Cars Of A Lifetime: 1948 Willys CJ2A – The Best

At some point, everyone gets asked “what’s the best car you’ve ever owned?” When it comes to someone who’s owned as many as I have, the question can get a bit complicated. The simple answer is: “this one”. But what does my answer mean in terms of “best”? Best looking? Perhaps (in a rugged way). Best comfort? Certainly not. Best dependability? Not quite. Best mileage? No.

Well, sometimes “best” just defies objective qualities or criteria. Would one use them to determine who’s your best friend?

If you have read all of my posts carefully you have too much time on your hands you might know that this is my second 1948 CJ2a, the first being a rusted-out busted-up heap. When I unloaded it, I made myself a promise to get a better one someday.  Well one day several years latter I spotted an advertisement on our local Craigslist for a CJ2a. As soon as the picture loaded, I knew it was the one!  It was about one hundred and fifty miles away, and it would need to be trailered back as it had been sitting awhile. So I borrowed a friend’s trailer, and borrowed a friend with a truck and headed down to see it.

It was sitting outside when we arrived. The man said the gas tank was crudded up and the carb needed to be rebuilt. But he assured me that it would run if we hooked it up to a gas can. As you can see, we did, and it ran. All I wanted to know about it’s condition was this: 1. was it too rusty to repair? 2. did the engine need a rebuild? 3. did the drive train work OK?  Other than that, I didn’t care. And lo; it ran, thus meeting the criteria set out above. So naturally I bought it.

The Jeep had been a ranch truck on the owner’s family ranch since he was a child. Upon closer inspection at home I found that it was really a CJ3A with a 2A body. It came with an all aluminum military arctic top that includes an upright, one piece window frame.

The tires were old school bias-ply traction tires, the radiator was from a Chrysler of some sort, and the fan shroud was homemade of PVC. It had a twelve volt Chevy alternator, but the original six volt starter.

The interior had some minor rust, the worst of course in the tool box.That got cleaned up and treated with a phosphoric acid treatment and then painted. The real issue was the fuel tank though. So off it came. I washed it out with water and used pea gravel to agitate the sediment off. Huge sheets of varnish came out, along with the usual leafs and such. Surprisingly it came out OK and did not even need to be resin coated on the inside.

After I put it all back together, changed all the fluids, rebuilt the carb and gave it a tune up, it ran perfectly.

It even featured some original aftermarket equipment. The previous owner had left the old fire extinguisher on the fender in non-op status for the looks.

As you can see, at least the hood had come from a Jeep with a taller engine and was cut for the intake to clear; also the frame had been boxed, and a roll bar had been added. So the Jeep was definitely not all original.

I drove the Jeep everyday to work and back, about seven miles each way. Luckily it had a working vintage foot-well heater! It was capable of about forty five miles per hour sustained speed, which is just fine for city driving. The old three speed gearbox was not synchronized in first, so  of course one usually drove only with two of those speeds. The hubs were quite a bother. It had ancient Dualmatic locking hubs. The “matic” part of the name is purely for ad copy, there is nothing automatic about them whatsoever. The “Dual” part of the name means there are two little metal arms that have to be pried out, the hub turned (hopefully), and hammered back in. They made the plastic Ford hubs look nice.

Of course I could have replaced them with some nice Warn or Mile Marker ones, but that was not keeping with the vintage look. So I attempted to rebuild them. The one problem was that there was a nylon bushing that was no longer available. So I came to accept that the hubs just sucked; I just kept them locked out most of the time until I needed them, which is what the hammer and screwdriver were in the tool box for.

I only managed to get off-road several times, mostly due to the fact that all the off-road worthy spots were over thirty miles way, a long drive in a forty five mile per hour Jeep. But when I did get off-road, it was quite impressive. Due to the great traction of those old tires, the short wheelbase, light footprint, and low gearing, it was a regular mountain goat. It made the Land Rover Discovery look ponderous and clumsy, and the Disco is incredible off-road.

As a testament to the engineering that went into the original Jeep, let me describe how the oil pump pickup is set up. There is a heavy steel skid plate attached to the bottom of the oil pan, and the pickup tube inside is mounted to the pump via a pivot and O ring, which allows the pickup to continue to work even if the pan is smashed in. It is that sort of thinking that made the Jeep what it was.

Eventually I got an original windshield for the summer months. I mounted the spare tire to the tailgate; since it was all dented up anyways I didn’t worry about modifying it by adding a steel sub frame to hold the weight of my gas can and spare.

Angle iron, 6011 welding rod, and spray paint, the Jeeper’s best friends.

It became a sort of tradition to fill the transfer case every month. The output shaft was originally a felt ring that wore out rather quickly. To fix it is very involved and requires machining. So I just kept it topped up and let her mark her territory wherever I went.  There are two guys who traveled across the United States in a vintage Jeep as a fund raiser and it became one of their traditions as well. You can read all about their journey here.

Since the Jeep was our secondary daily driver, Michelle had occasion to use it for several long-range errands. Our family doctor was in a small town about fifteen miles away. When any children needed to go, and our primary car was not available for one reason or another, she took to the back roads in the Jeep. In the summertime with the top off on long country roads, it was quite enjoyable for her and the respective child; in the winter time, not as much. However it was my commuter car so come winter or summer, that was it for me. I took to wearing some sort of over-pants, gloves, a hat with ear-flaps, and a wool jacket every morning. It’s not unlike driving a Bug except that it does actually have heat once it gets warmed up (which was always just as I was pulling in to work).

I shall always fondly remember it for one trip in particular though. Every year there is an Oktoberfest in Mount Angel, Oregon. Since we had moved to the city, we were no longer within easy bicycling distance of it; it was now about fifteen miles away for us. But it’s a tradition for many Oregonians in this region to go and get drunk, stuffed, and make fools of themselves every year in Mount Angel. Of course, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

So one summer our friend John (famous for his party exploits), me, and Michelle decided to drive the Jeep to Oktoberfest on the back roads. It was a hot summer and I had made a bikini top from a canvas military tarp. John rode in the back and nearly fell out on at least one railroad crossing. Michelle ended up driving us back through the warm summer night. It seemed to take forever to navigate home, but it was the kind of forever you could spend an eternity enjoying.

The Jeep did have its downsides. Take for instance one of my adventures: having spent quite a long time floating down the cold river with our capsized canoe, upon self-rescue, we were cold and soaked, and returned to our door-less (for the Spring/Summer) Jeep and proceeded to drive home with wet clothes through the cold night air. If you want to waste even more time reading about my misadventures you can read the full story here.

So you must be wondering why I ever parted with it. I traded it straight across for a vehicle (project) that I had dreamed about from childhood and that I consider even better than the Jeep. But that is another tale; even better than this one; the bester.