A Brief History of Jeeps (from CJ’s to ZJ’s, and beyond)
Author’s Note: I have tried to make this history as complete as possible, without going into too much detail about the individual models, also, I have organized it more by model, than by chronological order, so the years may skip around some. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed researching it!
And now for a little (actually, a lot of) Jeep history and trivia:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…and it was good. In 1940 Karl Probst created the Jeep, and it rocked! This is the story of how the legendary Jeep came to be…and how it has come to be what it is today…
By 1939 the US military needed a new, universal vehicle to replace the motorcycle and its other vehicles (such as the modified Ford Model-T), so they invited 135 different car companies to compete for a contract to build a new vehicle for the military. The vehicle had to meet certain specs, such as a payload capacity of 600lbs, a wheelbase under 75 inches, a fold-down windshield, a gross vehicle weight of under 1200lbs, and it must be four-wheel drive. Only three companies entered, Bantam, Willy-Overland, and Ford.
Bantam enlisted the help of Karl Probst, and in 1940 was the first to produce a working prototype for the military, dubbed the Bantam Blitzbuggy and “Old Number One”. Willy’s-Overland and Ford soon followed with their own prototypes, the Willys Quad and the Ford Pygmy, which were basically knock-offs of the Bantam car. Willys eventually won the contract because of their 60hp “Go-Devil” engine, but Ford was also given a contract to help keep up with the military’s demand for the vehicles for use in WWII. Willys later renamed their jeeps the MA and the MB, while Ford called theirs the GP and GPW. Many believe, as I do, that the Jeep won the war for the Allies.
As for the name ‘Jeep’, no one really knows for sure where it came from. Some people believe that it evolved from the Ford ‘GP’ designation, which many think stood for ‘general purpose’, which is incorrect. The “G” was for Government and the “P” was the vehicle class (80″ wheelbase 4×4 ¼ ton truck). Another possibility is that the name came from Popeye’s magical sidekick named jeep, who could do almost anything. For a more in-depth look at the origins of the Jeep, click on over to The Jeep, a Real American Hero.
In 1942 Ford built a limited number of amphibious Jeeps, known as the Seep. This little vehicle was basically an MB with a boat tub on the bottom (with cutouts for the wheels) and a PTO propeller. Seeps were not the most seaworthy things in the world, but one highly modified Seep, called “Half-Safe,” did manage cross the Atlantic in 1950 and then continued on to circumnavigate the globe.
The CJ series began back in 1945 with the CJ2A. The name CJ stands for “Civilian Jeep,” a bit of trivia that is still argued over. Next came the CJ3A’s, and the CJ3B’s which were produced until 1968. These early Jeeps are commonly referred to as “flatfenders” because their front fenders were flat across the front, even with the grill. Yes, there was such a thing as a CJ-4, and in true Jeep form, there is only one, literally. There is only one 1951 CJ-4 prototype in existence, it’s the “missing link” between the flatfendered CJ-2’s and 3′ and the round-fendered CJ-5.
The CJ-5 came about in 1954 as a civilian version of the military’s M-38A1 which came out in 1952. The CJ-5 stayed in production for almost 30 years, longer than any other Jeep model, and was taken out of production in 1983. During the time of the CJ-5 there was also a military and civilian CJ-6 which had a 101″ wheelbase and later a 104″ wheelbase, but it had a limited predication and was later replaced by the CJ-7.
The CJ-7, one of the most popular of the Jeeps, started its 10 year run in 1976. The CJ-7 has a longer wheelbase than the CJ-5 to accommodate an optional automatic transmission. Between 1981 and 1986 Jeep made a long-wheel based CJ-8 called the Scrambler, which was basically a pick-up truck version of the CJ-7. In 1987 the CJ-7 was replaced with the square headlighted YJ, more commonly known as the Wrangler. Like its predecessor, the Wrangler was redesigned after 10 years. The new Wrangler (now called the TJ) features the classic and much loved round headlights, dual airbags, a redesigned “90’s interior”, and an all-new Quadra-Coil suspension instead of leaf-springs. Interesting how much TJ sounds like CJ… The TJ got some minor upgrades and redesigns in 2003, including the much-anticipated Rubicon edition which features D44 axles front and rear with manual air lockers, a NV241J “RockTrac” transfercase with a 4:1 low range, rear disc brakes, and diamond plate rocker guards. Another addition to the TJ line was a new 4-sp automatic transmission to replace the previous 3-sp model.
