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75 Years of Jeep Part 3 - The Jeep in Civvies: Mainstream Legends

1945 to 1954 "America's Most Useful Vehicles!"

Jim AllenPhotographer, WriterJP StaffPhotographer

The wartime jeep saved Willys-Overland from seeing the bottom of a steep financial decline. As World War II ended, they had money in the bank, name recognition, and a unique product. What they lacked was executive consensus on a direction for the company. Some on the board saw the jeep as a stepping-stone to post-war cars. Others saw the jeep as the genesis of a civilian utility vehicle market. The utility faction won and strove to make Willys the big fish in what was then a small, but growing, pond.

Jeep in Civvies: The CJ

The last WWII military jeeps were built alongside the first CJs in late 1945. This ’45 CJ is one of those. It used parts from the military line, including tool cutouts on the body, recessed front marker lights, and a full-float rear axle. The new civvy top was a two-piece "converto" type as a half-cab, or full-length with a back section added. The ’45s came in two colors: Pasture Green (shown here) and Harvest Tan. The Autumn Yellow wheels with Pasture Green pinstripes were a touch of class.

By 1946, the CJ-2A had evolved considerably, and this Michigan Yellow example shows an optional Monroe three-point lift and two-bottom plow. Willys pushed the agricultural aspects of Jeep in those early years, but that market would not last. By this time, most of the leftover military features were gone.

With so few upgrades, the ’49 CJ-3A should have been the CJ-2B, but Willys wanted to tout a "new" model and therefore gave it the new name. This Luzon Red ’50 CJ-3A features an Auburn Machine Works Jeep-a-Trench and front Schenecker hydraulic plow. The signature CJ-3Awindshield vent is visible from the backside.

The ’53 CJ-3B was the first CJ to have the new 75hp F-head. Installation of this engine into the flatfender body required "hood augmentation." This Coronado Sand ’54 shows off a canvas half-cab and vintage Bantam trailer.

The F-head engine fit well in everything but the CJ, so the update project began soon after the engine went into production. Here you see one of the "missing links" between the flatfender, low-hood jeeps, and the round-fender MD. It may be the first step in that development, done in 1949 or 1950. The civilian development yielded a similar prototype called the CJ-4 that still exists in a private collection. Several more similar Jeeps were built on the military side of development, and the end result was the familiar M-38A1 and the CJ-5.

Willys began developing a civilian version of the jeep near the end of the war, along with new pickup, station wagon, and panel delivery models. First on sale was the 1945 CJ-2A Universal, with the official debut on July 18, 1945. "Jeep Day" started on the assembly line at Toledo and ended at CESOR Farms, where the capabilities of the new Jeep were demonstrated. Willys put "Universal" in the name to accompany the “go anywhere, do anything” marketing credo. Many go-to-work accessories were available, but marketing highlighted other uses as well. The recreational market had just begun growing, and the CJ would move a little upmarket every year to grow with it.

The CJ was very much improved over the wartime jeep. The seating position and seats were light-years ahead of wartime, a tailgate was added, and new tops were designed. Mechanically, the CJs got the new Warner T-90 transmission (a column shift at first) and an upgraded Model 18 Spicer transfer with a 2.43:1 low range (versus 1.97:1 in the MB). The axle ratios dropped from 4.88:1 to 5.38:1, and at first, the rear axle was the same full-float Spicer 23 unit as the MB. In the ’46s, a Spicer 41 that was a bit stronger, despite being a semi-floater, replaced it.

In April 1949, the CJ-3A would debut and briefly share the showroom with CJ-2A. Differences were a new windshield with an air vent, improved tops, and much better seats with two more inches of padding. Mechanically, the big news was the Spicer 44-2 rear axle, which was considerably stronger than the Spicer 41.

By the end of the ’40s, Willys was facing an engine-power problem. Its answer was the F-head. A clever adaptation of the flathead, it used 80 percent of the flathead parts but delivered 10 to 15 hp more. The first to get it was the ’53 CJ-3B. Several inches of height were added to the hood, cowl, and grille to fit the F-134, but otherwise it was a CJ-3A. It was almost called the CJ-4, but that designation was reserved for another project.

