It’s just something with a jeep. They are not just a vehicle, they are a lifestyle; like Harley-Davidson, Corvette and others in transportation that achieve legendary status and take on a whole cult following of dedicated fans. But instead of wallets with chains and black leather vests like Harley riders, or khaki cargo shorts and gold chains like Corvette drivers, Jeep people are stereotyped as having their own little two-finger wave. The joke is that more numbers removed from the steering wheel would result in an uncontrolled crash. But anyway, jeeps are cool, and the people who own and drive them are usually quite nice, so if you’re considering joining millions of enthusiastic Jeep owners, do not automatically jump straight into a modern Wrangler, Compass or Cherokee. Here are five classic jeeps that I think everyone should own and experience before they die.
1 – Stock WWII MB / GPW; Willys CJ-2A / CJ-3A; M38 flat screen
If you dive deep enough, there are dozens if not hundreds of differences between the different models of flatfenders. Some people like me can almost tell the difference between a Ford or Willys GPW or MB from World War II, may distinguish a VEC CJ-2A from a later CJ-2A, or may at a glance distinguish a CJ-3A from a military M38. But again, I can not tell you how many World War II movies from the early 1950s I have seen where a major is driven to the front line in a CJ-3A. But no matter what flat screen you like or fit your wallet, every Jeep enthusiast just needs to experience what it’s like to float the valves on a 60-hp four-cylinder flat-head Go Devil engine as you row through the gears of your T-84 or T- 90 three-speed that tries to reach your top speed of 45-55 mph, and then asks that you can panic stop with four 8-inch drum brakes driven by a tiny master cylinder with a pot. Flatties are super small, very nimble and exceptionally capable off-road driving. Not to mention lots of fun. Driving a flat screen is just one of those Zen experiences that connects you to the origins of the “Jeep thing” while forcing you to slow down and smell the flowers and the lubricant.
2 – Buick 225-driven early CJ-5 / CJ-6 / Jeepster
Some Buick cars in the early 1960s were powered by a cool V-6 engine that was created almost literally by two cylinders coming loose from a Buick V-8 engine. Because the cylinders and firing order were balanced to accommodate eight firing pulses, the V-6s had an “odd-fire” firing pattern where two firing pulses were missing. Heck, a Buick Odd-Fire distributor cover is just a V-8 cover where two of the cylinder plugs are missing. This not only gave these engines their Odd-Fire moniker but also a very distinctive mixed talk at idle that almost sounds like a radial aircraft engine from World War II.
In 1964, Kaiser purchased the tools for these engines from Buick and began offering them in its 1966 CJ series, renaming the engine “Dauntless”. The early single-barrel Dauntless engines used in 1966 produced 155 hp, but for 1967 a Rochester two-barrel power increased to 160 hp and 230 lb-ft. In addition to the increased horsepower, these engines used a very heavy inertia flywheel to help reduce stops and maintain speed on slopes. And it is mostly because of this inertia flywheel that the Buick 225 Dauntless engines of the 1966-1971 CJ-5 or CJ-6 or 1967-1971 C-101 Jeepsters must be experienced.
There are anecdotal stories of T98 four-speed and T-90 three-speed gearboxes from the factory in these vehicles, but the vast majority of CJs will have T-14 three-speed gearboxes, with some TH400 three-speed cars offered in the Jeepster. Having owned a pair myself, my personal preference is the V-6 CJ-6 with three-speed manual. Off-road it is a riot, with the engine being able to drag itself down to what sounds like 250 rpm without stopping. They are nimble on the road, fun between stoplights and with an aftermarket overdrive, capable of delivering 17-18 mpg in mixed city and highway driving.
3 – 1972-1975 V-8-driven CJ-5, CJ-6 or C-104 Commando
Mechanically, 1972-1975 jeeps are the best early jeeps ever made. After AMC took over the company from Kaiser, it redesigned much of the range, expanding the front wheelbase of the CJ-5 and CJ-6 by 3 inches to accommodate a longer hood and fenders that covered AMC’s six-cylinder inline engine. But even though I really like the AMC 232 and 258 I6, it was the availability for the first time ever of a V-8 in a Jeep Universal that made big news. Although the AMC 304’s 150 hp / 245 lb-ft on paper appears to be comparable to the Dauntless V-6’s 160 hp / 230 lb-ft, the power mark of the V-8 was net power, while the V-6 was gross. It was not a real comparison between apples and apples, and the V-8 offers superior acceleration. A stronger T-15 three-speed or T-18 four-speed gearbox fronted a Dana 20 T-bag.
The rear axle was a Dana 44 with centered diff and axle axles with 30 splines, and the front was a Dana 30 with open knuckle that offered a much narrower turning radius than the previously offered Dana 27 or Dana 25 axles with closed knuckle. In addition, you can have power brakes from the factory and either manual or power steering with a frame-mounted Saginaw steering box that replaced the awkward and complicated Ross Cam & Lever steering from ’71 previous CJs. Taken together, these “intermediate” CJs and their Commando counterparts are the best way to get many modern mechanical conveniences in a vehicle that is still definitely a classic vintage jeep.
4 – 1976-1986 Jeep CJ-5 / CJ-7
While the 1972-1975 intermediate Jeeps offered some of the best mechanically sorted components in the classic Jeep line, the 1976-1986 CJs offered some of the strangest, if not the worst, in terms of quality and durability. So why do I suggest every Jeep enthusiast should own one of these? I think of no other reason than to show how CJs remained loved by crowds of devotees during this period even though they were so mechanically frustrating. It’s kind of like the unconditional love you can show a dog even though it constantly pees on the carpet, barges on your sofa cushions and poops on your bed.
Mechanically, it seems that AMC threw away what did not sell well on other lineups at CJ, perhaps because they thought they could not hurt sales no matter how bad it was. While the engines and the automatic transmissions that supported them were good, the fuel systems were slaughtered to meet increasingly stringent EPA requirements, with the last CJs being saddled with terribly inefficient and problematic electronically controlled carburetors that often go wrong. Some supply of manual gearbox was weak, and the time between the need for rebuilds was short.
Poor welding quality on the frames, wheelhouse brackets that fell off, spring and yoke hangers that would crack off the frame, two-part Model 20 axle shafts tucked into a weak and flexible housing, poor electrical systems and more are nightmares for the non-mechanically inclined. But for those who want to upgrade and modify, these shortcomings also offer a good incentive and excuse to customize your early CJ to meet your needs and terrain, and in the end, it’s still a Jeep. The top comes loose, the doors can be left at home and you become one with your mechanical horse and enjoy nature or the open road together.
5 – 1967-1969 Kaiser M-715
When the military needed a five-quarter-ton pickup, Kaiser took his Gladiator, tossed the roof, added a fold-down windshield and huge, thick steel fenders, and installed some unique military features such as a 24-volt electrical system, lifting eyes on the Dana 60 front axle and the Dana 70 rear axle and a thick, sturdy bed. The 230-cubic-foot OHV inline-six engine suffered a poor rope for reliability, mostly due to the engine’s reluctance to high speeds that were not helped by the lack of a T-98 transmission and 5.87 axle gears. A strong divorce-mounted NP200 T-case offered a 1.96: 1 low and was tucked high enough in the chassis where high centering with the truck’s abundant 126-inch wheelbase was not a problem. The M-715s ride like a tank thanks to their 1-ton load capacity, but they pull anything, pull whatever you want and turn wherever you take them.