COAL: 1946 Jeep CJ-2A & 1953 CJ-3B — Mechanical Mules, and a Covid Project

A mix-and-match 1946 Jeep, built out of piles of parts. Some Jeep purists might wince a bit at what they see here.

The first Jeeps were rolled out in 1941, as the result of a U.S. Government request for a light, go-almost-anywhere military vehicle. As such, the first Jeeps were hatched out of thin air, fairly fully formed. Certainly the various prototype examples, produced by different manufacturers, looked and functioned much like each other. Was there ever a vehicle that was essentially created from scratch, without the obvious evolution from a series of precursors, that got it so right and endured for so long?

The Jeeps really were (and still are, to some degree) mechanical mules, in that mules have a sure-footedness and ability to deal with rough and uneven terrain that a horse cannot easily contend with. In fact, while people think of the old horse-drawn Wells Fargo stagecoaches, most of the stagecoach services in the Pacific Southwest used mules instead, as the terrain was so uneven and random. If cars are mechanical horses, then Jeeps are mechanical mules. Big trucks can be visualized as large teams of mules pulling heavy loads, like the old “20 Mule Team Borax” brand.

Horse-drawn stagecoaches look great in the movies, but mules are and were a primary choice for animal power, in rough terrain. They are often chosen for their slow-but-steady surefootedness.

My own Jeep experience began in the late 1980s, when my family gained access to thousands of acres of privately held inholdings in the National Forests of Southern California. The inholdings are a relic from when the National Forests were created, and some landholders were allowed to stay on their property, though they became subject to tighter land-use restrictions than was typical of the day, as part of the deal. Buying and selling those inholdings have their own special, restrictive rules as well.

My little brother put me on to a cheap and running 1953 Jeep CJ-3B, though it was rusty and bent. I didn’t know my old Jeeps too well, but a Jeep is a Jeep, so I bought it sight-unseen. The CJ-3B was a later “flat fender” variant, with a high hood and dashboard, to clear the higher overhead-intake-valve head on the updated Jeep engine. This is essentially the four cylinder engine that was used in the Jeep CJ-5s up through the early ‘70s, and the CJ-3B had the proportions and dimensions of the CJ-5, but with squared-off old-school bodywork, rather than the familiar curved hood and front fenders of the CJ-5. CJ-3Bs and four-cylinder CJ-5s were mostly mechanically identical, and were manufactured alongside each other at the Kaiser-owned Jeep plant in Toledo from the early ‘50s through the early ‘60s.

A fair equivalent of my first Jeep, as to both style and condition. The high-hood, flat-fender CJ-3B, but bent and rusty. Mine came with a vintage Koenig half-top, instead of the full-top shown here.

My example turned out to have a known history, as a neighbor who was a groundskeeper at the San Diego Country Club recognized it as their old maintenance vehicle, used for mowing grass and other tasks on the grounds. The window glass and doors on the hardtop had been removed and replaced with wire mesh screen, to protect the driver from flying golf balls. Perhaps that’s why the Koenig half-top was full of small round indentations. The thicker gauge Jeep bodywork appeared to be more dent-resistant. It looked like a wreck, but it ran, and a rattle-can safety-yellow paint job made it look complete and decent from maybe a half mile away. Ditching the half-top but keeping the roll bar, along with the purchase of a secondhand set of 15” by 8” steel wheels and wider tires, and I was on my way. I attacked the nearby hills and Jeep trails with slow speeds but a ton of enthusiasm. Slow and steady, and putting the tires on the high spots, and I could go basically anywhere. I was old enough and sane enough not to try to “see what it could do”, which got some of my old high school friends, years before, into some serious incidents, including one deadly one, by seeing how fast the Jeep could go and how steep of a grade it could climb.

After a few years of ownership, I got the itch to clean the thing up a bit, as it really looked like it would simply shed parts while going down the road, and at some point either the driver or a passenger would be likely to inadvertently put his foot through a rusty area of the floor.

