(First Posted October 28, 2013) 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.
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.
“Utility”, not “sport”, was clearly the selling point of the early civilian Jeeps.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A successful vehicle that has kept it’s basic design for 70 years. When something works, it’s best not to try and fix it
Very nice restoration. I wonder if the rake is intentional? The whitewalls on ’76 Renegade in the ad look out of place today.
Regarding the whitewalls…
The late 70s were a strange time for most domestic cars, including Jeeps.
There was lots of “painted on performance” then.
Seems every car (or truck) could be ordered with some sort of gaudy multi-coloured tape striping package, gold accenting, raised white letter tires or multi-coloured interiors. It was a flamboyant era to say the least.
And the CJ-5 was no different.
Matching the Firebird’s screaming chicken and the Mustang II “King Cobra” decals… There were the CJ-5 “Golden Eagles”.
Sporting a screaming eagle on the hood and matching lettering and gold coloured wheels. This is when CJ-5s really started to get popular with the general public and sales jumped. I remember seeing many Golden Eagles back then.
Tacky times, but they sold like hot cakes.
If you think that whitewalls on a Renegade look out of place, then you will have a very hard time accepting the idea of a Jeep CJ-5 Tuxedo Park with whitewalls:
To me, the CJ5 is the essential Jeep. The proportions always seemed off to me in the longer CJ7. A cousin had a CJ5 in the mid 70s that he bought new. It had the 304 V8 and a stick. I drove it once, and it was as powerful as anything of that size needed to be.
There’s a ’79 near me with a 258 six for $4,000. It’s tempting…
Great write-up on a legendary automobile. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a “regular” CJ-5, especially a Kaiser-era model, that I’d kinda forgotten what they looked like. This one appears to even have the correct size tires, which probably cost a pretty penny from whatever specialty place still sells them. I love that “Jeep Operation Data” manual – I wish that’s what came with new cars instead of an “Owner’s Booklet”.
Real front fender side marker lights did not show up on CJ and Jeepster models until mid-1970. Prior years had reflectors. This CJ5 has the correct pintripe seat inserts–I would guess is is the ’71 model and as stated is the last year for the odd-fire 225 v6. Pretty nice resto. The weight of the front winch–prossibly PTO type and age have probably contributed to the rake angle.
Nice article. Another wheelbase for comparison is the 1959 Mini at 80.3″.
There aren’t a lot of these Jeeps over here, I think you would be more likely to see a WWII GPW.
I had a crush on these things back in the early 80’s and why was my cousin Ron had one.
He was quite a bit older than me, in his 30’s then, married with a young family (Chad was I think 7, his sister, I forget her name now was maybe 5) and I was in HS, and down visiting relatives on my late father’s side for the summer and this being 1982. At the time he was part owner of the campground that his father had built in the early 70’s on the family property up in North Georgia, just north of Helen GA.
At the time he had a ’76 CJ-5 Jeep, with the inline 6, and 3spd manual. It was that rust color of the Renegade shown in the pamphlet above, but was a lesser model with tan vinyl seats. I think he got it used and used it to haul around a small trailer on the campground to pickup trash and such, but also went 4 wheeling with it on occasion, as well as occasional trips into nearby Cleveland or Gainsville.
That’s the vehicle I learned to drive a stick on. It had an AM/FM cassette tape deck and surface mounted 3 way speakers, which were bolted to the rear wheel wells and had some vinyl covers to keep them dry when it rained. It was a fun car, and had the tarp roof, rather than the full soft top and had the spoker aftermarket wheels (in white), similar to the Golden Eagles on it.
I miss those days and wanted the CJ-7 though if I got a Jeep.
The allure of the SWB Jeep is mystifying. It’s one of a handful of vehicles that has continued from its inception largely unchanged (and that includes the same level of quality). Wranglers consistently nail down the last place in any reliability/quality ratings.
And, yet, they also continue to have a loyal following, maintaining the same, consistent sales volume, year after year (and this without much marketing or advertising). I can’t remember the last Wrangler commercial I saw on television. For a vehicle where most of its owners rarely (if ever) take their vehicle off-road (the one place where a Wrangler excels) is simply amazing.
