Click for Coverage
Due to the EU’s Global Data Protection Regulation, our website is currently unavailable to visitors from most European countries. We apologize for this inconvenience and encourage you to visit for the latest on new cars, car reviews and news, concept cars and auto show coverage, awards and much more.MOTORTREND.COM
  • JP Magazine
  • Dirt Sports + Off-Road
  • 4-Wheel & Off-Road
  • Four Wheeler

How To Buy The Right Used Jeep

Posted in Project Vehicles on September 1, 1998
Share this
Photographers: Rick Péwé

Finding the perfect used Jeep is like looking for that proverbial needle in the haystack. And what's perfect for one Jeeper may not be the right choice for another. In fact, every model of Jeep has its strong and weak points. We'll point out both here to make your search a little easier.

'97-'98 TJ Wrangler '86-'95 YJ Wrangler
'45-'49 CJ-2A

We're limiting our discussion to the traditional Jeeps-the MB, CJ, YJ, and TJ styles-rather than all the other variations and sizes that make up the complete Jeep history. We're not saying that there aren't a lot of good parts and vehicles in the bigger Jeeps; there's only so much we can fit in these pages. And whatever you do decide to purchase, remember that a stock Jeep is a rare one: Assume something on a used Jeep has been modified.

The original flatfender: MB/GPW.
The MB/GPW Jeep from World War II is a supreme vehicle in its own right. The fenders allow for maximum tire clearance, and the windshield can fold both down and out. The unique grille features widely spaced headlights for the best light distribution, and the recessed buckets keep glare to a minimum. The wider grille opening and nine grille slats allow for a larger radiator area for better cooling of the engine.

But the MB has some weak points too. The T-84 transmission and the Dana 25 rearend. Both units were used only on these Jeeps and break easily because of their small internal parts, especially when larger tires, bigger engines, or aggressive and inexperienced drivers are added to the vehicle. Even though the rearend is a full-float design, the axleshaft diameter is just as small as the front axle and won't last long under severe service. Unless these Jeeps get new drivetrain components, the stock engine is best.

  • Widely spaced small headlights
  • Nine slats for maximum cooling
  • Full-floating rear axle
  • Fenders you can eat lunch on
  • Windshield folds out and down

First civilian Jeep: CJ-2A.
The CJ-2A was an improvement over the MB except for the grille, with bigger lights closer together accompanied by fewer slats, which stayed the same until the first Wranglers. While still the same basic body style, the 2A featured some definite improvements to the drivetrain in the form of a stronger Dana 41 rear axle and a tougher T-90 transmission with better gear ratios.

The taller windshield is great for tall drivers, and it retains the fold-out-and-down feature. Other niceties are the handy tailgate, although the wheelwells are smaller. And the exterior fuel fill is a definite plus rather than having to lift the driver seat as in the MB model. These Jeeps are highly modifiable and are still plentiful, as are replacement bodies and parts.

  • Dana 41 rear axle
  • Tall windshield
  • Tailgate
  • Exterior fuel fill
  • Strong T-90 tranny
  • Bug-eyed grille

The last true civilian flatfender: CJ-3A.
Nearly identical to the 2A it replaced, the CJ-3A had a few extremely important differences. The biggest visual difference was the windshield frame made from rectangular tubing with one piece of fixed glass. This frame was taller than the 2A's and made for a smoother look and a tighter fitting top. Ventilation was through a small port under the glass, which is very convenient.

The major mechanical advances were the switch to the Dana 44 rear axle, still in production to this day. It was a 10-spline axle with a tapered hub and axle design, and it's still better than many other rearends currently produced. The chassis was also modified on the 3A so the bumper attached directly to it rather than through gussets, and the chassis is also stronger with more reinforcements. While more 2As were produced, the 3A is probably the best flattie for restoring or modifying.

  • One-piece windshield
  • Dana 44 rearend
  • Strong frame
  • Fold-out vent

Last military flattie: M38.
One of the most sought-after flatties is the M38, which is basically a militarized CJ-3A. Even though most of the components can be interchanged with the civilian style, items such as the waterproofing system and the 24-volt electrics are unique and expensive. The multipiece floorboards are much easier to modify when swapping in different transmissions, and the exterior battery box is a bonus when it comes to tight-fitting engine conversions.

Jeeps issued to the Marine Corps may also have the optional Powr-Lok limited-slip differentials front and rear. Even the front grille is hinged to make access to the radiator and engine easier, and if you're a bracket and brace freak, this Jeep is for you.