Another Jeep CJ-3B in the rough condition that mine was in. These things, in this sort of shape but still running, still litter the landscape if you look for them in the right places.

The clean-up was going to take a ton of work, including patching, welding, and fabrication. The question for me was, given that I have always valued the aesthetics of a vehicle as well as the mechanical operation of it, was a high-hood CJ-3B worth all of the work I would need to put into it? I found myself wanting the “classic” low-hood version of the thing, and I determined that I should work in that direction, if I were to put all the work into making significant improvements in the first place.

I began to collect things. I found a flathead engine (to clear the low hood) from a generator or welder (an “industrial” variant of the engine, with “industrial” cast right into the head). They tended to have lower mileage and less wear. Manifolds and a Carter “W.O.” Carburetor, to convert the industrial spec engine to a Jeep CJ spec engine. I discovered an “early” 1946 tub, with the tool indents on the driver’s side, below the door cutout, complete with matching tailgate. I sourced a set of early axles, and some oversized brakes. I found a military M38 windshield assembly (which just so happens to mate up properly with the Koenig half-top). I found some early seats with the original springs still inside of them. Piles and piles of parts. An extra transmission and transfer case showed up as part of a deal. Secondhand Warn wheel locks appeared. On and on, the piles got bigger, and the conversion to a “Frankenjeep” or a “Jeep salad” was on the table, for real. There is also a great aftermarket for almost all parts Jeep, so things such as a new fuel tank and a reproduction of the proper intake oil-bath air cleaner could be sourced. Fresh wiring looms and vintage battery cables could be easy to come by, as well as all sorts of minor fittings and small assemblies, all of which which will kill your forward momentum and your pocketbook, if you are left on your own to source such things for vehicles over 50 years old.

This is what an engine that didn’t come out of a Jeep looks like. The cylinder head is cast with “Jeep” and “Willys”, but it also says “Industrial”. It can be mechanically converted to 100% Jeep spec, but it is not “factory”.

Just about the time I was ready to get going on this massive project, the family was forced to sell out of the forest inholdings for financial reasons, and my Jeep trails were lost. This was in the mid-90’s. I had been able to exploit the access of the myriad of semi-private Jeep trails for a few years, but now my opportunity was gone. It put the kibosh on my Jeep improvement project. As a small-time hoarder, I didn’t just sell the stuff off or leave it out back to rot. I carefully went through everything, setting aside one of each, along with a second drivetrain for spares, as those are the things one can’t do without, and they can be occasionally very hard to locate or pay a reasonable price for, when one needs it.

The early tub was in no better shape than the later one, with dents, dings, and major rust. Fortunately, the rusty areas were not in the same places. The CJ-2A had a rusty right side, and the CJ-3B had a rusty left side. It all depends on the tilt of the vehicle when it gets left out in the elements for long stretches of time, and I got lucky. I chose to cut up the later tub, saving the sections needed to repair the early tub. I boxed things up and put them in storage, as I was still racing RX-7s and keeping very busy with a new family and new home ownership. The Jeep project would be put on hold.

Jumping forward from the mid-90’s to 2019, I got to the point, and my own advancing age, where things either needed to be pursued or to be gotten rid of. The midlife crisis of a small-time hoarder. I had bought my car barn in 2010, so the Jeep pile was warm and dry. But there were also Jeep trails just outside the front door of the car barn, that led up into the National Forests. Why not get going and renew my Jeeping habit? Especially as I had self-taught how to weld, and I had a set of welding equipment. I was all ready to patch and assemble.

I took no “progress” pictures, but I do have “almost complete” photos. The right rear needs more work on the bodyshell, and there is still a slightly visible seam behind the passenger side cutout, where the body tubs have been fitted and stitched together.

