(Submitted by Chuck Gajewski) Most gearheads and car enthusiasts can go way back and tell you exactly when and where it all began. For me, it was circa 1977 or 1978. I was a mere toddler in a NY Giants beanie when my mom told me that “Daddy is back, look what he got.” What my dad had brought home was a ’69 Jeep CJ-5; fitted with a Meyer steel hardtop, plow rig and steel slot mags as well as a ragged leaky exhaust, faded paint, a bit of primer and wear offset by flat black trim and yellow pinstripes. The odd-fire 225 Buick “Dauntless” V6 breathed thru shorty glasspack mufflers and to my young ears at first it was a bit scary. But I quickly fell in love!
Dad had picked it up to do the plowing for our apartment complex in Denville, NJ. Here I am, standing proudly beside that old Jeep, in all my late ’70s glory: Plaid pants, something that resembles Chucks, a jacket that has café racer style stripes very strangely reminiscent of my favorite leather jacket now, and the all-important NY Giants Beanie.
This pic must have been taken the same day, just from a different angle. With my undying love of Jeeps, slot mags, and the G-men, some things get ingrained early!
Before picking up the Jeep, Dad had worked out a contract with the landlord, so not only was it his daily driver, but come winter time, it earned him a little chump change on the side. Every time it snowed, I would run and jump shotgun to ride along. The nest of levers for the T-14 three-speed trans and twin stick Spicer transfer case as well as the controls for the plow rig were a mystery to me. I had no clue how they worked, but what I did know was that I was ‘helping’ my dad (somehow) and that cars–especially that Jeep–absolutely fascinated me.
Supposedly, that T-14 trans was the glass jaw of Kaiser-era Jeeps. Why they put such a weak POS on the biggest available engine at the time, I’ll never know. My dad claims to have shattered that thing about a half dozen times in the two or three seasons he had it. The T-98 granny low four-speed was available on the four banger at the time, was worlds stronger, and would have been perfect for plowing. Jeep was a strange beast in those days.
One particular incident stands out to me, and I think a love of Jeeps was literally beat into my head. My mom has had her moments of being “vehicularly-challenged.” I remember Dad trying to teach her how to drive a stick in the Jeep for the first time. It didn’t go too well. There was no rear seat in the Jeep, and I took to sitting side saddle on the rear fenders if we went anywhere. No seat belts, no roll bar…no problem! That is until my mom dumped the clutch and likely hopped all four wheels off the ground a few times! I’m not totally sure but I think my noggin put a dent or two in that ugly-ass Meyer top from all the bucking and slamming around. That was the absolute last time my mom ever attempted a manual. We never had one in our driveway again until Dad bought the ’84 Power Ram…which is another COAL for another time….
Cue to late 1978, and a few trips back and forth to western Tennessee. Turns out Dad was being transferred there, and by March of 1979, I’d been dragged to a completely foreign land. We’d had a late snowfall and Dad went around to a few local businesses and neighbors offering to plow the parking lots and driveways. The way he tells it, the response was something like “sure, knock yourself out!” followed by a dopey grin. I guess the grin got even dopier when my dad tried to explain that where we hailed from, people who drive plows get paid money to remove the frozen nastiness. Tennessee snows are light, it doesn’t last, and the town pretty much shuts down anyway. That, as they say, was that.
It didn’t take long until Dad realized that being a homeowner necessitated having a truck. That Jeep wasn’t in the greatest of condition. It was right at ten years old (an eternity for a working Jeep exposed to road salt) and I hear that the floor pans had rusted out and been completely replaced. Twice. I remember my mom turning on the radio and tuning in to Swap-n-Shop (Ebay in its infancy), a kind of live phone/radio auction where we could hear my dad putting the Jeep up for grabs. I was pretty bummed, since even by the age of five, I’d put two and two together and I knew that when I was old enough to drive, a Jeep is all that would do! Granted, ours was pretty ratty, especially compared to the one owned by the dad of a little blonde girl in my K-garten class.
It was a late ’70s model CJ-5, bright orange with a tan top. It had the 304 V8, chrome spoke wheels and a set of matching chrome side pipes. That exact Jeep was bought by a guy I knew in shop class who was two years older than me! Even if it was a pile, I gave my dad no end of hell for selling it! I just KNEW that with his help, some cash from a part time job and my own effort I could have made that Jeep into the beast of my dreams. Every time I see a Kaiser era CJ–or really ANY Jeep CJ–I’m brought back to those days. I recently spotted one that is the spitting image of what my sixteen year old self would have envisioned in 1990…
I never did get a CJ-5, and to this day I’ve never been able to acquire Ansen style slots on a vehicle. My dad has never been a Jeep fan since then; the bug just never bit him. But we’ve done wrenching together on all five of mine, and shared interest in cars will always be something that binds us.