  • 24-volt waterproof electrics
  • Strongest flattie frame
  • Exterior dual-battery compartment

New-generation flatfender: the CJ-3B.
Between the flatties of yore and the modern CJ-5 lies the omnipresent CJ-3B. Initially a transitional model between the two, the 3B was produced from 1952 to 1968 with a variety of equipment. While most were made with the more powerful F-head engine, which required the taller hood, some were produced with the Buick V-6 in the later years. Even a four-speed transmission was offered, although this cool V-6/four-speed combo is hard to find.

The high hood needed for F-head engine clearance gives the 'B a different look, but it is still a flatfender. The windshield frame is shorter than a 3A, but overall height of the two rigs is the same. Early 'Bs had the standard-design five-gauge dash, while later units shared the CJ-5 style of one big cluster of gauges within the large speedometer housing. Since good examples of this Jeep abound, this easy-to-find-parts-for Jeep is a good choice if you like the style.

  • Low-cut windshield
  • High hood
  • F-head engine
  • Big speedometer
  • Better transfer case

Spanning the years: the '54-'75 CJ-5.
The first CJ-5 debuted in 1954, four years after the M38AI, which the CJ-5 was patterned after. The new Jeep style strayed from the flatfender style visually as the front fenders rolled over in front and the rest of the sheetmetal became bloated and rounded. However, this same basic style would last 32 years and stand the test of time until 1986 when the last CJ derivative was produced.

From 1954 to 1965 only the F-head engine was available, while both it and the Buick V-6 (which was lighter and more powerful) could be had until 1971. In 1972 the first AMC 304 V-8 was available, along with the 232 or 258 inline-six, and the frame and front clip was extended 4 inches to accommodate these engines.

Front axles went from the closed-knuckle Dana 25 with 5.38 gears to a variety of ratios in the early '60s, and the marginally better Dana 27 was introduced in the mid '60s. The best front axle came in 1972, which was the open-knuckle Dana 30 that had a tighter turning radius and was much stronger. The Dana 44 rear axle also gained stamina through the years, starting with a 10-spline tapered design then growing to 19-spline, and finally a 30-spline flanged design in 1970. This axle was offset for the Dana 18 transfer case but was center-set from 1972 to 1975, when Jeep switched to the Dana 20 transfer case.

While the popular and strong T-98 and later T-18 four-speed were available with all of the engines except the V-8, the marginal T-86 and T-14 three-speeds proved to be too weak for the six poppers and was eventually discontinued. The earlier T-90, which lasted till the mid '60s, was stronger than these others, if not abused. The later T-15 three-speed was coupled to the 304 V-8 and is a good, durable unit.

One of the most important changes was the addition of Saginaw front-mounted steering in 1972, a design which lasts into the TJs. This far-superior system was retrofitted to many earlier Jeeps long before AMC introduced it.

  • Round fenders and body
  • V-6, V-8, inline-six, or four-cylinder engine
  • Saginaw steering '72 and later
  • Optional gear ratios and trannies

Last of the legend: '76-'79 CJ-5.
In 1976 the CJ-5 was treated to a new frame that was wider in the rear, and the springs were made longer, softer, and wider for a better ride. Along with the chassis redesign was a windshield that tapered at the top and lay farther back for an aerodynamic look. The interior was made less Spartan, and a tilt wheel was available along with a more modern but still functional dash.

Gone was the T-15 tranny, but a Ford-designed T-150 three-speed and a T-18 four-speed for the six-cylinder rigs was coupled to the Dana 20 transfer case. Starting in 1980, the Dana 300 transfer case was coupled to the T-176 four-speed, and the debut of the GM 4-cylinder Iron Duke engine received the marginal SR-4 tranny. The front axle received disc brakes as an option in 1977, and they became standard from 1978 until the CJ-5 was discontinued after the '83 model year. One major weak point was the AMC Model 20 rear axle, which suffers from a two-piece axle and hub design.

  • Longer and wider springs
  • Aerodynamic windshield
  • Model 20 rear axle
  • Tilt column and better seats
  • Disc brake option in '77

Long-awaited Jeep: the CJ-6.
The early flatfenders have a cramped driving position and a real lack of cargo room. Even though the CJ-5 relieved these drawbacks considerably, it is still a small vehicle. The CJ-6 is a CJ-5 with an extra body panel behind the door opening and, of course, a longer frame. The extra cargo capacity was greatly appreciated by many buyers, and the extended wheelbase made it a better 'wheeler in many instances where the short wheelbase was hampered.

