The Jeep CJ-5 Was Built Forever to Go Wherever


If popularity hasn’t quite bred contempt for the Jeep CJ-5, it has seen this big-selling off-roader being unfairly overlooked in the gold rush for classic 4x4s. Where early Land Rovers, Range Rovers, Toyota Land Cruisers, and various other Jeep models have all attracted big interest and commensurate values, the CJ-5 has reassuringly just gotten on with things, as it has since it launched in 1954.

Over a life span of nearly 30 years, the CJ-5 evolved and adapted, and it also moved from being marketed and sold as a utilitarian workhorse to something more akin to the modern SUV. Even so, the CJ-5 never lost the basic functionality that was at the root of its appeal and abilities, and this is why it still makes for a great addition to any classic car line-up. It’s just so darned useful.

1965 Jeep CJ-5 off road

Conceived by Kaiser as a go-anywhere car for the masses, the CJ-5 was a development of the military-spec M-38A1 that had arrived in 1952. At its launch in October 1954, the CJ-5 benefitted from the M-38A1’s strong chassis, axles, brakes, suspension, transmission, and improved seating. It also came with the more rounded styling that set it apart from the earlier “flat fender” models that had been spawned by Jeeps of World War II. Other practical updates for this latest Jeep included a larger windshield and the option of a weatherproof top and doors. There was a new instrument display and a closing glovebox—hardly radical, but all small points that made the CJ-5 easier to live with.

At launch, the CJ-5 came with the trusty 134-cid 70-hp Hurricane F-head four-cylinder, coupled to a three-speed manual gearbox and Dana/Spicer two-speed transfer case. Optional after 1965 was Buick’s 155-hp 225-cid Dauntless V-6, which more than doubled the output of the Hurricane four. It didn’t take long for the buying public to take to this engine, and it quickly accounted for three quarters of all CJ-5 production. Rarest of the early CJ-5s of the ’60s were those powered by a 62-hp 192-cid Perkins diesel.

In February 1970, American Motors Corporation (AMC) acquired Jeep from Kaiser, and by 1972, the company’s changes to the CJ-5 were apparent. Primarily, AMC swapped in its 145-hp 232-cid straight-six for the Dauntless, with a 258-cid six optional (and standard by the end of the decade). In true go-big-or-go-home fashion, its 304-cid V-8 was also available, which necessitated modified bodywork and a small stretch in the wheelbase, taking it from 81 to 84 inches. Toward the end of its long life, the CJ-5 had one more engine under the hood, in the form of GM’s 151-cid Iron Duke four-cylinder.

Variations on the CJ-5 theme included a longer-wheelbase CJ-6, along with the two-wheel-drive DJ-5 often used by the United States Postal Service for mail delivery. There were also several special editions over the years—the Renegade, the Golden Eagle, the Levis Edition, etc.—all of which contributed to a total production of 603,303 CJ-5s.

What’s a CJ-5 Like to Drive?

Jeep CJ-5 Renegade

Engine choice drives three distinct flavors of Jeep CJ-5, and which one suits your taste will depend on what you want to do with the car. Early and later four-cylinder Jeeps are, as one would expect, slower to accelerate and have a lower top speed, so if you want to head further afield, one of the bigger-engined versions will more suitable. However, the Hurricane motor works happily through its three-speed manual, and a 50-mph cruise or less is where it’s comfortable. Go for the later Iron Duke four and you gain an easy-shifting four-speed gearbox, which enables cruising at around 60 mph. If you do happen find a diesel model, its rarity makes it worth saving, but don’t expect anything other than sluggish performance.

The rugged four-cylinder engines also perform admirably off-road, thanks to the low-ratio transfer box that makes the most of their torque. However, the six-cylinder and V-8 engines offer a better all-around driving experience for anyone looking to use their Jeep on a regular basis and not just for Sunday runs. These models are able to keep pace with modern traffic and also offer more power for heading off the beaten path.

Jeep CJ-5 interior

What all CJ-5s have in common is the way they drive. The steering doesn’t give much in the way of sporting sensation, of course, but it’s accurate enough and fends off kickback through the wheel when off-roading, at least when well greased and properly maintained. Jeep offered power steering as an option after AMC took over the company, and it’s worth having with the larger engines that added extra weight.

