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The Jeep CJ: Streetside's #1 Selling SUV

By Streetside Classics October 29, 2021

A Short History of the Civilian Jeep

Travel down any road in America today and you’re very quickly bound to pass some variation of the modern Civilian Jeep. Whether it’s a youngster with a new driver’s license hopping around in a lifted TJ Wrangler, a Soccer Mom on her way to pick up the kids in a 4-Door JK Rubicon, or a retired veteran (like my father-in-law) tooling around town in a Gladiator EcoDiesel, America’s most exciting car is truly ‘Going Anywhere, and Doing Anything’. Jeep’s immense popularity perplexes the rest of the world, after all it is a very unique vehicle without a viable competitor, but that exact ‘blaze your own trail’ approach perfectly encapsulates the reason we love our Jeeps so darn much here in America. They’re lifestyle SUVs that appeal to a wide variety of people, and even with their underlying 4x4 off-road themes and serious hardware, they fit right in with even the most casual of daily drivers. Jeeps have withstood the test of time with 75 years of success under the belt to brag about, and that legendary reputation grows each passing year as sale numbers continue to rise. But how did we get from a ‘General Purpose’ tool manufactured for the Army, to one of the most recognizable and beloved vehicles in the American zeitgeist? History tells the story of the Civilian Jeep, aka the ‘CJ’, and the bridge that classic icon built between the distant, utilitarian past and the ubiquitous, best-selling present we see all over the road today.

From War Hero to Civilian Workhorse

The genesis of the Jeep CJ dates all the way back to the origin of ‘Jeep’ itself, where even the inspiration for the name is of some debate. Whether it was borrowed from the Popeye comic strip character Eugene the Jeep, or simply a phonetic combination of the letters ‘G’ and ‘P’ from the military abbreviation ‘General Purpose’, what is clear is that the original Jeep was born at the behest of the US Government to help chase a lunatic tyrant out of Europe. Willys-Overland and Ford ‘borrowed’ the ‘Blitz Buggy’ design from American Bantam, and the Willys Jeep MB (1941-1945) was immediately put to work as a liberating force during WWII. Forged in battle and proven to be a reliable workhorse, Willys noticed that American GIs were buying up all the surplus Jeep MBs, with plans to bring them home to work on farms. Willys began building the first prototypes for the CJ (aka the Civilian Jeep), with unique design features that would last for decades: a body-on-frame construction, rigid solid axles and leaf springs, a tapered front nose (which included Jeep’s enduring iconic front grille) and flared fenders, and a fold-down windshield and removable doors. In addition, they came equipped with part-time 4x4 systems and open bodies (aka tubs) offered with removable tops. Ultimately, the rugged and versatile Willys-Overland CJ-2A ‘Universal’ (1944-1949) was put into production and marketed as the ‘All-Around Farm Workhorse’, pitched to the masses as a farming and industrial ‘Powerhouse’ utility vehicle that could conquer any obstacle. This new ‘Civilian Jeep’ sold in great numbers (despite direct competition from repurposed Army surplus models), and America’s love affair with the capable little Jeep was off and running. Eventually, a more refined version dubbed the CJ-3A (1949-1953) and subsequent CJ-3B (1953-1968) was developed, featuring a 1-piece windshield and cowl vent, dual wipers mounted from the bottom, and a heavy-duty and reliable transmission, transfer case, and axles. In many circles, the CJ-3A is considered to be the ‘father of recreational vehicles’ and marks an important turning point in the CJ’s history that shifted away from being a hard-nosed, Swiss-Army knife and more into a leisurely vehicle that could be used for more than just war and work. With that being said, Jeep never forgot its military past, and the development of the M38 (1950-1952; aka the MC and considered to be the best of the flat fenders) and M-38A1 (1952-1971; aka the MD) continued that honorable partnership toward the pursuit of American freedom. The latter Jeep MD was developed as the first ‘round-fender’ military Jeep and featured a longer wheelbase, softer ride, and more powerful engine, and in concert with the aforementioned civilian CJ-3A and all its refinements, became the foundation for the Jeep CJ-5.

