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1941-1975 Jeeps - The Oddballs

Posted in Project Vehicles on June 11, 2007
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Somehow, I knew without looking that the Oddball Vehicles story would be assigned to me. Aside from my Wranglers, I don't think any of my vehicles have actually followed convention. There's something inherently satisfying in owning and building a rig that is off the beaten path, both literally and figuratively. Granted, aftermarket support is often lacking and a fair amount of creativity is called for to make stuff work, but in the end, you'll have a head-turner that people will want to talk to you about at the gas pump-whether you want them to or not. Since there are so many oddballs out there, here are some of the highlights, along with my humble opinions.

Sure, a flattie isn't exactly an oddball, but the '41-'45 MB and GPW jeeps are not as common as they once were and are nowadays considered something special. In stock form, the drivetrains aren't anything to write home about. Small Dana 25 front and Dana 23 rear axles with 4.88 gears, a rather weak T-84 transmission, and a Spicer 18 T-case with an anemic 3/4-inch-diameter intermediate shaft and 1.97:1 Low aren't the stuff of ripping longevity off-road, and the 60hp 134 L-head won't win you any performance contests on-road. The bodies are what really make these jeeps stand out, with smaller headlights, 9-slat grilles, dash-mounted gloveboxes, rear-fender tool compartments, tool indents on the body-tub sides, military grab handles and taillights, and other cool trinkets. If you're looking for a trail hero, be prepared to swap out some drivetrain components. Otherwise, leave the stock NDTs on it and put some effort into restoration and light off-road excursions.

Again, flatties aren't oddballs, and they do enjoy relatively strong aftermarket support-you can still buy replacement body tubs and frames, headlight switches. and e-brake cables-but you don't stumble across them for sale every day. The early CJ-2As up to 1949 have an oddball Dana 41 rear that's getting hard to find parts for and a two-piece windshield frame that can loosen and rattle. In the old days, it was considered an upgrade to swap on a later one-piece windshield frame from a 3A, so don't get confused if there are mismatched parts.

The standard engine was a 63hp L-head 134 which, when coupled with the 5.38 gears, gives decent around-town gumption. However, don't plan on highway speeds unless you live in a flat state like Florida; any hill saps speed. Regarding the transmission and T-case, the venerable T-90 three-speed and Spicer 18 with 2.43:1 Low were the only options.

Front axles were Dana 25s across the entire production run. Some very early 2As used the Dana 23 rear axle before changing to the better Dana 41. The Dana 44 was phased in for the '49 model year and featured a 10-spline pinion as well as coarse 10-spline, two-piece axleshafts. Upgraded floater kits with 30-spline shafts are available for the Dana 44, and later Dana 44 ring-and-pinions can be installed. If you're looking to retain the stock drivetrain in your wheeler, go for a 3A because it came with the better parts-or you can try to find a '50-'52 M-38 military flattie. These were basically militarized CJ-3As with cool features like a cowl-mounted battery, glove- and toolboxes, and the good 3A drivetrain.

For 1953, Willys took the 3A and made the hood, grille, and cowl taller and the windshield shorter to accommodate the new 75hp, 134-cube F-head engine. The F-head retained the in-block exhaust valves of the Go Devil flathead that powered the '41-'53 flatties, but enlarged and moved the intake valves above the block for better performance. Aesthetically, 3Bs are usually a love 'em or hate 'em proposition. Drivetrain-wise, the 3B shared the same T-90, Spicer 18, and axles as its 3A predecessor. Nowadays, 3Bs fetch slightly lower prices than their low-hood cousins. The taller hood makes engine swaps easier. For example, a 2.5L injected Wrangler engine is a really nice fit under the hood. Most body and mechanical parts are still readily available.

The short FC-150 shared the same 81-inch wheelbase as the CJ-5, while the longer, wider FC-170 enjoyed a more realistic 103.5-inch wheelbase on wider track axles. Engines ranged from the 134-cube F-head, to the 226 Hurricane flathead six-cylinder, to the underpowered (but unique) 85hp three-cylinder Cerlist diesel.

Transmissions could be a T-90 or the excellent T-98 four-speed, with the Spicer 18 coming in as the only T-case option. Axles ranged from the CJ's Dana 25/Dana 44 combo in the FC-150s to wider closed-knuckle Dana 44 fronts and Dana 44 or Dana 53 rears in the FC-170; dual rear-wheel models got a Dana 70.

As for living with the FC, you sit on top of the front tires, so the ride is pretty bumpy and steering is funky. The shorter FC-150s actually employed a rear-bumper-mounted counterweight to keep the rear tires on the ground during hard braking with no load in the bed. If you're shopping for an FC, make sure the dash is complete and that the seats and other unique FC trinkets are there because they're getting scarce. The body metal before the front tires and aft of the cab are notorious areas for rust and rot in these trucks, as are the bottom of the doors. No patch panels are being made these days, so be prepared to make complicated patch panels if necessary.

Early CJ-5s still represent an affordable way to get into the vintage Jeep thing, with decent drivers often selling for not much more than $1,000. The '55-'65 CJ-5 and its 101-inch wheelbase sister, the CJ-6, came standard with the F-head 134, Dana 25 front and Dana 44 rear axles with 9-inch drums, a T-90 or T-98 transmission, and the Spicer 18 T-case. In 1966, the Buick 225 V-6 was available with a T-86 and later the T-14a three-speed and Spicer 18. The Dana 44 rears, in from about '70 1/2-'71, were the desirable one-piece, 30-spline shafts.