Enzo Ferrari might have described the Jeep as “America’s only true sports car,” but the handling is very much in the agricultural 4×4 camp. It can be hustled more than you’d think, and it’s generally better through corners with less lean and more grip than a contemporary Land Rover, but this is all relative and care is still needed on damp roads. In off-road situations, the nimble CJ-5 is superb and still offers go-anywhere ability to this day that few modern 4x4s can better. The suspension is neither too firm nor bouncy, but you know you’re driving a car designed for unmade tracks more than asphalt. Jeeps from 1977 gained front disc brakes, which make stopping more powerful and confidence-inspiring for drivers coming from newer cars.

You can fit four people into a CJ-5 with reasonable comfort. The driver has a great view all around, though the top does create a few blind spots when erected. A compromise is to drive with the doors fitted and the top off, or buy a bikini top to keep the worst of the rain and sun off while preserving the open feel of the cabin. In the back, there’s space for kids, and seat belts are a good upgrade if not already fitted. The same applies to a roll bar if not already equipped, which can be used to mount three-point belts for those in the front seats.

What Goes Wrong and What Should You Look for When Buying a CJ-5?

Jeep CJ-5 rear 3/4

When shopping the CJ-5, your best bet may be to go for one that needs only modest work and some tidying, so that you won’t worry about driving as intended. Whether from the ’60s and equipped with the Hurricane four, or from the ’70s with either six- or eight-cylinder power, a CJ-5 in such condition (#3 Good) will set you back about $14,000–$17,000. Golden Eagles and Renegades in similar shape start at around $22,000, but when you encounter one in pristine shape, expect to pay double that.

Now, Jeeps rust. The good news is that the design of the CJ-5 makes it easier to check for corrosion than on many other classics of the same era. The rugged chassis should be your first port of call with a screwdriver or hammer to check the entire length of the frame and its outriggers, which are usually the first to succumb to rot, alongside the suspension mounts. If the chassis is completely shot to pieces, replacements are available—if you want to go down the restoration route.

The body is also prone to rust, and you should check the floors around the mounts where it fixes to the chassis. You should also look around the tops of the inner and outer wheel tubs, the rear arches, the tailgate, sills, and around the windshield where it joins the scuttle. As well as rust, it’s also advisable to look for cracks in the body and chassis metalwork, as they can fatigue through age and the stresses of off-road driving.

All of the engines found in the Jeep CJ-5 are tough, reliable, and long-lived, so any problems tend to be due to neglect, high mileage, and general wear. Look for smoke on start-up or any rattles, and check the engine for signs of oil and coolant leaks. The BorgWarner three- and four-speed manual gearboxes are typically stout, and a five-speed was offered in the last few years of production. The four-wheel-drive system in the CJ-5, with strong Dana axles and transfer cases, shouldn’t need anything other than regular servicing, unless the transfer case has been allowed to run low on oil and stretch its chain.

On a test drive, take the time to think how the steering feels. Lots of slop and the need for constant correction are almost certainly down to worn components in the steering linkage. This is also the time to be satisfied the clutch engages smoothly and the pedal doesn’t feel like the cable is snagging as it’s depressed.

The electrical system in the Jeep CJ-5 is quite simple and should not give trouble beyond corroded connections or wires that have gone brittle and broken with age. However, the ignition system for all CJ-5 engines is not the car’s strong suit, especially on AMC engines. Most should have been upgraded by now with more modern ignition, or you should budget for this important improvement.

Just as important is to make sure the Jeep has all of the correct trim and upholstery, especially if it’s one of the special-edition models, as these parts are now hard to track down. Thankfully, almost all mechanical, service, and body parts are available for the CJ-5 from specialists.

Which Is the Right CJ-5 for You?

1955 Jeep CJ-5 hard top rear 3/4

If you have your heart set on a particular version of the Jeep CJ-5, such as a Golden Eagle or Renegade, your search might take a bit longer to find the right one. For buyers with a wider field of vision, condition is vital and then it’s down which engine will best suit your needs. Early CJs with the Hurricane four have plenty of the same character as the original wartime Jeeps, but their three-speed transmission can limit usability for longer drives. If you want a four-cylinder model with greater flexibility, don’t rule out the later AMC Jeeps with the Iron Duke and four-speed transmission.

Jeep CJ-5 diagram

Others will be drawn to the opposite end of the spectrum with the 304 V-8 engine. It sounds good and offers decent pace, though its power-sapped stock 150 hp means it’s not exactly rapid. How rapid do you want to be in a CJ-5, however? There are tuning options for this engine, though many Jeeps have been swapped with a larger engine—think small-block Chevys or the AMC 360—as an easier and more cost-effective route to increased power.