The same engine and drivetrain options and sheetmetal changes were available as on the CJ-5, depending on the year of manufacture. The military also used these rigs as ambulances and produced the '6 as the M170 with a large door opening on the passenger side. The components were shared with the M38A1.

  • Extended body and frame
  • CJ-5 door opening
  • Available from 1955 to 1981

Comfortable cruising: the CJ-7.
The venerable CJ-7 was a direct outgrowth of the CJ-5 and '6, combining a wheelbase between the two with a large door opening for maximum comfort. This Jeep is one of the most popular to modify or even keep stock, as it works so well. As with the CJ-5 upgrade in 1976, the '7 was virtually the same but longer and was produced until 1986, while CBS News killed the '5 in 1983 with a rollover story. The '7 was also the first Jeep to be offered with a full-factory-fiberglass hardtop and full steel doors, a real boon to areas with inclement weather.

The extra length allowed the CJ-7 to be the first model offered with an automatic, the GM T-400. This tranny was coupled with the highly efficient Quadratrac full-time transfer case, while the manual transmission stayed with the Dana 20 transfer case. In 1980 the auto was replaced with the Chrysler 999 or 904 hooked to the Dana 300 transfer case, and four- and five-speed manuals were offered.

The year 1980 also saw the reintroduction of the four-cylinder, while the 258 six was standard with a 304 V-8 offered until 1983. Wider axles were used starting in 1982, which gave a more stable ride. The Dana 44 rear came back for the last half 1986 and is highly desirable.

  • Extended wheelbase
  • Large U-shaped door openings
  • Optional automatic transmission
  • Full-time or part-time four-wheel drive

Smooth ride: the CJ-8.
The demise of the CJ-6 and the fullsize J-10 pickup left a hole in the Jeep line-up, and the CJ-8, known as the Scrambler, was introduced as a pickup replacement with the half-cab option. The length was due to the extra rear overhang and slightly longer wheelbase, so a common conversion is to use CJ-7 doors and a hardtop, which leaves a small storage area.

This rig is ideal for all sorts of driveline swaps, as the length makes for ease of installation of long drivetrains. Especially when coupled with a spring-over axle conversion, this long beast can still have quite adequate driveshaft angles. Only 27,792 were made from 1982 to 1986, which is about equivalent to one year's production of CJ-7s. The scarcity and popularity of these vehicles have made the prices soar in recent years.

  • Factory half cab for pickup look
  • Long overhang and wheelbase
  • Lots of room for long drivetrains

Something new: the YJ.
The end of CJ production marked a new beginning for Jeeps, although many purists felt rectangular headlights had no place on a Jeep. The Wrangler was made lower, and supposedly safer to drive, by long, wide springs and wider axles. This better ride and controllability along with a carlike dash translated to a huge increase in sales from its introduction in 1986.

Mechanical changes were far more, as the front differential was moved to the driver side after 46 years, and locking hubs were no longer available. The rear axle was changed to a Dana or corporate 35, which, although smaller than the Dana 44 or corporate 20, at least had one-piece axles. The six-cylinder was eventually changed to a 4.0L and received fuel injection, which was much better than the earlier computer-controlled carbureted models. Another major change was switching to the NP231 transfer case from the older Dana 300 geardriven units.

  • Rectangular headlights
  • Long, wide, soft springs
  • Wide axles
  • No-locking hubs

Something Better: The TJ.
After 10 years of Wrangler YJ Jeeps, Chrysler made a bold move and brought back the round headlights, spacing them out farther than the old CJ's for better lighting. However, the most important change was to front and rear coil-spring suspension, a direct outgrowth of the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee platforms. This increase in true off-road capability shot the new TJ Wrangler ahead in terms of sales and of people modifying and using these Jeeps on the trails.

Mechanicals of the TJ are also impressive. Even though locking hubs still aren't an option, the front-axle disconnect and associated hoses and wiring are thankfully gone. Even the rear axle has an option of a Dana 44 flanged axle, which is quite popular. While still relatively new to the market, the amount of aftermarket accessories grows every day, making this one of the most modifiable vehicles on the market-although one that needs few modifications for most 'wheelers needs.

  • Round headlights
  • Round springs
  • No axle disconnect
  • Dana 44 option

Connect With Us

Newsletter Sign Up

Subscribe to the Magazine

Browse Articles By Vehicle

See Results