The Inexplicable Jeep

The Jeep CJ is inexplicable — simultaneously the simplest and the most mysterious vehicle on (and off) postwar American roads. And the best-loved, too.

A kid’s crayon scribble of a car has more curves and complications. Children can’t draw straight enough to render a CJ’s styling.

Under the box-lid hood was the Willys “Go Devil” L-head inline-four with a one-barrel carburetor, 134.2-cid and 60 horsepower. The engine type is so basic that a book published in 1907, Self-Propelled Vehicles, by James E. Homans, has a cut-away drawing of what might as well be a Go Devil and a comment from Mr. Homans: “The positive-operated inlet valve is now gaining favor with designers.”

The Go Devil would be replaced eight years later by the “Hurricane” — just an F-head Go Devil with 75 horsepower. This remained CJ standard equipment until American Motors began putting its own engines into Jeeps in 1972.

There wasn’t much on a Go Devil or a Hurricane or the rest of a CJ that couldn’t be fixed with electrical tape, a Scout knife and Vise-Grip pliers.

The mystery is that the CJ existed at all. Jeep has an origin story that makes Peter Parker’s radioactive spider bite superhero transformation seem humdrum.

The U.S. Army had been looking for something fast and maneuverable to do all-terrain transport and reconnaissance, which it already had — the horse. But sitting on a horse was a disadvantage in modern trench warfare. You stuck up out of the trench. So the Army tried motorcycles. Loaded with supplies, ammunition and light weapons, motorcycles tipped over.

After WWI, the Army conducted trials on Model T Fords (too lightly sprung), a rear-engine machine gun carrier where the driver lay prone (too silly) and the American Bantam version of the “Baby” Austin (too child-sized).


When rearmament began in 1940, the Army got serious about having what the Army, with its knack for nomenclature, called “Truck, 4×4, Light.” It would be either a weapons carrier or a reconnaissance vehicle or a replacement for the cavalry or an addition to the infantry or a hauler of artillery pieces. With this clear vision in mind, the Army’s Ordnance Technical Committee experts met and pulled specifications out of the orifice from which experts pull specifications.

The vehicle would have four-wheel drive, which it would need for the required climb of a 60-degree grade with a mandated 85 ft-lb. of torque, plus hydraulic brakes in case that went wrong. Track was 47 inches (about half the width of a one-lane road, so that retreating and advancing U.S. Army units could pass each other safely). Vehicle height was 40 inches, a figure derived by measuring the height of shrubbery in the neighborhood where the Ordnance Technical Committee met. Soldiers could sneak by enemy-held suburban lawns. Top speed was 50 mph, because if GIs were going someplace at more than 50 mph, that place was probably off limits. And all of it must weigh 1,275 pounds. A ridiculous figure. Unless you look up what a saddled and packed U.S. Cavalry horse with trooper astride weighed — about 1,275 pounds.

The Army sent its impossible specifications to 135 manufacturers, demanding a prototype within an impossible 49 days. Only two companies responded — financially troubled American Bantam and Willys-Overland.

The Bantam Reconnaissance Car, or BRC, made the deadline by half an hour. Almost every specification was met. It had hot rod front fenders and Bugeye Sprite headlights but otherwise looked remarkably Jeep-like.

Still, doubting Bantam’s production capacity, the Army gave Willys and Ford the BRC’s blueprints and asked them each to make prototypes of their own versions of “Truck, 4×4, Light.” American Bantam wasn’t big enough for “too big to fail.” Only 1,500 BRCs were built, most reportedly sent to Russia.

Ford created the “Pygmy” with a 45-horsepower tractor engine and crash gears (see “This Car Matters,” page 66). Willys developed the “Quad,” with Go Devil power and better mechanicals, but it weighed 2,520 pounds.

Both the Pygmy and the Quad went into limited production. The Army agreed to raise its weight limit to 2,268 pounds, and Willys did everything to slim the Quad, including a strip tease to just one coat of paint. The modified Quad, called the “MA,” out-performed both the Pygmy and the BRC.

But when we envision a Jeep, it’s really a Ford we’re picturing. The Quad had a rounded hood and fenders, with vertical steel bars in front of the radiator. Jeep’s flat sheet metal with headlights incorporated into a stamped, slotted grille came from Ford’s body shop. Ford may even have named the Jeep, calling its production Pygmy a “GP.” The initials for “General Purpose” were soon slurred into the moniker we know. And Willys had the sense to trademark it. Clad identically in Ford GP form, Willys’ MA was renamed the “MB” if built by Willys and a “GPW” if built by Ford.

Thus dim-witted military procurement, useless design-by-committee and cutthroat business rivals came together to produce a work of genius that some claim won the war.

Out of Uniform

The first CJ2A came off the Willys production line on July 17, 1945, almost a month before Japan surrendered. (Willys also had the sense to get exclusive rights to produce a CJ, a “Civilian Jeep.”)

It was out of uniform, but barely. The CJ2A had larger headlights, softer springs, taller gearing, a tailgate and more comfortable seats. It came in pretty colors, too, all for $1,090. In 2014 dollars, that’s a fully loaded Nissan Versa, but why would you want one? There were plenty of reasons to want a CJ2A.

All of those reasons, to tell the truth, were as inexplicable as the CJ itself. It was great on unpaved roads, in a country where all the roads had been paved. It was wonderful outdoors, as if every able-bodied man in America hadn’t spent enough time outdoors between 1941 and 1945. It could go anywhere and do anything. But Americans wanted to go home and do a job from 9 to 5.

Getting the CJ’s top up in the rain was hell, especially if you’d left the cumbersome thing in your garage. The side curtains provided no ventilation or far too much. Cranking up the CJ2A’s heater was like being breathed on by a small dog. Why did we love the CJ?

