network Content Director
Posted March 1, 1998
Photographers: David Freiburger, Rick Péwé

Quick Tips To ID Your Favorite Flattie

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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