The First Civilian Jeeps Are Still a Rugged Deal

It didn’t take long for the Army’s quarter-ton, four-wheel-drive reconnaissance car to catch the fancy of the American soldier during World War II — and of the American public in general.

The Jeep as made by Ford (GPW) and Willys (MB) was often an object of desire for when the war would be over.

Willys began experimenting with a post-war civilian Jeep in secret — as much from the government as the industry — as early as 1944. Prototypes were the CJ-1 (CJ means Civilian Jeep), which evolved into CJ-2 AgriJeep (which went over better with the government, as having overtones for augmenting the civilian tractor fleet for wartime food production).

Luckily for Willys, Ford signaled — late in the war and afterwards — that once their contract for GPWs was done, they wanted nothing more to do with them and intended to get back to their regularly scheduled products

So Willys aggressively pursued the legal rights to “Jeep” and all its trappings.

Enter the Jeep CJ-2A

The CJ-2A was the closest thing to a military-issue Ford GPW or Willys MB jeep that a civilian could buy new. Indeed, we were still fighting the Empire of Japan when the first civilian Jeep rolled off the line in Toledo, OH, on July 17, 1945.

The CJ-2A is simplicity by definition. With a 134-ci flathead “Go-Devil” 4-cylinder engine that churned out 60 horsepower through a 3-speed transmission and 2-speed transfer case, it is one step above a farm tractor in the mechanical food chain. This is not bad, since just about anyone who knows which end of a screwdriver to hold can work on this Jeep.

The initial production run had a steering-column shifter for the main transmission. Unreliability with off-road use made this a short-lived feature. Willys went back to a floor-shift transmission by early 1946 (after serial number 38,221). Having driven a column shift CJ-2A that a friend of mine has, I agree that it was a bad idea.

Not only do you have to be very precise and not cut corners while shifting (never good for something that’s supposed to bound across hill and dale), it just plain doesn’t feel right in a Jeep. However, the column shifter did return for the 1958–64 DJ-3A series Dispatcher and Gala Surrey Jeeps over a decade later — in both cases, they were two-wheel-drive Jeeps.

Beware of the rust monster

The body tub was slightly refined for civilian use — with the biggest differences from wartime production being the addition of a tailgate and moving the fuel filler from under the driver’s seat to the driver’s side of the tub.

While they are simple, time has proven that the tubs have a propensity to rust, and there are many reasons why this happens. Moisture finds lots of hiding places in structural supports, the vehicles got no rust prevention, and all Jeeps are intended for use in the outdoors in all kinds of wet weather.

At least the modern aftermarket industry has a good supply of domestic and foreign replacement body parts — and even whole tubs.

Lots of engines out there

As far as parts hunting goes, these early civilian Jeeps are a credit-card restoration if you choose to go that route. An unlikely source for a stock-looking engine upgrade is the 4-cylinder Henry J. While there are different logos cast on the cylinder head, it is all but identical to the later CJ-3A’s engine. The main difference between a CJ-2A and a CJ-3A engine is the CJ-3A engine used a gear-driven camshaft over the CJ-2A’s earlier chain drive. As Kaiser-Frazer had a close working relationship with Willys-Overland (to the point of combining to become Kaiser-Willys by 1953), there was a considerable amount of parts sharing between the companies.

So when the street-rodder down the block offers you the original motor that he yanked out to make room for his ProStreet Gasser Henry J. project, take him up on it.

Off-roading is born

Off-roading — both recreational and vocational — was what the Jeep CJ-2A was designed and built to do. The early CJs truly did chart new ground as an off-road recreational vehicle, as the only previous off-roaders were oriented towards work rather than play.

With nothing else to judge them against, in the day they were the best way to go off-roading using an internal-combustion engine. Time and technology advances have produced more-capable vehicles, but the early CJs were the initial yardstick of the 4×4.

If you want to trail ride with a CJ-2A, go for it. However, you’ll be better off with one that is already modified to some extent. It seems like all the ones still driving are modified. Bone-stock CJs are few and far between. If serious mud bogging and rock hopping is your thing, you may be happier in the long run with more-modern equipment. Now, “modern” is a relative description that can cover a 1960s International Scout to the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL.

Still time to get them cheap

While vintage pickups and SUVs — such as Land Cruisers, Broncos and Scouts — have really taken off in value in the past few years, early “flat-fender” CJ series Willys Jeeps are still very affordable.

Yet pricing is slowly moving up. Even compared with their military-spec brethren in OD green — which saw roller-coaster values over the past decade — CJ-2As have been generally constant. A possible explanation for that is that they are more of a local-use vehicle — if not a tractor with a tub body on it — rather than more utilitarian closed-bodied 4×4 vehicles.

If you want to drive a stock restored CJ-2A — and not turn it into a trailer-queen show truck and garage ornament — local secondary road or street use is perhaps best for it in an urban/suburban environment. The Jeep CJ-2A is not freeway capable, as the gearing and short wheelbase makes anything over 55 mph a suicide mission. A trip into town or to the Dairy Queen down the street for cruise night is fair exercise for it. Those with a farm or acreage with light trails have the best-case scenario for a CJ-2A. ♦

B. Mitchell Carlson

SCM Senior Auction Analyst

Brian wrote his first auction report for Old Cars Weekly in 1990 and has contributed his colorful commentary in Sports Car Market since 1998. His work appears regularly in Kelley Blue Book, and also in a handful of marque-specific publications. Carlson shuns what he calls “single-marque tunnel vision” and takes great pride in his “vehicular diversity.” He attends about two dozen auctions per year, but he broke away to roar around Oregon with Paul Hardiman in SCM’s Dodge Viper and Porsche 911 Turbo in the 2015 Northwest Passage.

Posted in Affordable Classics