Curbside Classic: 1947 Willys-Overland CJ-2A

(first posted 12/12/2011)    I have to admit up front, I’m not a Jeep guy. I’m not an off-roader or into trucks either. I do like well-designed machines. Very few cars, very few machines of any kind, are as simple, honest and 100% on purpose as this Jeep. I love this machine.

This beauty showed up at the corner store the last warm Sunday afternoon we had this fall. Four steel wheels with stout tires, each one plainly driven through axles, drivelines, a transmission and an engine. Two places to sit, a place to put things. Gas tank. Steering, brakes, windshield, wipers and lights. Straight strong sheet metal, no more than necessary. Nothing else. Each the right size, in just the right place for its task – carry two people anywhere on earth.

The owner came out and we had a very nice chat. He found it in a barn down in the Willamette Valley, all there and driveable, but showing its years of hard work. Eventually he got it all apart, scoured and repainted Picket Grey, and put back as it should be. The plates came from an antique shop, just the right year, 1947. In Oregon you can reactivate old plates, so these are legal on the road.

Has there ever been a simpler, more effective bumper?  The iconic seven slots first appeared on the Civilian Jeep (CJ). Willys’ first Jeeps had flat iron slats. Ford originated the stamped sheet metal slots, nine of them, which all the Jeep builders adopted for the military Jeeps. After the war Willys went to seven slots and trademarked them. At the end, their trademarks on “Jeep” and the grille were the most valuable things Willys had.

WIllys-Overland of Toledo, Ohio, was a major American car maker, #2 in sales behind the Model T through the 1910’s, and a steady #4 through the 1920’s. The Depression hit W-O very hard. Willys fell off the leader charts for good, but barely survived. Then came World War II, and the Jeep MB (CC here), created by American Bantam, built in volume by Willys and Ford.

The Willys Go Devil engine was their big contribution to the Army’s Jeep. It’s a 132 cubic inch flathead four, very undersquare. 60 hp at 4000 rpm, 105 lb. ft. at 2000 rpm. Plenty of torque to four wheels pull CJ-2A’s 2100 lb. curb weight.

After the war Willys gave up on their passenger cars and just built Jeeps. CJ-2A was the first mass production 4WD vehicle. Over 210,000 were sold from 1945 to 1949. Tens of millions of 4WD and AWD trucks, wagons, SUVs and cars have been built since then. It all starts right here.

Behind the wheel we find it’s well equipped, with turn signals, a full set of gauges, and a full set of shift levers for the three-speed transmission, transfer case and front axle. That’s a 60 mph speedometer, so don’t be getting any freeway ideas.

This machine was retired to a barn after a hard working farm life. Reborn in the 21st century, it reminds us how four wheels and an engine can carry its driver nearly anywhere. Such as down to the corner on a nice afternoon to get some beer.