CJ-5 (1955-1983)

To put it plainly, the Jeep CJ-5 is where the party really got started, forever launching the CJ line into the global marketplace. Willys-Overland had only officially trademarked the ‘Jeep’ name in 1950, but by 1953 Kaiser Motors bought the company, and a year later launched the Willys Jeep CJ-5 (the Willys name wasn’t dropped until after 1964) that would eventually take the world by storm. Hedging their bets, Kaiser produced the CJ-3B model for several more years to appease the hardcore Jeep CJ crowd, and developed the CJ-5 for the masses (Editor’s note: Kaiser also produced the long wheelbase CJ-6 that was later made obsolete by the CJ-7, but for the interest of space we’ll forgo that model’s history). The Kaiser CJ-5 was immensely popular and an improvement on previous models in almost every discernable category. The styling lines were softer, the body contours were rounded off, thicker gauge and overlapped sheet metal was used to give the model a solid and ‘built like a tank’ feel, and the increased wheelbase and length (81-in increased to 83.5-in in 1972) allowed for more comfort inside. Comfortable bucket seats were offered up front, and a taller/larger windshield meant the removable tops – which were now confidently marketed as all-weather – provided more headroom for taller drivers and passengers. The CJ-5 also ushered in a better array of drivetrain options, along with safer braking systems and a more responsive suspension and axle set-up. Even with these changes, the early CJ-5s were still fairly rudimentary machines – dependable and capable of just about anything, but conservative and plain nonetheless. It wasn’t until the mid-‘60s that Kaiser really stepped up the sportiness of the CJ-5, which was immediately improved when Kaiser purchased the right to Buick’s Dauntless V6 engine. Horsepower doubled and options like power steering were now available, making the CJ-5 a viable daily driver. In addition, Kaiser finally set out to attract a more upscale buyer, introducing the Tuxedo Park trim line that featured dress-up components like chrome bumpers, hood badges, and tail lamps, stylish hubcaps, and a column shifter.

Valuable Early Kaiser CJ-5 model: 1963 Willys Jeep CJ5 Tuxedo Park III

Kaiser’s improvements to the CJ-5 were ultimately a bit late, and by 1970 the company was sold to American Motors Corporation (AMC). If you were to ask Jeep historians to pinpoint the moment Jeep shifted gears into the modern world, this ‘changing of the guard’ would be it. It took a couple years, but by 1972 AMC revamped the CJ-5 and ushered in significant changes to the model that can still be see in modern Jeeps today. AMC Jeeps are by far the most popular collector’s items, with thousands of the models restored and sold each year. By 1972, AMC began fitting the CJ-5 with its own line of engines, most importantly their Torque Command Straight 6 motors (both the 232 I6 and legendary 258 I6) and first ever V8 option: the 304 cubic inch motor that upgraded power-to-weight to a level akin to a muscle car. The added power and torque were a revolution for the CJ-5, catapulting the CJ from recreational vehicle to bonafide daily-driver. In addition to the motors, the early 1970’s AMC Jeeps offered optional 4-speed manual transmissions and a new Dana 30 front axle that was lighter and allowed for a more efficient turning radius. In 1973, the all-new AMC ‘Quadra-Trac’ full-time 4WD system was offered, and even though it still provided low-and-high range gears, many Jeep enthusiasts prefer the more standard 2-speed transfer case to this system. To accommodate for the new drivetrains, the CJ-5’s wheelbase was lengthened by three inches, the front fenders and hood were elongated by five inches, a more rigid box-frame was fitted to the tubs, and for safety purposes a larger gas tank was moved from under the seat to the rear of the vehicle. This meant more room inside, better safety performance, and an all-around better-looking CJ. A wider variety of factory and dealer-installed options began to surface as well, including stereos and air conditioning units. And with an eye toward driving up sales, a vast array of colors were added to the CJ-5 line-up, including bright additions with accompanying decal sets and chrome accents for special trim models like the Renegade I & II and Super Jeep packages.           

Valuable Early AMC Jeep CJ-5 models:  1971 AMC Jeep CJ-5 Renegade II finished in ‘Big Bad’ Orange

1973 AMC Jeep CJ-5 Super Jeep 

For many Jeep fans, 1976 represented another historical turning point for the Jeep CJ. Not only did it usher in the larger CJ-7 (which we’ll get to in a moment), but also brought several upgrades to the existing CJ-5s. 1976-1986 is widely considered to be the ‘Golden CJ Era’ for collectors and fans alike, and if one is looking for the best driving, looking, and most valuable CJs on the market, this is the 10-year period to choose from. Starting in ‘76, the body tubs became more rounded, the frames were almost completely boxed-in and better stabilized (they became fully boxed-in and fortified by 1977), and the windshield frame height and angle was changed to account for taller and roomier removable tops. Popular engines included the venerable 258 Inline 6, the 304 V8, and the thriftier GM ‘Iron Duke’ Inline 4 branded as the ‘Hurricane’. Options like power steering, power front disc brakes, and air conditioning were now more common, and safety concerns brought on energy-absorbing steering columns, larger combination backup/tail-lights, and even rocker panel moldings that looked great and protected from rust. Special trim levels and packages like the Renegade (’72-’83), Golden Eagle (’77-’83; 304 V8 only), and Laredo (’80-’83) were offered to great fanfare, with gorgeous color options and decal packages, including the very popular Levi’s Package. Inside, these higher-end trim level CJ5s like the Laredo received tachometers, upgraded stereos, and more comfortable seats with ornate patterns.

