(Top photo by gearjunkie.com)
When Willys unveiled the “CJ”, in 1944, it was basically the same car the company was producing to fight in WW II. Only small changes were adopted, the most visible ones were: the tail-gate, which created the necessity to move the spare tire to the quarter-panel, the ” Sealed-Beam” headlights which were bigger than the military version, seven-slot grille ( the MB had nine slots), and obviously, the buyers had a few different colors to chose from, other than the Olive Green.
At first, Willys advertised the Jeep as a “utilitarian” vehicle, something like the perfect “farm car” and in fact, the Jeep was tough enough to plow fields but also was fast enough for shorts trips and with great “off-road” capabilities it became the perfect car for some weekend adventures like going fishing or camping in some remote location.
The “CJ” quickly became the “workhorse” of the rural North America but didn’t take long for the customers from the big cities to see it as the only option for the recreational vehicle and the “off-roading” as a form of motorsport was officially born.
A Simple Machine.
Behind the Jeep’s success, there was a fairly simple car, the construction is “body over chassis”, which was the norm on American cars until the 1960s. The CJ was equipped with “live” axles on front and rear and the suspension was the traditional “leaf springs”. The engine was the reliable 4 cylinder, 2,200cc, Willys “L-134” nicknamed “Go-Devil”, able to produce 60hp, more than enough to give the light-weigh “CJ” a decent performance, the engine is bolted to a 3-speed manual transmission. To stop the car, drum brakes on all four corners got the job done.
The real “cutting-edge” equipment was the transfer case, this device is installed alongside the transmission and gives the driver the option to engage the “4X4” mode just when it is necessary, allowing the Jeep to be a regular rear-wheel-drive car most of the time, providing fuel economy. The transfer case also gives the option of “Low Gears”, for more torque at slower speeds, designed to be used on more intense off-road situations like when crossing a swamp or climbing a steep hill and “High Gears” intended for more basic off-roading situations. Modern 4X4 pick-up trucks are still equipped with similar transfer cases, the only difference is the mechanical levers were replaced by electronic switches.
… and the SUV was born.
When Willys decided to sell the Jeep to the civilian market, in 1946, they knew the car alone wouldn’t be able to generate enough business to keep the doors open. The “CJ” was a good “tool”, either as a workhorse or as an “adventure partner”, but it was far from a regular car: it has no back seats, the trunk is too small, and the ragtop offered little protection from the elements.
In the same year, Willys released a new car that brought together the off-road capabilities of the CJ plus all the functionality of the family Station Wagon. The new Jeep Wagon was based on the same mechanical platform of the “CJ” but in order to improve comfort, Willys adopted the independent front suspension, with coil springs.
Without knowing Willys had just created the “SUV phenomenon”, a movement that many decades later would deeply transform the auto industry. The Jeep Wagon started a tiny segment in the market in the mid-40s that grew so strong and therefore became the front runner in sales in the 2000s. The SUV will, eventually, be responsible for the extinction of the most traditional form of automobile: the sedan.
Also in 1946, Willys started selling the pick-up truck version of the Jeep Wagon and once again the company set another standard for the industry: nowadays the absolute majority of all pick-up trucks sold every year are 4X4.
The Fancy Jeep
In 1948, Willys created a very interesting “crossover”: the Jeepster. The idea was to offer a car that could bring together the same -the spirit of adventure- from the “CJ”, plus some of the convenience of a normal passenger car. The car shared most of its parts with the Willys Wagon, which means it was equipped with the new Hurricane engine and independent front suspension. The name probably came from blending the words “Jeep” and “Roadster”.
Since Willys didn’t have the industrial capacity to process the sheet metal into a more flowing, curvilinear forms, the Jeepster’s design was a bit rough, perhaps too rough for a family car. The new Jeep failed to please the customers and the production was terminated after two years.
The Jeep conquers the World… Again.
The “CJ” Jeep was kept in production without much modifications from 1946 through 1952 but in 1953 Willys-Overland merged with Kayser Motor (we already talked about it on the first part of this post) and in the same year, the CJ received its first major update: Willys replaced the legendary “Go-Devil” engine with a modern unit called “Hurricane”. The customers were pleased with the new engine since it has 15 more HP than the old one. The only problem was: the “Hurricane” was a much taller engine and it created the necessity of higher hood. The new Jeep was called CJ-B3.
The new company dropped the name “Overland” and it became Kaiser-Willys Motors and they began aggressively marketing the CJ overseas, and the World was waiting for the “Old Warrior” with open arms. Willys established factories in Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Iran, and Egypt. The CJ-B3 were produced under license by Volkswagen in South Africa, by Mahindra Motors in India until 2010 and by Mitsubishi in Japan until 1998.
