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The Jeep CJ Series – What Willy did next
After proving itself behind enemy lines, the jeep became civilian.
As the Second World War drew close to its final, bloody chapter, the Willys Jeep – the hero of our story – started to think about what it should do when it got back home to the US of A.
Bred for a world ravaged by war, the lightweight off-roader had served with distinction, winning the hearts of many of its comrades, but it was still unclear what it could bring to a post-war world. As it turns out, the Willys Jeep had a much brighter future than many expected, and when it did return home, it did so with a new name – ‘CJ’ – Civilian Jeep.
The ball was already rolling before the war even came to an end. The CJ-1, a mysterious first ‘Civilian Jeep’, was the first attempt. Strangely, nobody knows exactly how many were produced. Some say only 2 were made, others say more, but one thing is certain – none have survived to this day. The CJ-1 – and the absence of documentation around it – will forever remain unknown. In later years, an equal amount of mystery surrounded the CJ-4, a prototype that did definitely exist, it was the only one of its kind.
More is known about the CJ-2, made between ’44 and ’45. As the brains behind the company sought to find a new home for the veteran, modifications were made to develop the Jeep, with farming thought to be that new home. This prototype was actually not available to buy, but was used as a testbed for a new role in an agricultural setting. Some were equipped with ploughs and mowers, even small diggers. With the heavy-duty tools came an attempt at branding – “Agri-Jeep” should catch on, they thought. It didn’t though, and of the 45 made, only 10 are known to have survived. The little CJ-2 did lead to the birth of the first successful product – civilian at least – in the Jeep line-up, the CJ-2A. Produced until 1949, over 214,000 of the little CJ-2A’s were made, in a variety of bright colours. The army recruit had found its skivvies, even though at its heart it was still the same – the little “Go Devil” engine that served it so well in the world war was still to be found under the bonnet. Despite the total production numbers, these 2A’s are pretty hard to find now, with parts rather scarce and not many surviving the hard lives they had as work vehicles.
Building on the 2A’s success, the CJ-3A and B models appeared after the Korean War, an event which once again required the services of the little Jeep. Despite ‘Kaiser-Willys’ – new owners at this point – desperately wanting the Jeep to be successful at home, the CJ-3B actually flourished more overseas. Equipped with the new and more powerful ‘F-Head’ engine – which required a taller, ‘bloated’ bonnet to cover it up – the CJ-3B excelled in foreign lands, being produced under other banners of big foreign companies such as Mitsubishi of Japan, and Mahindra from India. This variant of the Jeep was so successful; it enjoyed an extended production run into the late 60’s, and was made alongside perhaps the definitive Jeep – the CJ-5.
The Jeep CJ-5 was much like the Land Rover Defender in the sense that it lived for far longer than anyone could have expected. It was sold for 28 years, and a variety of special editions, trims, and parts were produced during this time. Later CJ-5’s are really quite different to earlier models, as the car evolved through its near-three decade run. Engines varied from a 3.1-litre 4-cylinder diesel engine sourced from the UK, to a grumbly 5.0-litre V8 engine that so epitomises American motoring. What can you say about the CJ-5? Over 600,000 were made during its run as America’s own off-roader, and it was simply unrivalled for off-road capability and won the hearts of many, but it also gained attention for its vulnerability to rolling over. Yes, the CJ-5 had a very high centre of gravity, meaning that cornering too fast in one could, in some circumstances, lead to you seeing the world from the other way up. Not exactly ideal, but this was a tough-talking little unit built for go-anywhere off-roading, not apex clipping.
As the modern world of the 1980’s demanded a better-rounded product, the later model Jeep CJ-7 came into its own, offering a far great degree of refinement to go along with the traditional rugged character of the Jeep CJ. Despite that, they are used in many off-road events still in the USA, and are well regarded as the ultimate evolution and expression of the Willys Jeep. They may not be as well-loved as the CJ-3 or 5, but they paved the way for the next generation of Jeep – the Wrangler – and the success of this particular model cemented Jeep’s position in the market.
From the horrors of war to the tacky, computerised excess of the 1980’s, the Jeep CJ-series had quite the eventful life, and is still a cracking machine to work with and enjoy to this day.
Undoubtedly one for enthusiasts, this historical machine would certainly get a place in the automotive hall of fame. Brave, accomplished, and iconic, the Jeep CJ was and still is a special car.
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