Willys advertised Jeeps as “America’s Most Useful Vehicles.” This was a subtle fib. What we loved was how useful they looked. Jeeps had the pure utilitarian beauty of a scythe or a moldboard plow, two other things fewer and fewer Americans knew how to use.

From the start, Willys almost made a grave error in marketing: A prototype of the CJ2A was given the nameplate “Agrijeep” — to be sold as a replacement for the plow team, the buckboard, the tractor or maybe the hay baler and the combine harvester. This would have left every person in America who didn’t have a barnyard with no excuse to buy a Jeep.

We wanted the Jeep not for anything in particular but for its possibility of everything in general. Someday we’d get that cabin on a lake in the woods where Dad could fish, the kids could skinny dip and Mom could do the laundry in a bucket. Someday we’d chuck the 9-to-5 and hightail it into the Bighorn Mountains and prospect for uranium.

We had a CJ2A. It was really useful for plowing snow at the Buick dealership where my dad worked. But my mom loved the CJ, too. Maybe what she was thinking was someday she’d chuck the laundry bucket, dump Dad in the lake and run off and be a cowgirl. Or maybe she’d put the transfer case into low gear, lock the hubs, crash through the picket fence and tear the hell out of the flower garden the old shrew next door was always complaining about us kids playing in.

Also, the post-war years were a period of rapid change. Change for the better, no doubt, but change of any kind is disturbing. Read the 1950 sociological study The Lonely Crowd, or Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit or (more fun) Mad magazine to see how disturbed people were. But not by the CJ. Jeeps changed at the pace of me trying to get through The Lonely Crowd.
The CJ2A didn’t go out of production until 1950, though at the end of 1948, the CJ3A was introduced. It had a one-piece windshield!

The 1953 CJ3B, with its Hurricane engine, required a higher hood to accommodate the overhead valves, giving the Jeep a more endearing tugboat bow. Jeep would keep building CJ3Bs until 1964.

The 1954 CJ5 had the stronger, more flexible chassis of the Korean War military M38. The CJ5 was rounder, smoother and half- (but only half) civilized looking. The body was three inches wider, the wheelbase was an inch longer, the ride verged on bearable, the top nearly worked and there was almost room to put something behind the rear seat. The engine was the same. The CJ5 would continue to be built — by Willys, Kaiser Jeep and American Motors — until 1983, the longest production run of any U.S. motor vehicle and longer by a decade than the Model T’s.

Variations on a Theme

In 1955, you could get a CJ5 with a cab. Typically Jeep, it was all-steel, although lightweight fiberglass had been proven feasible on mundane forms of transportation such as the Corvette.

In 1956, Jeep built a CJ5 with an extra 20 inches of wheelbase — the CJ6. It was popular overseas where, with two bench seats in the back, it served as a taxi. This was exactly the kind of humdrum thing Americans didn’t want to do with their Jeeps. Few CJ6s were sold at home.

A “Tuxedo Park” trim package was available on CJ5s beginning in 1961. It had whitewall tires, leather seats and chrome bumpers. No one knows why.

Not until 1966 did a CJ buyer have the option of an engine designed by people who were still alive. Jeep installed the compact Buick 225-cid V-6, which off-roaders had been installing in the CJ5 for years. With 160 horsepower, 235 ft-lb. of torque and a 2,420-pound curb weight, this Jeep could push your kidneys through the seatback as well as bounce them out of your mouth. A roll bar, bigger tires, alloy wheels and funny paint made
your CJ5 into a “Renegade” starting in 1970.

That’s also the year American Motors bought Jeep. Just two years later, AMC modified the CJ5 to make room for modern heating, power steering, power brakes and the company’s 100-horsepower 232-cid six or optional 150-horsepower 304-cid V-8. Furthering the Jeep spirit, American Motors insisted that the new 83.5-inch-wheelbase CJ5 show no styling changes. “If you want to call that anti-Detroit, go ahead,” said AMC president Gerry Meyers. He meant it. Sort of. Jeep didn’t get something that, in Detroit iron fashion, crushed its soul — air conditioning — until 1975.

“What’s next?” Jeep purists joked. “Top, doors and automatic transmission?” In 1976, the CJ6 was replaced by the CJ7 on a new CJ frame that eliminated the narrow track instability Jeep fans prided themselves on being able to handle. The CJ7 was available with a fiberglass cab, doors, door locks, roll-down windows and a slush box — albeit a good one — the full-time 4WD Quadra-Trac. Then came 1977’s disc brakes and tilt-position steering wheel and 1978’s moon roof. A “moon roof” in a conveyance made for going out and howling at the moon? Now you could do it with the windows up and not bother the neighbors.

Fancy trim packages began to abound: Laredo, Limited, Jamboree, Golden Eagle, Ruptured Duck, whatever.

Crossing the Line

The Jeep was devolving from imagination to reality. It was becoming a car. Or a minipickup. The two-seat, short-bed 1981 CJ8 “Scrambler” was allegedly an alternative to handy little Japanese imports. If you owned a Scrambler, friends would ask you to help move furniture.

Then came 1987 and the dreams died. The CJs were gone. There wasn’t anything really wrong with the new Wrangler. Except, like its headlights, it was Squaresville. It would look like a Tonka toy at the uranium claim. No self-respecting Dale Evans would sing “Happy Trails” with Roy Rogers and Pat Brady in this Nellybelle. The old shrew next door’s flower garden was safe from a Wrangler. Even the kids at the lake would have to towel off before they sat on the Wrangler’s upholstery.

It was a grim real-world shock when you opened a Wrangler door (side curtains a memory) and said, “We’ll never clean the inside of this s.o.b. with a garden hose.”

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