Fun-Running Former Military Hardware
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.
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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.
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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.