Identifying an Early Willys CJ-2a
Here’s how we spotted an early version of the first civilian Jeep
Just after the end of World War II, Willys motors had to figure out what to do with the parts that were intended for jeeps that were no longer needed for the war effort. Enter the (lost to history) CJ-1, a few CJ-2s (also known as the Agrijeep), then very early CJ-2as, which morphed into the more common CJ-2a. The rest is history.
Like all older Jeeps, the CJ-2As changed as parts ran out and new parts were supplied. Recently, while hanging out at The Jeep Farm LLC in Cave Creek, Arizona, we noticed what initially looked like a military MB, but upon closer inspection we realized that it was actually an early CJ-2a with a few incorrect parts. Here's what we saw and what we should have seen, along with some clues to look for to see if that CJ-2a outside your house might really be a rare early '46, or even a '45.
Not all Jeeps are as they seem
Fact, every time I am near an old Jeep, I try to identify what year and model it is. This is easy sometimes when the info is all there and the Jeep is something I am familiar with. I'm pretty good with general identification on the group of Jeeps known as "flatties," but I've only owned civilian versions of these Jeeps. I've had a CJ-2a, a CJ-3a, and a CJ-3b. Still, I've looked at a bunch of military flatties, including but not restricted to MBs, GPWs, M38s, and so on.
When I saw this 1946 CJ-2a, I was first thrown off by its grille. I saw a military grille, either an MB or GPW grille, and that made sense with the presence of tool indents on the driver side of the body tub, but then I noticed something odd. The hood and windshield frame were stamped with the familiar Willys stamp. Most military vehicles don't have these stampings in these locations (though some early military flat may). Then I noticed something that pretty definitively told me I wasn't looking at a military Jeep but rather an early CJ-2a.
Early CJ-2as are a square peg in a round world
The problem is all flatfender Jeeps are made of parts that are pretty easy to interchange, so just about any flatfender can be a mixture of parts that don't belong together, but what I'd noticed on this early CJ-2a is what I would call the long-distance early CJ-2a identifier. It had square washers on the windshield frame (washers that back the bolts that hold the soft top bow brackets to the back of the lower part of the windshield frame). From there a glance at the steering column made me sure this was an early CJ-2a.
Early CJ-2as were column-shift from the factory
The first civilian Jeeps were sold as a tractor you could drive to church on Sunday. And the story I've heard is that the folks at Willys wanted the CJ-2a to be "easy to drive" for the farmer and his wife, so they opted to switch from a floor-shifted three-speed to a three-in-the-tree, or column shift. This notion faded quickly when CJ-2as began accruing mileage. Generally the shift linkage for the column-shift T90 was prone to wear and could bind, causing a hard-to-shift transmission. Whether that's true doesn't really matter. What we do know is that the column-shift was only present on the 1,800 1945 CJ-2as and about the first 2,000 of the 1946 CJ-2as built.
More identifiers for early CJ-2as
The vehicle serial numbers (what we might call a VIN) are also a great indicator of when these early CJ-2as were built. Stamped into the Jeep's serial number tag, they start with 10001 mid-1945 and end the 1945 year model at about 11825, most of the midyear changes in 1946 occurred by 46000, and 1946 ended with 83379. Early CJ-2as have ACM body numbers (a separate company, American Central Manufacturing, built the bodies) similar to the last three or four digits in the serial number. Later CJ-2as have a greater disparity between the ACM number and serial number. There are also a passel of engine and drivetrain identifiers, including a chain-driven timing chain (like military MB/GPW jeeps), various numbers cast or stamped on the engines, and date codes for other drivetrain components. You can find more info on parts and identification numbers for early CJ-2as at cj-2a.com.
Early CJ-2a Identifiers
Square washers on the windshield (easiest to spot from a slight distance, but windshields interchange easily with military flatfenders and CJ-3as)
Full-float rear axle
Military-style exhaust (exhaust mounts for this type of exhaust can be found on later CJ-2as)
Tool indents on the driver side
Body-color headlight trim rings
Frame tag inside of driver-side frame rail (it later moved to the outside of the driver-side frame rail
Dash tag with serial number
Extra frame gusset over the rear axle
Other identifiers for early and some later CJ-2as
Grille with recessed marker lights
ACM body number stamped into the driver-side toeboard gusset
ACM body number stamped into the passenger side of the tailgate