However, don’t rule out the six-cylinder units. The Dauntless V-6 is far less common than the Hurricane in earlier CJ-5s, but it suits the Jeep well with its revvy nature and ample power. All that said, you can’t go wrong with a CJ-5 equipped with one of the straight-sixes from the AMC era. They offer smooth, easy power and relaxed cruising, they sound good, and they are cheaper to run than the V-8.


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    Well I grew up driving a 47 Willys in a cow pasture. Fun little ride for a kid. Just don’t hit a cow.

    I later worked where we had a 1975 for running parts. It was a 304 with 3 speed manual. No power anything.
    It would get up and run fine. We beat the crap out if it but she kept running.

    The bad was rust. Two windshield frames in less than 10 years. Rear fender wells were filled with rags to stop water from hitting you as you drove. The front fenders got so loose when the death wobble hit on the freeway they would dance independently. Even the dipstick tube had rusted off the block all by 26k miles.

    It had a steel cap and side spare. We had a plow too where it went not just top heavy to nose heavy too.
    I recall hitting a curb in the snow and going up on two wheels. That was fun. Oh no roll-bars in 75 standard.

    For a teen it was fun and we drove the crap out of it. The frame was very solid.

    That was my time with a CJ5. I treasure it but I am glad I never owned it. I should have a shirt that says I survived the death wobble at 70 mph.

    Today my Jeep of choice is my neighbors lowered Jeepster Panel. It is fully finished inside with AC and polished wood. The roof has two Surf Boards and there is a small block Chevy under the hood. Very nice ride. It too is a 1947 Willy’s. One really rare and cool ride.

    Jeep CJs don’t care about all the hoopla going around about the other 4x4s. They weren’t built for glamor and glitz. Let the FJs, Land Rovers, Broncos, and whatever else is getting all the press have all the press. The CJ will just keep on keepin’ on. That’s it’s job.

    I’ve been driving K10s, K20s, Jeeps and solid axle Fords and Dodges for nearly 40 years and never had the catastrophic deathwobble.
    Loose steering joints, poorly designed lifts, and a general lack of maintenance are ALWAYS the reason for deathwobble.

    GM torsion bar IFS, on the other hand, has numerous inherent design flaws that were disregarded for a supposed smooth ride.

    “The four-wheel-drive system in the CJ-5, with strong Dana axles and transfer cases, shouldn’t need anything other than regular servicing, unless the transfer case has been allowed to run low on oil and stretch its chain.”

    Chain stretch is not a problem for CJ 5’s or the flat fender Jeeps as all used gear drive transfer cases, D18, D20, or the D300.

    However, low lube levels could cause problems in the gear driven cases too, most especially with a somewhat leak prone D18 equipped with an aftermarket overdrive.

    I learned to drive in a 1947 CJ 2A in 1955 when I could finally slide off the seat sufficiently enough to operate the brake and clutch pedals and have been addicted to those ever since. The current lineup includes a custom 1955 CJ 3B along with 1967 and 1968 CJ 5’s. Both of the latter are more or less stock with the 225 V6, optional 4.88 gears, and even the same Empire Blue paint.

    I loved this article, as my dad was a Jeep driver, which extended to me. I first learned to drive in his 68 Jeep Commando, with the Buick V-6. That was the best engine or that vehicle and the CJ. I’d love to have that one back.
    I chuckled when I saw the ad for the Levi’s CJ5; I was trying to buy that exact model (and recall the ad as well). Sadly, when I saw the loan payments, I backed off. Ended up with a 73 Commando. I’ll disagree that the 258 CI 6 was a good engine; it had very low power, and gave me problems throughout its tenure.
    At least I learned how to change a starter, as my father told me he’d coach, but it was up to me to execute.

    It’s a primitive ride but it’s also a very fun and pure offroad experience. I’ve had some fun with these. Love the 6 on these vehicles.

    My Grandfather was a Willys factory trained mechanic and I grew up around the filling station he owned and worked on Jeeps in. I have a ‘53 Willys truck 4cyl and a ‘62 Willys CJ-5 that I swapped a 289 V-8 into in 1979. I love them both and they both drive like tanks. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

    I know we’re talking “CJ’s” but we’re also talking Jeeps. My first car in ‘67 was a Ford (GPW) ‘43 WWII Jeep. It had been sent England for the buildup of Operation Overlord. I don’t believe it made to the Continent for the invasion. I believe it stayed in England for the duration. I also believe it was one of a few Jeeps that made it back to the US from Europe as most military equipment was sold off or donated to various countries for military use, tanks, cannons, etc. The Jeep has been in the family ever since. I had it come back to me in 2005 & was able to do some modest restoration. It now resides in Maine with my niece & her family but I still get to drive it when I visit.

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