Curbside Classic: Kaiser Jeep CJ-5 – Transcendent Independent

1 Front view

The CJ-5 was a very small truck that cast a big shadow.  Produced from 1954 to 1983, the CJ-5 lasted through ownership by two independents and was the longest-lived of the CJ/Wrangler line.  Its 29-year production run–possibly the longest for any American car–exceeded even the 28-year run of its Jeep Wagoneer/Grand Wagoneer cousins. Thirty years later, finding a CJ-5 that has not become either a highly modified hardcore off-roader or a rusty beater is rare, so it was a pleasant surprise to spot this restored example parked on the street one autumn day.

1 CJ2

The origins and history of the Jeep CJ are well known to many, so only a brief outline will be provided here.  Willys-Overland built the first prototype civilian Jeep, the CJ-2, in 1944, late in the Second World War.  The first two generations of the CJ, the Willys-Overland CJ-2A of 1945-49 and the CJ-3A of 1949-53, were marketed primarily for agricultural and industrial use, offering such accessories as plows and front and rear power take-offs.

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“Utility”, not “sport”, was clearly the selling point of the early civilian Jeeps.

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In 1953, Kaiser-Frazer acquired Willys-Overland and renamed it Willys Motors.  The Willys CJ-5–“streamlined” and with “added comfort,” at least by 1950s Jeep standards–arrived in 1954 as a 1955 model. Ten years later, it became the Jeep CJ-5 after Kaiser renamed Willys Motors as Kaiser Jeep Corporation.  American Motors acquired Kaiser Jeep Corporation in 1970 and continued CJ-5 production until 1983 (including a seven-year overlap with the CJ-7 that replaced it).  Longer wheelbase CJ models (the CJ-6 of 1955-81 and 1981-86 CJ-8) supplemented the standard CJ-5 and CJ-7.

3 Side view

The CJ-5, like its predecessors, was a very short vehicle even by CJ/Wrangler series standards.  With its 81-inch wheelbase (lengthened to 83.5 inches late in the production run in 1972), a CJ-5 gave up 10-12 inches of wheelbase to the CJ-7 (93.3 inches) and 12-14 inches to the 2013 two-door Wrangler (95.4 inches).  For further comparison, the tiny Crosley had an only slightly shorter 80-inch wheelbase; in fact, even the 85-inch wheelbase of the equally toy-like Nash Metropolitan‘s exceeded it.  The early CJs were no-compromise, compact off-road vehicles that make today’s most basically-equipped Wranglers seem spacious and luxurious in comparison.  Passenger and cargo space were reserved for the larger Jeep models.

4 Interior

The utilitarian origins of the CJ-5 are obvious in this example’s entirely painted-metal and plastic interior. The only padding is in the seats, which are upholstered in plain black vinyl. Quite appropriate for the CJ-5’s utility-vehicle origins in the 1950s.

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By the 1970s, the CJ-5 was certainly not all work and no play. Special trim and option packages first became available in the 1960s: The “Tuxedo Park” chrome and interior package (imagine that name being used on a Jeep today!) The rare Camper and 462 performance packages came along in 1969; by the time of the Renegade and Golden Eagle packages of the 1970s-80s, the availability of such special packages had become the Jeep norm. Still, it was the CJ-5 that marked the CJ/Wrangler series’ transition from a utility vehicle to a “sport-utility vehicle” that was still a hard worker, but equally capable when it came to off-road and wind-in-the-hair fun.

5 V6 badge

Back to this particular Jeep. The engine badge identifies it as having the top engine at the middle of CJ-5 production: the Buick V6 that was used from 1965 -1971. In 1954, Willys-Overland had introduced the CJ-5 with the 134 cu.in. (2.2-liter) “Hurricane” inline four an F-head design that produced 75 horsepower. Eleven years later, Kaiser Jeep offered the Buick “Fireball” 90 degree V6, first used in the 1961 Buick Special.  Kaiser Jeep called it the “Dauntless” engine, offering it in 225 cubic inch (3.7-liter) form. At 155 horsepower, it effectively doubled the horsepower of the base engine.  Kaiser Jeep acquired the rights to the engine from GM in 1967.

American Motors dropped both the Hurricane I4 and the Dauntless V6 after 1971 (eventually selling the Buick V6 design back to GM in 1974), and substituted its own engines: inline sixes of 232 and 158 cubic inches (3.8 and 4.2 liters, respectively), and a 304 cu.in. V8.  The AMC inline six eventually evolved into the highly regarded 4.0-liter inline six that would power the Jeep Cherokee until 2001, and the Jeep Wrangler until 2006.

6 Side view 1

Jeep demonstrated how an independent could survive against the Big Three well into the 1980s: Instead of competing against them head-to-head, do something they do not do, and focus on doing it equally well or better even after they expand into your niche.  That formula worked for Nash/Rambler compacts from 1950 into the 1960s, and Jeep’s parent companies successfully followed it even longer.

Both Willys-Overland and Kaiser Jeep dropped their conventional cars in order to build only Jeeps.  Willys-Overland did not resume building sedans after the Second World War, instead concentrating on Jeeps, from the CJs for farmers, ranchers, and outdoorsmen to the Jeep Station Wagon of 1946-65, the Jeep Truck of 1947-65, and the 1948-50 Jeepster phaeton roadster for urban and suburban use.  An attempt to re-enter the car market in 1952 with the Willys Aero sedan proved unsuccessful, and ended after the company’s acquisition by Kaiser-Frazer in 1953.  By the end of 1955, Kaiser-Frazer had dropped the Willys Aero and its own passenger cars to sell Jeeps exclusively. Four-wheel drive utility vehicles had been a profitable niche for each company, at least before the Big Three entered the segment.

7 Side view 2

The emergence of the International Harvester Scout, Ford Bronco and Chevrolet Blazer meant that Kaiser-Jeep, and then Jeep under American Motors, would face competition from the 1960s onward; in both cases, though, keeping Jeep focused on its specialty helped maintain credibility as a maker of four-wheel drive vehicles.  Kaiser-Jeep’s full-size, four-door 1963 Wagoneer and AMC-era Jeep’s compact unit body Cherokee of 1984 were innovative, long-lasting designs that became class leaders within the emerging segment of SUVs used as mainstream passenger vehicles.  As a result, Jeep became the sole part of American Motors to survive its 1987 acquisition by Chrysler, and it has thrived ever since.  Had Jeep attempted to compete with sedans (or light trucks in general), it would also have taken on the deathly pallor of the other AMC vehicles around the CJ-5 in this photo.

The CJ-5 and its Wrangler descendants, although outliers in a changed SUV market are, of course, a crucial part of Jeep’s survival over the years.  With its solid axles and open top, the Wrangler continues to be the definitive Jeep model, as central to the brand’s identity as the rear-engine 911 is to Porsche, or the 3-series sports sedan to BMW.

8 With MB

Appearing to be from between 1968-71 and sporting the Buick V6 used from 1965-71 and side marker lights first required for 1968, this restored Jeep CJ-5 could be from either the Kaiser Jeep or American Motors eras.  It was at least 15 years old when Jeep became part of the Big Three over a quarter-century ago, and around 40 years old when the Mercedes GLK parked behind it was introduced in 2008.  It looks ready for another several decades of service, quite likely long after most new luxury SUVs will be sent to the crusher and recycled.