2004 saw the introduction of the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited (LJ). The LJ is based off the TJ platform, but features a 104″ wheelbase for increased cargo room. Standard features on the LJ include the 4.0L I6 motor and a D44 rear axle. The LJ also came with either the new 4-sp automatic, or a new-for-2005 6-speed manual transmission. The new 6-sp manual tranny is also available on the regular TJ’s. In 2005 Jeep added a Rubicon edition of the LJ as well as an “upscale” Limited model with a chrome grill.
In 1956 Jeep began making the 2WD Postal/Dispatch Jeep (DJ). The DJ-3A was the first Postal Jeep and was a flat fender Jeep similar to the CJ-3A, except it was two wheel drive. The DJ-3A was produced from 1956 until 1965. In 1965 the DJ-5, which is the postal Jeep most people are familiar with today, was introduced. Jeep also produced a long-wheelbased version from 1965 until 1968, called the DJ-6. The DJ-5 was made by Jeep into the early 70s and production was continued under AM General. The Postal Jeep Page has some great info on DJ’s.
From 1948 to 1950 Willys produced a 2-door “car” version of the Jeep, called the Willys “VJ” Jeepster. These were really cool looking cars, but with only 72hp, 2WD, and not much publicity, they didn’t sell well…too bad.
In 1966, Jeep, now owned by Kaiser, debuted the Jeepster Commando to compete with the Bronco and Land Cruiser. The Jeepster Commando was available in three models: a convertible, pickup truck, and as a wagon (like the Jeepster, this was a really cool looking vehicle in my opinion). The (Kaiser) Jeepster Commando stayed in production until 1969. In 1970 AMC bought Jeep from Kaiser, and then in 1972 AMC shortened the name to just Commando and changed the grill design to look more like that of a Bronco, but it didn’t catch on. The Jeep Commando was taken out of production in 1973. Check out The American Jeepster Club for more on these cool Jeep spin-offs.
In 1946 Willys began making the Willys Wagon and in 1947 came out with the Willys Pickup The wagon was available as a station wagon and also as a panel-side delivery truck. Both the wagon and pickup truck were made until 1965.
Jeep debuted the FC-series trucks in 1956. These trucks featured a cab-over-engine design. The FC-150 came out first and had a 78″ bed and an 81″ wheelbase. The FC-170 came out in 1957 and had a 108″ bed and a 103″ wheelbase. The FC-170 was also available in a 1-ton dually model (the FC-170DRW) that had a 10′ flatbed. Other bodies were available for the FC-170DRW, such as dumptrucks and fire-engines. The FC trucks remained in production until 1964.
Ahh, the Cherokee. The “Cherokee” line began in 1962 when Jeep introduced the Wagoneer as a ’63 model, but it could be argued that it really began in the late 1940’s with the Willy’s Jeep Wagon chic was still in production at the time (an ad for the Willy’s Wagon once called it a “utility vehicle” for the family). The Wagoneer was a 4-dr full-size vehicle with the SJ designation. The Cherokee name would not come about until 1973/1974 when a sportier 2-door version of the Wagoneer was made and given the name Cherokee Chief (a 4-door version of the Cherokee was available by 1977). By 1975 the Cherokee was offered in 2 body styles: 1) the Cherokee Chief Wide-Track which had a 3-inch wider axle and fender flares, 2) the Cherokee with normal size axles and no fender flares, and by 1976/1977 the Cherokee also came in a 4-door model. The Jeep Wagoneer/Cherokee line was the first vehicle of its kind to offer full-time 4WD and an automatic transmission. The full-size Wagoneer was in production until 1991. And a luxo version called the Grand Wagoneer was made from 1984-1991.
In 1983 the current Cherokee (XJ series) was debuted as an ’84 model to compete in the growing market for “compact” SUV’s. This “new” Cherokee was quite a bit smaller than the senior Wagoneer/Cherokee and featured a unibody frame as opposed to the traditional body-on-frame style. Until at least 1988 the Cherokee was the only compact SUV to offer a 4-door model (which incidentally is the reason my dad bought his ’88 Chief, the Jeep that got me hooked). The XJ was originally offered with the choice of a 2.5L 4-cyl engine or a 2.8L V6 made by GM. The famous Jeep 4.0L I-6 engine would not make it into production until 1987. In 1991 Jeep came out with their “HO” (high-output) version of the 4.0L engine. Aside from minor trim changes, the XJ remained basically unchanged until 1995 when it got a driver’s side airbag. In 1997 the Cherokee got a totally new dash with dual airbags, new door trim, a slightly rounder front fascia, and a new steel liftgate, along with a bunch of other minor improvements.