As the lead photo and the one above show, the last three years have seen the Jeep get resurrected. Major parts of the early tub have been cut out, and have had the sections of the later tub welded in, along the right side. This has been a “dive in and see what happens” sort of project. The work is not perfect, but it gets the job done. That’s how the typical Jeep rolls, in any case. Many Jeep owners are not purists, and simply go with what works for them. For me, it is approximating what I am after, and not worrying about the details, either the quality of the restoration, or the specs and proper vintage of the fittings and parts. What I find myself doing, now that most of the work is done, is going back and “re-doing” things that are subpar. That right rear corner, where the spare tire assembly typically twists and deforms the bodywork over time, is suffering. There is also some serious rust in there that has been cut out and patched. There needs to be another round of patches and bondo put to work there.

In the meantime, the combination of old and newer is being put together. In the engine room, an otherwise vintage CJ-2A spec engine gets a 12 volt system, with alternator, solid state voltage regulator, and that big 12 volt battery in there.

An electrical system upgrade in an otherwise mostly stock engine room. Willys used a lot of black paint on things in 1946.

The interior is mostly “factory”, but with reproduction dashboard data plates, and the “wrong color” reproduction canvas seat covers. The early 1946s came with either tan or green bodywork, and the early seat covers were khaki, a sort of greenish tan. I went with a lighter-than-factory tan body (rattle-can, too, many light coats), and light grey seats. Seat belts (which the factory didn’t offer) still need to be installed.

A minimally outfitted interior, just the way old Jeeps are supposed to be.

These old Jeeps really won’t go much over about 40 mph, unless you want to drastically shorten the life of the engine by continually revving it. It’s a Jeep conundrum. Many owners either add an overdrive (which gets you about 5 mph extra, all other things equal), or upgrade to a V-6 or a V-8. But then you have a powerful vehicle without much in the way of brakes or stability at speed. Bigger brakes from later Jeeps fix the stopping issue, but good shocks and springs, along with bigger and wider tires, impart only so much stability at speed, for a short and narrow vehicle with a high center of gravity and no suspension to speak of, outside of leaf springs and solid axles at both ends. So these things are really not meant to be driven at highway speeds, and even arterial back roads are often driven at 50 to 60 mph these days. These old Jeeps are very much like the small-displacement, two-stroke, off-road motorcycles. They can be driven on the highways, and you will see them, engines screaming, traversing the slow lane. But it is not their habitat. These were made for back roads, and for the roads of the 1940s that had 35 or 40 mph speed limits.

If you want a versatile vehicle that can be both a daily driver and a very capable off-road companion, buy either a newer Jeep or some other four-wheel-drive vehicle (or try Paul’s FWD solution). If you want old-school bumping along at slow speeds and with a much more intimate relationship with the environment you are traversing, this is a vehicle for you.

Ten extra gallons of fuel, a roll bar, and wide wheels and tires. Everything you need to go far but slowly. Fold the windshield down, for the full experience of being “out there” in the environment you are passing through.

That’s the “secret sauce” for these old Jeeps. They are very small (a Suzuki Samurai has roughly the same measures in every dimension), and you sit “on” them more than “in” the older Jeeps, as the top of the dashboard is hardly higher than your knees. Fold the windshield down, and you get a wall-to-wall experience of being out there in the place you are passing through, with only a few feet of vehicle in front of you, yet situated well below your straight ahead field of view. New Jeeps, while much more comfortable and much safer, and being even more off-road capable than the old ones, don’t offer the same intimacy with your environment. If you want the experience without the old Jeep, get an off-road motorcycle, a horse, or better yet, a mule.

As for me, it’s time to get a set of tires, get the Jeep insured, get it off of the long-standing “non-op” status, and begin Jeeping again. Will I enjoy it as I used to? Likely so, as, while getting older, I find myself “stopping to smell the roses” more often. But time and experience will tell. Wilderness hiking is a recent frequent habit of mine, and maybe going even slower, at a walking pace, and without any mechanical involvement at all, is now my speed.

In the meantime, I turned a very scruffy Jeep and a pile of parts into (what I believe is) a very nice example of the breed. Not factory stock, but not “out there”. A nice mix of vintage and practical. It was fun to see it take shape as I had wanted it to do for so long. My “Covid project”.