It’s almost as if the Wrangler is a halo vehicle, much like the Corvette, where people who purchase other, much more modern and pavement-friendly Jeeps, buy them simply because they wear the same nameplate as the off-road oriented Wrangler.
We owned a ’74 CJ-7 when we lived on the Big Island. It was a loaded Renegade with the Levis interior, both tops, 304V8/Torqueflite/full time transfer case. It did get a solid 12mpg, no matter what. The full time 4×4 meant that it ate front u-joints regularly, but no other problems. If you still got stuck, there was a lever hidden in the glove box that locked the front and rear driveshafts together.
I know what you mean about the rarity of decent unmolested CJ’s. I tried to find one a couple of years ago and gave up.
The older,up to 1971 with the 80inch wheelbase are great vehicles that can be built from the ground up without one orginal part.Like a 1928-1931 Model A Ford a person could build a Jeep CJ-5 with just a catalog,just starting out with a credit card and a desire.They were simple vehicles that did the job they were designed to do.They were both reliable and could be depended upon to do whatever job was requested of them .The trouble was from the first day they were purchased they were taken out in the hills and were beaten half to death without any attempt to perform and preventive maintenience thrown in their direction,I defy any modern car to take half the beating that those poor Jeeps were subjected to in their lifetime and to survive in the numbers that they have!
Whitewalls on a CJ-5 is sorta like putting lipstick on a pig HAHAHAHAHA I have had a 71 CJ-5 which I put a even fire Buick V6 engine into (a 1981 Turbo 231 V6) and with a minumum amount of preventive mainteneince it has proven to be as reliable as any vehicle that I’ve ever owned and that includes over 150 vehciles that I’ve owned since I was about 14 yrs old.All cars no matter the nameplate attached to them will survive without being taken care of with just a little common sense.I just hated to see AMC aquire them becouse you just knew that shortcuts would be coming next to save a buck where ever possible such as extending the wheelbase to aid the insertion of the AMC 6 cyl engine and it just went downhill from there.Up until AMC’s takeover the Jeep was a anvil with wheels and after the 1971 model it seems as though it was one needless change after another until Chrysler came along to save the Jeep name from ruin under AMC guidlines
I attended university in Colorado, so these were the Jeeps we took to the mountains. Loud, rough, noisy, primitive, often unreliable and each with perculiar flaws – they were more loved than any dog, or beer brand. They were us.
My dad’s parents had a ’59 CJ-5 with the Hurricane 4-cylinder, a removable top, and a tow bar for taking along on road trips. It was towed at least once behind dad’s ’89 Town Car on one of our Edisto trips. It looked very much like this ’69 except for having black wheels & clear (non-amber) park lights and lacking the rollbar. Having no back seats meant no one could legally ride in the back on the highway once seatbelt laws were put into effect, although we did it only a FEW times for short distances in my early childhood. Great for basic off-roading in its prime but by the ’90s had become nearly useless for on-road practicality–these were limited to about 50 or 60 mph due to gearing if I’m not mistaken, and towing ANYTHING behind it (especially a certain red trailer I’ve mentioned here once before) became an adventure with such a short wheelbase. By the time the ’04 Expedition came along the CJ-5 was pretty much out of the picture; I have NO idea who bought it or what has become of it. We now have a ’97 Wrangler with oversized tires & suspension–THAT has become quite a project over the past few years! Can’t be flat-towed either b/c of the height, but HAS been somewhat useful with pulling cut-down trees out of our yard & into the woods.
I’ve heard there was a CJ-4 but only ONE prototype was ever made & it still survives today under restoration. Others labeled as CJ-4s are licensed under the Mahindra brand in Asia & India. NO CJ-1s exist according to Wikipedia.
“232 and 158 cubic inches (3.8 and 4.2 liters, respectively)”
Both were great engines with seven main bearings. I had a ’75 with a 258. Crude but indestructible. My buddy put it on its side on a Wisconsin fire road. Three of us just pushed it back upright and we were on our way. Battery acid discolored the paint; that was the extent of the damage.