The "Other" Jeeps: Wagons, Panels, and Jeepsters

The Jeep Station Wagon debuted in July 1946 as the first all-steel-bodied Station Wagon built in America. The complex body stampings were beyond Willys-Overland's capability, so a refrigerator company made the body parts. A 4x4 Jeep wagon wasn’t available until the ’49 model year. The “Jeepy” front end was used until spring 1950.

It wasn't plush, but the Jeep Wagon matched the average station wagon of the era for features. There were few upgrades at first, but the Jeep Wagons gradually moved upmarket.

When the Willys Jeepster debuted for 1948, it was touted as a "sports" car. With a standard 63hp four, those were bold words. Even the optional 148ci “Lightning” six didn't add much to bragging rights. It's a fun collectible today but a flop back then. The biggest complaint was the Phaeton configuration. Side curtains had gone “out” at the beginning of the ’30s, and nobody wanted them in the late ’40s.

As the boardroom battled over building cars or Jeeps after the war, engineering designed an engine for the cars. It was a 148ci (70 hp) inline-six largely based on the Go-Devil L-134 engine. Called the 6-63, it had a 3-inch bore and a 3 1/2-inch stroke (1 inch less than the Go-Devil). When the cars went on the back burner, it was used for the 4x2 Wagons and Jeepster in 1948 and 1949. In 1950, an upgrade (dubbed 6-73) had a 1/8-inch bore increase (same bore as the L-134) that bumped it to 161 ci and 75 hp. Built through 1952, the 6-73–powered 4x2 Wagons and Jeepsters. It's not clear why it wasn't available in the 4x4s, but it was in the Willys Aero cars for ’52 and ’53

Jeep Station Wagon production began in July 1946 as a two-wheeler, and Willys earned the historical distinction of having produced the first all-metal American station wagon. A 4x2 Panel Delivery debuted early in 1947, offering commercial interests a compact delivery rig. A 4x4 Wagon wasn't introduced until 1949, and a 4x4 Panel came in 1953.

They had the same Go-Devil four as the military jeep and the CJ. A Willys-designed 148ci six, called the "Lightning," was soon introduced with an architecture similar to the four. The 148ci flathead soon grew to 161 ci. Later, an F-head version was created, but none of the sixes were offered in 4x4s. The trans was a 4x2 version of the T-90 with a column shift, and overdrive was optional. When the 4x4 wagon debuted for the ’49s, it used the same powertrain as the CJ: the 134ci flathead, T-90 floor shift, Spicer 18 transfer case, Spicer 44 rear axle, and Spicer 25 front axle.

The first big upscale move for Jeep Wagons was made in 1948, with the introduction of the well-appointed Station Sedan. From that point, an upscale model was always in the 4x2 lineup, but when the 4x4s debuted late June 1949, only a few of the upscale features were available for it.

The Jeepster (VJ) was introduced in May 1948 and was based on the Willys Wagon platform. Marketed as a "sporty" Willys, it turned away from the company's push for practicality, and with only four-bangers or anemic six-cylinder engines, it was sporty in name only. It was the last Phaeton (convertible with side curtains rather than windows) built in the U.S., built into ’50 model year, with leftovers retitled as ’51s.

The "Other" Jeeps: Willys Pickups and Stake-Beds

The Willys pickup, with either two- or four-wheel drive, emerged in March 1947. Powered by a 63hp flathead four, the 2,100-pound payload may seem a bit optimistic, but back in those days, people didn't need to move fast. This early ’48 still has a column shift, a feature eliminated later in the year.

When the F-head four debuted in April 1950, wagons and trucks with the new engine also got a new front wrap. Starting with the second-series ’50 models, the V-shaped grill would remain a styling feature on trucks and Wagons for the rest of their production.

Jeeps of all breeds made popular fire appliance conversions. This ’52, from Mobile Fire Apparatus, Inc., was called the Ranger, and the top removal was part of the conversion. A similar military personnel carrier was also made with the same modified cab.

The new F-head fit nicely under the hood of the Wagons and pickups, delivering a welcome 10 to 15hp gain. The yellow head on this pickup indicates a high-compression engine (7.4:1 versus 6.9:1). Barney Roos was still chief engineer, and instead of designing a new engine, he worked it over by adapting the flathead block to accept an overhead intake valve head, which drastically improved breathing and cooled the intake charge. It used 80-plus percent of the old flathead parts and could be built on existing tooling.