The French also produced their own licensed version of the Jeep, called Hotchkiss M201. The CJ-B3 became the most exported Jeep built by Willys.
The Jeep also inspired a couple of automakers to produce similar vehicles, in the UK, Rover created a prototype that was actually built on the chassis of a battered war-surplus Willys “MB”, on a Welsh farm. The model was presented at the 1948 Amsterdam Auto Show an soon after Land Rover started the production.
In 1950, the American administration in Japan asked Toyota to build a utility vehicle based on the Willys CJ, resulting in The Toyota BJ and later the Toyota FJ which was kept in production until 1974.
The CJ 5
In 1955, Willys gave the CJ a little “facelift” and the new car was named CJ5. To the untrained eye, it looks like the same old Jeep and in fact, under the skin, all the mechanics remained unchanged, but the new design was so right, so spot on that it was kept in continuous production for 3 decades without major changes.
Fast forward to 1963, the company decided to drop the name Willys and it became Kaiser-Jeep Corp.
In the mid 60s, the “Muscle-Car” movement was in its beginning but it was clear that the customers, more than ever, were hungry for power, not only for performance cars but for any kind of car. The company decided it was high time to give the old CJ a little more “punch” under the hood. In 1965, Kaiser bought a license to produce the Buick 225 cu in (3.7 L) V6 engine, capable to produce 155 hp, doubling the power from the old Hurricane engine. By 1968, the V6 was so popular that 95% of the CJs sold that year were equipped with the new engine.
The American Motors Years.
If Kaiser-Jeep decided to freeze the CJ’s design in time, the same didn’t happen with the Wagon, from the rugged first generation, the car evolved to the elegant Grand Wagoneer. It was big, powerful, and luxurious. That was the car that created the term: Sport Utility Vehicle.
By the late 60s, the Wagoneer was all by itself in the SUV segment, none of the other American automakers had anything like it offer. The bright future of the car caught the attention of some other auto companies but the American Motors Corp. decided to go act faster than the competition. AMC started the process to acquire Kaiser-Jeep in 1968 and the deal was finalized in 1970.
American Motors is, nowadays, a forgotten brand, but it was quite popular back then. AMC was born when two small automakers: Nash-Kelvinator Corp. and Hudson Motor Car Comp. merged in 1954.
AMC kept the Jeep vehicles pretty much unchanged for the first two years after the acquisition, it was only in 1972 that the Willys Hurricane 4 cylinder and the Buick V6 were phased out. In order to accommodate the new AMC engines, the CJ’s wheelbase was stretched by 3 in (76 mm), and the fenders and hood were stretched by 5 in (127 mm), pushing the firewall two inches closer to the rear. The base model CJ was equipped with the 3.8 L, inline 6 engine producing 140 HP. The next option was the 4.2 L, inline 6 with 150 HP output.
By early 1970s the American “performance car” movement was pretty much dead, thanks to a severe global oil crisis, but that didn’t seem to have affected the AMC’s will to give more and more power to the Jeep lineup, by the end of 1972, a 5.0 L V8 was available for the Wagoneer and also for some special editions of the CJ, like the Golden Eagle. With 210 HP, the new V8 CJ had a power-to-weight ratio comparable to some Muscle-Cars from the 60s.
In 1975 AMC unveiled the Jeep Cherokee, a 2 doors version of the Wagoneer: In the future, the name Cherokee would grow so strong among the utility vehicles to the point to overshadow the CJ’s popularity.
By the early 80s, the CJ was completely adapted for the big cities, it could be equipped with air conditioning and automatic transmission, powerful engines and comfortable seats, but it never lost its off-road capabilities.
In the SUV segment, American Motors had consolidated itself as the main player with the Grand Wagoneer, but in 1984 the company gave the Cherokee its first major update in almost a decade. The car lost the “body-over-chassis” concept and received a modern unibody platform. It was a bit smaller and lighter than the previous generation and became more agile on either the urban commute and on off-road situations. On top of all that, the new design was an instant hit among the customers and the sales skyrocketed.
The Chrysler Years.
Even if the Jeep vehicles were a big success, the situation on American Motors wasn’t so good, the company was struggling with its passenger car lineup in face of fierce competition from the “Big Three” (Ford, GM, and Chrysler). Not even an alliance with the French Renault, solidified in 1977, seemed enough to save AMC from bankruptcy.
By mid-80s, Chrysler was the only American automaker with no options on the SUV segment, the solution for this situation was a no brainer: it was much easier to buy a successful line of off-road vehicles from a moribund brand than to came up with their own SUV. It didn’t take long for Jeep to change hands once again and in 1987 Chrysler became the fourth owner of the brand.
