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Get Into A Cheap Old Jeep

Posted in Project Vehicles on August 1, 2011
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The Jeep thing is supposed to be fun. It isn’t supposed to be an expression of how good ones credit rating is. The Jeeps that are the most fun to build and wheel are the old ones. They are easy to work on, dirt simple to fix when they break, and leaf springs make for lots of available cheap upgrades and modifications. Today, the problem is most people think that an old Jeep is worth its weight in gold. When we got into the Jeep thing, AMC-era CJs could still be had at used car dealerships at reasonable prices. Nowadays it seems that even non-running junk AMC CJs are commanding more money than first- and second-generation Wranglers and that is just upside-down no matter how you look at it.

Don’t despair, however. It is still possible to get into a vintage Jeep and get out there without having to take the hammer to the old piggy bank. We spend an incredible amount of time with our ears to the ground trying to find the next Steal-J and have amassed quite the database of what used Jeeps sell for. Sure, they might not be the mainstream CJs, but they have four-wheel drive and can still be a blast to tool around in.

’48-’65 Willys Wagon and Truck
In 1946 Willys-Overland motors introduced the Wagon, but it wasn’t until 1948 that it got the 4WD option on the order sheet. The Wagons and trucks saw all kinds of engines including the 134ci L-head Go Devil four-cylinder, the 148ci L-head Lightning six-cylinder, the 226ci L-head six-cylinder, and the overhead-cam 230ci Tornado six-cylinder. There was also a 161ci six-cylinder available in both L- and F-head configurations. Transmission options were just as varied over the 17 years of production but you are only likely to find a Spicer 18 splitting power.

The last one of these things came off the line half a century ago, so finding one with the factory parts all still there is unlikely. Most we find have swapped-in engines and drivetrains often at low, low discount prices. You can pick the engine you like best. Regardless of what drivetrain you decide on, keep an eye on things like window and door seals. Not only are they expensive to replace, but if they started leaking early on in life it is pretty common for rust to appear further down the walls. Best of all, by picking one up that was someone else’s project you can save a ton of money. As we all know, you never get the money out of it that you put into it. With so many mutations over the years, the price range for these varies greatly, but we wouldn’t pay any more than $5,000 for a pristine running example. More likely, we’d pay under $1,000 for a non-runner that has all the drivetrain and most of the interior there but just needs some work, or up to $3,000 for a runner that has some cosmetic blemishes.

’55-’75 CJ-5
People looking for old open-top Jeeps are commonly looking for a flatfender. While that drives flattie prices up, it also drives the early, and to some degree, the intermediate ’72-’75 CJ-5 prices down. The early CJ-5s shared many drivetrain parts with the flatfenders and while they seem to be much bigger visually, they have no problems going down the same tight, twisty trails the flatties can. The F-head engines were inflicted on some of these Jeeps, but the ones that are decent performers are the 225ci Dauntless V-6, the 232ci and 258ci inline-six-cylinder engines and the 304ci V-8 in the ’72-’75s. By the end of production over 600,000 CJ-5s were built, further driving down the prices. The CJ-5 got a wide variety of transmissions over the years, with the three-speed T-14s, T-15s, and four-speed T-98s being the most common. Some of them did get the sought-after T-18, but in the later Jeeps it was often the non-granny version. Many F-heads and V-6s with the T-18 got the low granny-geared transmission. You’ll find the T-98 in some of them, too. The Spicer/Dana 18 T-case was the case of choice until 1972 when the Dana 20 showed up.

Tops will generally interchange over this entire time period. If you are a big or tall person, you might have problems fitting into the CJ-5. Generally people under six feet will be okay with the seating and people over six feet will want more space. More space can be had through tilt steering columns and notching the inner fender to slide the seat back further. If you are planning on driving the Jeep on the road, stay away from the ones lifted 100 feet into the air. Not only does it cause instability, but the uber-short drivelines will be operating at too great of an angle. Depending on condition and modifications, these normally go for under $1,000 in non-running condition. In running condition they will go for whatever the market in your area supports. We wouldn’t pay over $3,000 for one in good running condition.