Valuable Late-70’s to Early-‘80s AMC Jeep CJ-5 models: 1979 AMC Jeep Silver Anniversary; 1980 AMC Jeep Golden Hawk    

CJ-7 (1976-1986)

In 1976, AMC finally answered millions of people’s wishes and introduced the Jeep CJ-7, the 10-inch longer (93.5-inch wheelbase) sibling to the CJ-5. The CJ-7 was the last in a long line of Jeeps that could trace its ancestry to the WWII Jeeps, and for many people it is considered to be the last ‘real’ Jeep ever made. CJ-5s had gained some bad press with potential rollover reports, so in addition to providing more room inside, the CJ-7s expanded wheelbase helped stabilize the vehicle. Continuing the CJ’s progressive tradition, the CJ-7 bodywork was more curved and the re-engineered chassis consisted of dual parallel frame rails that put the suspension as far out as possible, mitigating rollover concerns without sacrificing any off-road maneuverability. In addition to the roomier confines (the Jeep CJ-7 was a genuine four passenger vehicle with actual storage space behind the bench seat, not something a CJ-5 could really boast), the CJ-7 offered full-metal hard doors and a sturdy removable hard top to go along with the optional soft top options, and the on-road performance was better than any CJ before it. An automatic transmission was an option for the first time in the CJ’s history, although the 3, 4, and 5-speed manuals were still all offered as well. The line of motors was lengthy, ranging from the Hurricane I4 to the 258 I6 to the 304 V8 just to name the most popular options, and between the optional Quadra-Trac full-time 4WD and two-speed transfer case options, every base was covered. For many CJ-7 lovers, the ‘money’ years are ’82-’86, as this was when the wide-track axles were offered. Wide-track axles push the tires out further from the body than the earlier narrow-track counterparts, so not only is the squatted look a bit cooler, but the CJ-7 manages itself much better on and off road. The final five years of the Jeep CJ-7 were so popular, and quite frankly superior, they made the CJ-5 obsolete in 1983. Options were much more plentiful in these final years, from side steps, power steering, power front disc brakes, air conditioning, and tilt steering. Trim packages and special additions were the best-of-the-best as well, from the ‘base’ Renegade (’76-’86; essentially a decal package), the popular Laredo (’80-’86) with the chrome package, high-back buckets, special vinyl patterns on the seats, a tachometer and clock on either side of the leather-wrapped steering wheel, the Golden Eagle (’76-80; available with a 304 V8 only), and the one year only 1980 Golden Hawk. In addition, an extremely popular Levi’s Package was also available in the CJ-7 and featured jean-style vinyl padding on the dash and sun visors, and replica Levi stitching and button-work on the seats.  

Valuable AMC Jeep CJ-7 models: 1982 Jeep CJ-7 Jamboree Commemorative Edition; 1986 Jeep CJ-7 Laredo

1986 was the final year of the CJ, as it made way for the YJ model in 1987. In hindsight, Jeep would’ve likely run the model out until the end of the decade, but there was a need to turn the Jeep into a family-friendly vehicle with more creature comforts. Thankfully, the CJ gave us one more iteration that we’ve all come to know and love: The Scrambler.

CJ-8 (1981-1986)

Ronald Reagan’s favorite Jeep, the CJ-8 Scrambler combined everything that was great about the CJ-7 with the added benefit of a truck with a 103-inch wheelbase. Arguably one of the most adaptable and practical vintage Jeep’s ever made, it featured a removable cab top, a utility tray with a mounted removable bench, steel doors, and a roll bar just like in the CJ-5 and CJ-7 models. Like the CJ-7, the Scrambler came loaded, although you could never get a 304 V8 from the factory – the Iron Duke I4 and 258 I6 motors were the most popular engines. Options were identical to the corresponding CJ-7, and you could even get a top-of-the-line Laredo and all the added accoutrements. As a final entry in the CJ world, the Scrambler was a great choice. If the Gipper approved, then we do too.

The Civilian Jeep and all its models are the American car that’s carried the flag and brought 4x4 adventure to the mainstream for millions of people. It’s played the role of a military ally, a farm hand, an explorer’s wagon, a sports car, a fashion icon, and even the favorite transport of US Presidents. With a strong collector market and values shooting through the roof each year, its popularity shows no sign of wavering. Whether you buy a vintage CJ, Wrangler, or brand-new Gladiator (and everything in between), know that you’re buying a vehicle steeped in American history, and one that best epitomizes ‘The Land of the Free’.