Instead of imposing their own police, Chrysler wisely decided to keep the AMC’s mentality toward the Jeep lineup. Not only that but the AMC’s engineers also had the freedom to work on the Dodge pick-up trucks and they are considered responsible for bringing the “RAM” truck back to life.
The last year-production for CJ was 1986, American Motors Corp. applied a commemorative plaque on the dashboard that says: “Last of a Great Breed”. Together, Willys, Kaiser, and AMC put together around 1.5 million CJs, the car became the most successful off-road vehicle in history, a true icon.
The substitute for the “CJ” was ready even before the AMC-Chrysler deal was done, the car hit the showrooms in the summer of 1986. AMC had done a very good job of modernizing the car as a whole, suspension, chassis, and body. The “TJ” Wrangler was more enjoyable to drive and also safer than the old “CJ”.
The name “Wrangler” was decided after AMC had gotten permission from Goodyear -which makes a line of all-terrain tires with the same name – and obviously, Goodyear became the main supplier of tires for the new Jeep. But AMC didn’t ask permission to Wrangler Jeans, which resulted in a lawsuit that lasted several years.
The Wrangler had only two engine options: a 2.5 L, 4 cylinder and a 4.2 in-line 6, those engines were AMC products that Chrysler carried over. The V8 became an option only for the Cherokee but as a matter of pride, Chrysler replaced the AMC V8 with their own line of small-blocks, basically the 318 cid and the 360 cid. The only controversial point on the new Wrangler was the square headlights, which the most hard-core fans considered a “blasphemy” to the original design.
In 1997 came the second generation of the Wrangler and finally the round headlights were back and the in-line 6 engine came down to 4.0 liter, but the real change was the adoption of Cherokee’s coil-spring suspension.
Switching to coil springs was indeed a huge improvement, not only enhanced the Wrangler’s urban ride quality but gave to the off-roader customers a massive seven-inch increase in suspension articulation for both its front and rear axles.
For the following years, the “TJ” Wrangler didn’t change much, in 2003 it received a modern 4-speed automatic transmission and the old 2.5 AMC engine was replaced by a modern 2.4 L Dodge engine.
In 2007 Chrysler released the Wrangler’s third generation, called “JK”, the car got wider and longer, in order to accommodate an extra pair of doors. The new 4 doors model was very well received by customers, finally, the Wrangler could be used as a real “family car”. The other change was a bit of a shock, the old faithful, bulletproof AMC in-line 6 engine was replaced with the 3.8 Dodge V6. The “new” engine wasn’t exactly new, after all, it had been around since 1991, powering the Chrysler minivans, the decision behind this swap was simply to optimize the assembly line.
For 2012, the ancient Dodge V6 was replaced by the modern Chrysler “Pentastar” V6, capable to produce 285 HP, becoming the most powerful Wrangler to date. New transmissions were also made available: a 5 speed automatic or a 6-speed manual.
The latest Wrangler generation, called “JL”, came in 2017 with a few improvements like 2.0 L turbo-four engine, more spacious interior, reduced weight, massive 33 inches wheels and, of course, a throwback change that certainly touched the hearts of the more traditional fans: the foldable windshield, just like the old CJs.
The Latest Family Member.
In January 2014, the Italian automaker FIAT bought the Chrysler Corp. and became the fifth owner of the Jeep brand. The reason for this deal was once again the profitable line of utility vehicles: Jeep and Ram.
Since 2015, FIAT-Chrysler has been teasing the fans with rumors of a pick-up truck version of the Wrangler, after all, Jeep trucks have been around since forever, either from Wagoneer or from Cherokee models, but pick-up truck from the CJ/Wrangler is quite unusual.
From 1981 to 1986, AMC produced the “Scrambler”, out of the CJ8 platform and the car became a good option among a niche market dominated by small Japanese 4×4 trucks.
Finally, in 2018 FCA unveiled the “Gladiator” and judging by the fuss among the Jeep’s aficionados, the truck will be another huge success.
The name Gladiator was revived from the Jeep full-size pick-up truck based on the Wagoneer, built from 1962 to 1988.
It is not an easy task to write about a car that has been in continuous production since 1941, well Jeep skipped the 1996 model because some issues with the engine control management software, but the car has been around for over 7 decades. I had to leave behind a myriad of variant models and “special-editions” of the CJ/Wrangler, otherwise, I better had written a book instead.
The FIAT-Chrysler Auto. is doing a fantastic job in perpetuating the legacy of the Jeep. After all those years in production, the CJ/Wrangler became not only the most successful off-road vehicle ever, but it can be placed itself in a special chapter in the history of the auto industry. A CJ/Wrangler doesn’t matter which year-production, can be instantly recognized anywhere in the world, perhaps only the VW Beetle enjoys this kind of popularity.