Pickup truck versions (for civilian and military use) of the full-size Wagoneer/Cherokee, called the Gladiator, J-10, and J-20, were produced from 1963 to 1987. From 1967 to 1969 Jeep produced the M715, a 1-1/4 ton militarized J-Series utility truck. While it was made for only three years, it saw a lot of service in that time mostly overseas. A pickup version of the downsized Cherokee, called the Comanche (MJ) was also produced until 1992.
The Grand Cherokee (the ZJ series) was introduced in 1993 to replace the Wagoneer as a mid-sized luxury SUV (a luxury SUV that many companies would rush to imitate). The Grand Cherokee was the first Jeep to have the new Quadra-Coil suspension (now found on the TJ), the revised Quadra-Trac 4wd system, 4-wheel disc brakes, and an airbag. The ZJ also had 2 available V8’s: the 318 5.2L and the rare 360 5.9L. The ZJ had its “big” redesign (and only redesign) in 1996 — the most noticeable changes a new front fascia and new wheels.
In 1999 the Grand Cherokee saw a complete redesign from the ground up and was redesignated the “WJ”. The WJ is bigger and more powerful than its predecessor, and has a 3-link rear suspension and improved steering geometry for better ride and handling. The WJ also features Jeep’s new Quadra-Drive 4wd system with Vari-Lok axles and the new Quadra-Trac II system. The Jeep V8 also got redesigned and is now a 4.7L PowerTech putting out 235hp and 295 lb-ft of torque.
In 2005 the WJ Grand Cherokee was replaced with the new WK Grand Cherokee. A redesign from the ground up like its predecessor, the WK features IFS and an optional 5.7L HEMI powerplant. Jeep also introduced the SRT8 model of the WK which boasts a whopping 6.1L HEMI producing 415 horsepower (85 more horses and 25 percent more power than the 5.7-liter HEMI-equipped 2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee) and 410 lb.-ft. of torque which rockets the SRT8 WK from 0-60 in under 5 seconds, making it the fastest production SUV on the planet (even faster than the Porsche Cayenne).
The year 2001 saw the end of production for the venerable XJ/Cherokee. During it’s 18 years of production, the XJ started the whole SUV craze and set the bar for which all SUV’s would be measured against. But like all good things, it had to come to an end. The XJ’s replacement, the Liberty (KJ), is without a doubt the most controversial Jeep ever produced, for one main reason: it has IFS. While it isn’t the first time Jeep has used IFS on one of its vehicles, this time it appears as if IFS is here to stay and will eventually be used through the line-up.
The KJ is also ushering in a new engine, the 3.7L V6, which is replacing the tried and true 4.0L I-6. The 3.7L is a spin off from the 4.7L V8 found in the WJ – it’s basically the 4.7L with 2 cylinders chopped off. The 3.7L is another controversial topic because it is a relatively high-revving street-biased engine, with a power-band very different from the traditional 4.0L. Reviews of both the KJ and the 3.7L have been mixed, and many “diehard” Jeepers see the introduction of the Liberty and 3.7L as the beginning of the end for Jeep’s “king of the hill” offroad reputation. Both are here to stay though, so only time will tell what their true effects on the brand will be.
In 2005, the KJ got a facelift, as well as a new 2.8L common-rail diesel (CRD) engine and an optional 6-sp manual transmission (the same one used in the TJ/LJ).
As for the company/manufacturer itself, it’s changed hands three times (four now, depending on how you count). In 1953 Kaiser took over Willys-Overland to form Kaiser-Jeep (the name didn’t change to Kaiser- Jeep until 1963), in 1970 American Motors Corporation (AMC) took over Kaiser-Jeep, and in 1987 Chrysler bought AMC. Chrysler has now merged with Mercedes to create the Daimler-Chrysler Corporation. “DCX” still owns Jeep…
As one avid reader pointed out, it is AMC that was responsible for the CJ-7, the Wrangler, the downsized Cherokee/Wagoneer, the incredible 4.0L straight-six engine, Quadra-Trac and Selec-Trac, the CJ-8 Scrambler, most of the Grand Cherokee’s design (it was being worked on as early as 1985), and the fact that Jeep still survives today, as under the faulty management of Kaiser, the company surely would have gone out of business in the early 70’s. But, it was Jeep that later kept AMC in business in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
Now you too can amaze your friends and fellow Jeepers with your wealth of knowledge on Jeep History.
If I got any of my history wrong, or you feel I left something out, let me know.