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First Civilian Jeep: Flatfender CJ-2

Posted in Project Vehicles on January 1, 1999
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As World War II drew to a close, Willys Overland and other automakers began to think again of their civilian customers. The management at Willys Overland realized the company had a winner in the Jeep. By virtue of its service in all theaters of operation, the Jeep had become the best-known American product after Coca-Cola. The post-war challenge? How to market Jeeps to a civilian market.

There had never been a vehicle like the Jeep. Sure, every GI wanted one, but would servicemen actually buy Jeeps after they had exchanged their uniforms for civilian clothes?

The closest thing to the Jeep in rural America was the so-called Doodlebug or Depression Tractor. These homebuilt utility vehicles were typically created by shortening a Ford Model A or T frame, installing a truck rearend, and cutting off the body behind the cowl. They served a multitude of purposes on the nation's farms, from pulling hay wagons to powering harvesting equipment. The thought at Willys Overland was, "Maybe the market for the Jeep is as a general-purpose vehicle for America's farms, where it would play the roles of tractor, pickup, and, yes, even family car."

The Jeep harvesting grain is a military model.

After the war, nearly half the country's population still lived and worked on farms, many of which were small, low-capital operations. Farmers using horses or mules could experience a leap in productivity by using a Jeep fitted with agricultural implements. That appears to have been the thinking, not just at Jeep but also at Chrysler, where Dodge marketed its slightly civilianized Power Wagon for the same purpose, and at Crosley where the Farm-o-Road (almost a miniature Jeep, but 2WD) aimed for the same market.

Another interest also lead the Jeep in the direction of the farm. Several members of Willys Overland management had gentleman farms in the Ohio countryside near Toledo, and they were keen to put the Jeep to work. So, little encouragement was needed to develop the accessories and implements for operating farm equipment. And marketing to agriculture made sense for a third reason: Surplus Jeeps were already being used to restore war-ravaged farms in Europe. Willys Overland envisioned a similar function for Jeeps world wide.

A CJ-2A Jeep arrived on my family's upstate New York fruit farm in about 1952 or 1953. Its first owner had been a doctor who relied on the Jeep's surefooted four-wheel drive when he made rural house calls. We used the Jeep for what it was best suited and not to replace a tractor- you sat low in the Jeep and so lost the tractor's high-perch visibility-but for hauling pruning equipment into the orchards when waist-deep snow kept the pickup truck in the barn, and, when winter cold and the lack of a cargo box made a tractor both uncomfortable and impractical, for overseeing picking operations during harvest, and for transporting equipment.

Note the order sheet's list of farm-related equipment and accessories.

With four-wheel drive to provide traction, the Universal Jeep had a big advantage over two-wheel-drive utility vehicles like the Crosley Farm-o-Road and the Dodge Doodlebugs and farm "runabouts" that populated the rural landscape. Another plus in the Jeep's bid to win the farm was that, as one Willys Overland ad put it, "The Jeep has Field Comfort!" Shock absorbers, chassis springs, sprung seat cushions and backrests, a top, doors, and a heater all made the Universal Jeep a big step up in comfort from an open-air tractor with its metal seat and lack of springs of any kind.

An extra-cost power takeoff gave the civilian Jeep the capacity to operate a variety of agricultural equipment. A front power takeoff (driven off the engine pulley) could handle a capstan, a drum winch, or suction and booster pumps and other front-mounted equipment. The capstan winch had a 5,000-pound pull.

A center-power takeoff at the rear of the transfer case could be equipped with a pulley and up to four belts to operate a generator, an air compressor, an electric welder, and other V-beltdrive equipment. A rear-power takeoff, mounted on the rear crossmember of the frame, offered spline- or pulley-drive of six forward or two reverse gears to operate farm machinery and equipment. Many farm and industrial operations required precise speed control, so Willys made available a centrifugal governor (for $28.23 on CJ-2A models), which allowed the operator to select nine engine speeds from 1,000 to 2,600 rpm. Combined with various transmissions and transfer case gear ratios, the governor provided 54 forward vehicle speeds.

This restored CJ-2A Jeep displays an array of agricultural equipment, including a side mower and a plow mounted to an hydraulically raised rear lift.

A rear hydraulically raised and lowered draw bar (designed to operate like the three-point hitch used on Ford 8N and 9N tractors) enabled the Jeep to transport plowing and tilling tools to and from the field and provided a towing mount for pulled equipment, like wagons. Fitted with the optional 265-pound front bumper weight, the Universal Jeep could muscle a draw-bar load of 1,200 pounds. Willys Overland recommended the bumper weight for agricultural use and when maximum traction was needed.

Farm implements available for the Universal Jeep included plows, harrows, field cultivators, and mowers. With power takeoff and related accessories, Jeeps could operate combines, grain binders, balers, and threshing machines. They could be used for planting and cultivating corn and other row crops, plowing, disking, dragging, and operating a grain drill, elevating corn to a bin, hauling grain and livestock, mowing and raking hay, operating a hay wagon with a hay loader, operating a post-hole digger, pulling a manure spreader, sawing wood, spraying orchards, filling a silo-virtually any work requiring mobility and power.

My family's Jeep replaced a Model A Ford "runabout" (a cut-down, open air pickup) and quickly became the vehicle everyone wanted to drive. Willys Overland's one-size-fits-all marketing scheme didn't make sense to us; we still worked our tractors and used the pickup truck to haul loads too big for the Jeep's tiny cargo box. Though our Jeep was an addition to our "fleet," it quickly became a necessity, filling a niche other farm equipment couldn't handle.

And that's how most Jeeps were used. The plan for Jeeps to replace tractors did not pan out. Plenty of other uses, however, quickly emerged, from fire fighting to snow plowing. Airports found the compact Jeep a useful tool for towing airplanes off runways. Service stations kept a Jeep parked out front to run service calls. Sportsmen relished the Jeep's ability to carry them deep into the woods. Ranchers used Jeeps to rove the range.

And the Jeep became the workhorse of the world-though not quite the way Willys Overland planned or expected.

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