’66-’73 Jeepster Commando
The Jeepsters were marketed as a sporty car and they are indeed low-slung from the factory, 101- or 104-inch wheelbase makes them good performers both on- and off-road. There are two different models during this time period. The Kaiser-built C-101 ran from ’66-’71 and has a 101-inch wheelbase and more closely resembles a Jeep. The C-101 was available with a four-cylinder engine, but many of them ended up with the 225ci Dauntless V-6. The ’72 and ’73 C-104 got a Bronco/Scout-like nose but were available with an AMC 232ci or 258ci inline-six or 304ci V-8. The four-cylinder was backed by a T-90 and the V-6 by a T-14. The inline-six and V-8 were backed by a T-14. The inline-six could be optioned with a T-18 and all sixes and eights could have a TH400 automatic behind them.

As you might expect, the long wheelbase provided more interior space and these rigs make decent platforms if you are looking to take a couple of kids wheeling. They were available in a half-cab pickup version, a wagon version with a full hardtop, and a convertible. The wagon is by far the most common. Other options included power steering, power brakes, and A/C. Seating position is lower relative to the hood than a CJ and if you’ve got long legs the stock seat location makes it hard to engage and disengage the clutch. Unlike the CJ-5, no fender cutting is needed to move the front seats back, but you will almost always have to cut the rear fender flares to fit decent-sized tires on the Jeep. As for what size specifically, well, that will depend on how sagged the springs are. We see complete running examples of Commandos under $2,000 frequently.

’63-’91 Fullsize Jeeps
Not quite a fullsized vehicle by today’s standards and not as small as a universal Jeep, the fullsize Jeeps are overlooked by both fullsize fans and Jeep enthusiasts. The fullsize Jeep ran for the same duration as the CJ-5 but doesn’t get nearly the recognition of its open-topped brother. Sure it seems like all of them have some electrical or vacuum gremlins but if you look under the skin, you’ll find some of the best drivetrain parts ever put in a Jeep. Aside from the 230ci overhead-cam inline-six that was foisted upon the platform until 1965, there wasn’t really a bad engine among the bunch. There were four different V-8 options over the years. There was a 327ci “Vigilante” AMC-sourced mill that ran in ’65 and ’66. That was replaced by a Buick-sourced 350ci engine that ran from ’67-’70. For ’71 with AMC’s acquisition, AMC 304ci and 360ci engines found their way under the hood and the 360 stayed there all the way to the end. For the ’74 model year, the 401ci engine could be had from the factory. Like the other Jeeps, the infamous T-18 was an option box that wasn’t often checked, but it was available. Otherwise, the V-8 got T-15 or T-176: six got T-14 or T-18 with a 6.32 First gear. More than any other Jeep, the TH400 automatic was the transmission of choice; later, the TF727 was the only transmission available. The 258ci AMC inline-six was available under the hood, but wasn’t found that often except in stripper-model trucks.

Transfer cases were a mix of part- and full-time units. The Dana 20 made an appearance between the framerails as did a couple of Borg-Warner units. Look in the glove box for a switch for low range or a small lever next to the driver’s seat to see if it’s got a Borg-Warner box. The Dana 20 has the regular lever further forward on the floor. The fulltime Quadra-Trac boxes have a bad rep for failure and they do fail more than the gear-driven options, but if they are maintained they are relatively trouble free. The Dana 20 is more likely to be found in the trucks and early Wagoneers with the fulltime boxes only showing up in the wagons (not the trucks). By 1974, axles were modern and strong Dana 44s front and rear. Then in 1980 the HD AMC 20 rear axle showed up. Some pickups got a Dana 60 rear axle. The long leaf springs provide a decent ride and there are several companies offering lift kits. However, to keep the ride height reasonable, you’ll have to break out the saw and trim the fenders. If you end up with a later Wagoneer with the vacuum spaghetti under the hood, try to budget an additional $1,500 for an aftermarket fuel injection system. We see running and driving Wagoneers under $1,500 all day long, with trucks and two-door Cherokees commanding slightly more coin than the four-doors. We lean more towards the ’74-’79 FSJs, but the ’80-’91 FSJs typically have more creature comforts and are less worn out.

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