We're not bagging on the U.S. military or on Ron and Bonnie Livingston's '51 M-38, but if you'd seen how much fun the couple has in the little blue coupe, you'd agree that the title of this story is appropriate. The little former Air Force Jeep goes like a champ, and the laughing and smiles on the faces of the Livingstons simply makes a mockery of all the high stress, big egos, and one-upmanship that have unfortunately become associated with hard-core off-roading. In fact, we were impressed as much with their sheer enjoyment of Jeeping as we were with the Jeep itself.
At first blush, the little M-38 appears to be a survivor, perhaps tucked away in some storage hanger to emerge decades later in the modern world. Not so, we discovered. Ron purchased the little mule about eight years ago at a state auction in Vermont. While it was mechanically intact, aesthetically it wore about six layers of paint. Over the course of time, Ron built it into the little trail-tamer you see on these pages. In the few months since we photographed the Jeep, Ron has made even more changes, but none that takes away from the vintage vibe or detract from its military look and heritage.
The M-38 came on the scene in 1950 to replace the military's aging fleet of World War II-era MBs and GPWs and hung around until mid-1952 when the larger M-38A1s began rolling in. It's just a militarized CJ-3A, so the underpinnings should prove familiar to most early Jeep aficionados.
Ron started in the basement, adding a Power Lock to the rear Dana 44 axle. The 5.38 gears, two-piece 10-spline shafts, and 9-inch drum brakes were on the Jeep the day we shot it. Likewise, the front Dana 25 was in stock trim, sporting similar 5.38 gears and 9-inch drums. Ron told us that since our photo shoot, he built his own front and rear disc-brake kit using Geo Tracker rotors, '86 Toyota Corolla calipers on the front, and '95 Subaru calipers on the rear. The foreign calipers came with brackets on them, so Ron only had to fab up plates to the front spindles and rear backing-plate mounts that would accept the caliper brackets to the axles. Ron used flex hoses from a Grand Cherokee on the rear and from an '80 Buick Skylark on the front.
As for the suspension, if you're wondering why there's so much room for the 34x9.50-15 Super Swamper tires with the stock leaf springs, Ron actually re-arched the stock springs himself by hand. It's an old-school trick and not the easiest undertaking, but it gives just enough lift to keep the larger tires out of the wheelwells.
Up front, the original Ross cam-and-lever steering system remains and pitches the front bumper in whatever direction the factory steering wheel is pointed. And with only 53,000 original miles on the ticker, the linkage and bushings are still serviceable and reasonably tight.
The standard CJ-3A drivetrain was comprised of the venerable L-head 134ci Willys Go-Devil engine, T-90 transmission, and Spicer 18 T-case. The M-38 kept the same basic drivetrain as the CJ Jeeps, but the military's Carter YS-637-S carb lowered the power by 3 hp to 60 hp at 4,000 rpm and 105 lb-ft of torque at 2,000 rpm. Other notable differences are found in the 24-volt electrical system and the breather system that allowed the drivetrain to be pressurized for deep-water fordings
Ron's example still retains its 24-volt generator and regulator, although he ingeniously swapped the points in the distributor for an electronic ignition from a later M-151 Mutt. Ron explained the relatively rare Swiss-type M-151 stator plate requires no modification to fit inside the M-38 distributor. Ron also added an M-151 muffler for its straight-through design and claims the swap helps the Jeep pull hills a little better. It's a worthwhile modification because Ron and Bonnie never trailer the M-38 and drive it to events as far away as Aberdeen, Maryland, and long hauls through New England.
The transmission and T-case (as well as the engine, master cylinder, and differentials) are all connected to a single vent system, necessary for positively pressurizing the drivetrain to keep moisture out during deep-water crossings. This fording system works off the engine's PCV system. When in normal use, the fording lever on the dash is pushed in, opening the PCV valve and a valve in the oil fill tube. This allows the drivetrain and engine to vent from the PCV into the engine intake. In essence, it's the same negative pressure operation as in a normal vehicle. However, for deep-water fordings, the lever is pulled, closing the PCV valve off from the intake and then shutting the valve at the oil filler. When this happens, the gases from the engine use the drivetrain components as their vents, creating a positive pressure that keeps water from entering any minute openings.
A quick peek on the front bumper and underneath show the relatively rare factory PTO Ramsey 7411944 winch and dual-output T-case 7994148 PTO, which were installed on but a few M-38s. Ron's is all hooked up and ready for business if the need ever arises.
As we mentioned before, although the Willys is bathed in period-correct Air Force-issued blue paint and retains all the correct stencils and markings, Ron actually sandblasted off six layers of paint. The results are well worth it. We'd be hard pressed to find a nicer, more period-correct example in a museum, let alone on any trail.
Sharp eyes will notice the lack of the air-intake snorkel exiting through the passenger side of the hood. Ron has it, but removes it for trail use because he often runs through heavy brush with the windshield folded down. The headlight protectors, rear tire carrier and jerrycan mount, and top bows are all factory M-38 parts.
The non-factory pieces are the two huge and functional antennas hooked to Ron's CB and the military squawk box mounted in front of the T-case shift levers. Ron says the antennas work well with his CB and the military squawk box is extra loud, so you can actually hear what's being said while driving with the canvas top and side curtains down. If you're wondering how Ron runs a 12-volt CB on a 24-volt electrical system, he built his own converter to step down the power.
The rest of the interior is surprisingly intact and unmolested, with all of the brass data plates, functioning gauges, three-lever blackout light switch, and even the throttle, choke switch, and master power cutoff switch. The throttle switch operates the underhood-mounted governor required for running the PTO from outside the vehicle.
Nicely recovered front and rear seats round out the inside and make a place for four passengers to enjoy the wilderness up close and personal.
We were surprised to hear that Ron drives the Jeep as far as Maryland on the highway with no overdrive, but when you enjoy a vehicle as much as Ron and Bonnie enjoy the M-38, we guess you're never in too much of a hurry.
We absolutely love how all the trinkets and gizmos are still present and functional. From the foot-operated starter switch to the PTO winch system, it's all still factory. And the stuff added later-like the squawk box, CB antenna, and even the tires-while not period-correct, have the look and feel of belonging on the vehicle.
Although Ron was running the 15-inch rims and Swampers the day we ran with him, he's got the original 16-inch wheels and NDTs ready to go.
I've wanted an M-38 since I've wanted a flattie. In fact, all the other Jeeps I've bought have just been placeholders until I stumble across the right M-38. To me, Ron and Bonnie's represents the ultimate example in several ways. It's original enough that you can call it a resto job. It's modified enough that you can call it a trail rig. It's got enough seating that you can call it a family excursion toy. It's got enough character to fill an amphitheater. And it provides enough fun to last a lifetime. If Ron and Bonnie ever put it up for sale, I'll be at their door in less than 24 hours ready to drive it home to California.Christian Hazel
'51 Willys M-38
picer 18 with PTO
Re-arched stock leaves
Dana 25, 5.38 gears, open diff (front); Dana 44, 5.38 gears, Power Lock diff(rear)
34.9.50-15 Super Swamper TSL