The Willys truck debuted in June 1947 and came in both two- and four-wheel drive. It and the Dodge Power Wagon were the only four-wheel-drive pickups sold in America at the time. Optimistically rated as a "1-ton," the four-cylinder Willys used much the same powertrain as the CJ. The rear axle, however, was a 4,500-pound GAWR Timken split-case semi-floater. Offered was a 6 1/2-foot pickup bed, stake-bed, or cab-and-chassis. The 4x2 version was rated as a 1/2-ton, with some using a rear Spicer 41 or 44 and some using the Timken. The 4x2 trucks were phased out after 1951.

Still In Uniform

The ’50 Willys MC was a better military Jeep than the WWII MB. It had a stronger transmission, greater payload (up to 1,200 pounds), 24V electrics, bigger tires, and better gearing, top, and seats. The main reason for its relatively short period in uniform was that the F-head engine debuted about the same time and the M-38A1 was soon on the drawing boards.

Full production of the MD began in April 1952. By the time it ended, Willys and Kaiser had built more than 100,000. They were highly regarded in service, and when the time came to replace them with the M-151 in the early ’60s, there were more than a few military motorpool tantrums. They were seen in service well into the ’70s. Until 1954 production, they had a narrow front bumper and hinges on the grille panel.

Jeeps had been converted into highly effective frontline ambulances since WWII but when the MD line was designed, a factory built version was done. In service, it was called the M-170 but was known as the MDA internally. Nearly 5,000 of these were built starting in late 1953, and they were the pattern for the long-wheelbase CJ-6.

The search for an updated military Jeep began as WWII was ending. Upgrades already being made to the CJ line were considered adequate, but also added were certain standardized military parts and a 24V electrical system. By 1950, a military-model MC (M-38) was well on the way to completion, but another GI rig beat it to the punch.

The Navy and Marines needed a beachmaster's vehicle for amphibious operations. In 1950, Willys built 1,000 specials called the CJ-V35/U. It was essentially a CJ-3A with a 12 or 24V PTO generator between the seats to power radios, a deep fording kit, and a few other goodies. Production began in March 1950 and ended in June.

The MC began production in September 1950 and was built through July 1952 to the tune of 62,000 units. It was very much a militarized CJ-3A but with an increased payload and 24V electrical. The Go-Devil–powered M-38 got mixed reviews, mostly from performance degradation created by a combination of increased vehicle weight and payload. The new F-head four was seen as the cure, and plans were made for an F-head–powered military Jeep.

The legendary round-fender Jeep debuted in April 1952 in the form of the MD (M-38A1). In many ways, it was the best military Jeep built and maybe the last "real" military Jeep. It was in production for nearly two years before it spawned the legendary civilian variant called the CJ-5. The original plan was to debut both at nearly the same time, but steel shortages and inflation forestalled the new CJ until the end of 1954 as a ’55 model. A long-wheelbase variant of the MD, stretched to a 101-inch wheelbase, emerged as the MDA (M-170) and became a highly effective frontline ambulance. In 1956, the MDA emerged in civvies as the CJ-6.

Willys-Overland Hits the Road

Jeep's 6-85 engine was a Roos F-head development similar to the F-134. A new head was designed, and the flathead 161 became an F-head 161. It made about 90 hp and was optional in ’52-’54 4x2 wagons. It was also used in the ’52-’55 Aero cars. This engine had a bit of staying power but not in the U.S. When production stopped here in 1955, the tooling was sent to Brazil where it was built into 1972. With dual carbs, the Brazilian version cranked out 132 hp.

While the Wagons used either a Spicer 23, 41, or 44, the 4x4 trucks needed a lot more beef. The Timken 51540 axle filled that bill. A split case unit, it was the smallest in a line of axles that had first been known as Wisconsin, then Timken, and finally Rockwell. Everpresent in the ’30s, ’40s, and early ’50s, it fell out of favor by the mid-’50s.

By 1953, Willys had debuted a line of compact cars, but they were going nowhere. The utility biz was still decent, but the economy was flat and the company was floundering again. Up came Henry J. Kaiser, whose car empire was also floundering, and a marriage proposal was made. In the next issue of Jp, you can read all about the Kaiser Jeep era in Part 4 of our 75 Years of Jeep series.