Steering gears on all CJs up through 1971 were the scary Ross cam and lever system just like the first military flatties; it wore out and gave little control. Consider upgrading to a later manual- or power-steering system. Also, the '66-'71s have better 10-inch drum brakes and a dual-piston master cylinder that stops these Jeeps pretty well. If you want military cool, look for a '52-'57 M-38A1 or the ultracool and elusive '53-'57 M-170 101-inch wheelbase ambulance.

For the '72 model year, the front of the CJ was stretched to accommodate AMC's 232 inline-six, and the 304 AMC V-8 became an available option. Transfer cases changed to a Model 20, with the Dana 30 front and excellent 30-spline Dana 44 with centered pinion bringing up the rear. Both axles had 11-inch drum brakes and a wide range of available ratios.

Other changes of the AMC-era CJs were a move to a frame-mounted manual- or power-steering box, better steering linkage, and a 2.5-inch increase in wheelbase. If you're looking for an older, vintage Jeep to wheel but don't want to deal with a lot of steering, axle, and drivetrain swaps, the '72-'75 intermediate Jeeps offer lots of solid components at bargain prices.

Oddly enough, the CJs of this era have relatively poor aftermarket support. Axle, gear, drivetrain, and mechanical parts are easily found, but little things like bumpers, seat frames, rollcages, and even suspension components are harder to come by than their later CJ and Wrangler successors.

With the longer 101-inch wheelbase (103.5 for the '72-'73 Commando), the Jeepster offers a good wheelbase and decent interior room for a trail rig when compared to a smaller CJ-5 or flattie. There's a little more breakover angle and body to contend with in the rear, but the added room may be worth it to many family wheelers.

Base engines are the 134 F-head, but you'll want to nab a Buick 225 V-6 model with either the T-14a three-speed manual or TH400 auto tranny. The only T-case available was the 2.03:1 Dana 20, with axles ranging from the closed-knuckle Dana 27 up through 1971 and the open-knuckle Dana 30 for '72-'73. The rear axle could either be the pathetic Dana 30 or the good Dana 44 with two-piece ('67-'70 1/2) or one-piece shafts ('70 1/2-'73).

Jeepsters used a lot of the same drivetrain components as the CJs, but the rear springs are Jeepster-only items, so if you're looking for an over-the-counter lift, you're not going to find it. Steering components and so on are pretty much the same as the CJs. The front sheetmetal from a CJ can be made to fit a Jeepster, but the rear tub is unique to the model. Lots of soft top and hardtop options were offered-from half cabs to fastback soft tops. There's some odd stuff out there.

For '72-'73, the Jeepster became the Commando, available with AMC's 232 I-6 or 304 V-8. They look like Scouts and are quite possibly the most hideous Jeeps ever made.

These trucks came with engines ranging from L- and F-head four-cylinders to an unimpressive flathead inline-six. None really does the trick, and that's why nearly every truck and wagon we see for sale has a swapped-in V-8 or later inline-six. The stock T-90 and Spicer 18 tranny aren't the stuff of big, heavy truck-building, so plan on swapping the rest of the drivetrain while you're at it. There's plenty of room under the floorboards to suck up a big manual and low-hanging NP205, if that's your thing. The stock Dana 25 front and Dana 44, Dana 53, or Timken 51540 rear usually meet the scrap yard in favor of newer, fullsize running gear from a Chevy, Dodge, Ford, or Jeep truck.

There are a few companies making replacement interior and trim parts, but they're getting expensive, so if aesthetics are important to you, try to buy a truck that has all the pieces in good shape. Also, check the frames around the suspension components for cracks and the framerails just in front of the rear-spring hangars. It's common for these frames to rot through in this spot.

Without listing the myriad drivetrain components these trucks came with through the years, there are certain caveats to consider when looking for your old FSJ. First, the 230ci OHV Tornado six-cylinder is a solid engine, but it doesn't like to be overrevved; rod-bearing problems result, so check the oil pressure and listen carefully before buying a stock one. The Rambler 327 doesn't share any parts with the Chevy 327 or later AMC engines, and components are expensive and usually require special order. Even the starter is over $200 from most places. The first AMC 232-equipped trucks until 1969 may or may not share the same bellhousing as later AMC 232/258/304/360/401 engines, so if you're looking for an easy engine swap, it might not be in the cards. There are a lot of automatic-equipped trucks, but if you want a T-98 or T-18, it's best to find one that came from the factory that way because the clutch pedals and linkages are starting to fetch more money.

As for the axles and suspension, all of the early trucks before 1974 have closed-knuckle, drum-brake Dana 44 fronts that will most likely need to be swapped if any real wheeling or towing is in the truck's future. Rear axles are Dana 44 or Dana 53s, but a Chevy, Dodge, or Ford 1/2-, 3/4-, or 1-ton axle fits easily. The early Wagoneers came with an even worse closed-knuckle Dana 27 front, but the Dana 44 front from an early-'70s narrow-trac Wagoneer bolts right in. Steering is provided by the very good frame-mounted manual or power-steering that is easily upgraded with modern boxes and parts. If you're working with an older truck, your choice of lift kits will be limited or nonexistent. Rear lifts on these are usually accomplished via flipping the rear shackle and using blocks on the factory springs.

Later AMC-era trucks enjoyed durable 232, 258, or AMC V-8 engines, strong trannies, good Dana 44 axles, and strong TH400 or TF727 trannies. Just steer clear of the full-time BW Quadra-Trac T-case if you don't want to get your hands dirty; most of these cases are worn and need a chain and or differential replacement.

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