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Jeep: Evolution of an American Icon

No vehicle is more emblematic of American patriotism and values than the Jeep. From its humble origins as a utilitarian military vehicle – the name “Jeep” is said to be derived from “GP,” an acronym for “general purpose” – to its modern incarnation as both a rock-crawling and grocery-getting SUV, the Jeep deserves a place of honor next to apple pie and baseball. But few people know the full history of Jeep, or exactly how to spot the difference between a Willys, a CJ and a Wrangler. We’ve got you covered.

Fighting for Freedom

Although the modern Jeep brand represents freedom to roam, the off-roader was born in a time when freedom was threatened. By June of 1940, Germany’s assault on Western Europe and Italy’s rise as an Axis power meant that U.S. involvement in World War II was imminent. In preparation, the Army contacted 135 auto manufacturers with a request for a combat-ready quarter-ton reconnaissance vehicle to replace the sidecar-equipped motorcycles that had been used in earlier war efforts.

1941 Bantam Recon Car
1941 Bantam Recon Car (photo courtesy of U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum)

The laundry list of requirements included a minimum payload of 660 pounds, engine output of at least 50 horsepower and 85 lb-ft of torque, three seats, a fold-up windshield and, of course, four-wheel drive. Given the work these vehicles would be doing, additional requirements included a cooling system capable of prolonged low-speed travel, a ground clearance of at least 6.25 inches, an 80-inch wheelbase and a tread (width between the tires) of 47 inches.

The demanding list of requirements became even more daunting when paired with the Army’s tight timeline: a design would have to be submitted in a mere 49 days.

1941 Jeep production
“Jeep” production at Ford Motor Company, River Rouge plant, Dearborn, Michigan, May 1941 (photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress)

Only three manufacturers responded: American Bantam, Willys-Overland and Ford. Bantam, having enlisted the skills of freelance designer Karl Probst, was the first to deliver a test-mule on September 23, 1940. The “pilot model” proved incredibly capable, but the Army was concerned about Bantam’s ability to produce the 4×4 given its recent bankruptcy. When Probst approached the Army directly and offered his services for free, the feds gave Bantam’s design to Willys and Ford, claiming the government had ownership of it. Each marque delivered improved prototypes of the Bantam design on November 11.

Willys MA
A Willys MA receives at tune up at the Fort Knox “grease pit” (photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress)

The Willys Quad, powered by the L134 “Go Devil” engine, produced 60 hp and 105 lb-ft of torque. Meanwhile, Ford’s Pygmy barely produced the minimum 85 lb-ft of torque. The Pygmy’s power disadvantage lost Ford the contract, but Ford went on to co-manufacture the “jeep” alongside Willys-Overland, producing just over half of the total 700,000 units made. American Bantam had been bullied out of the process entirely, and with no money to take legal action, it could do nothing about it. Its consolation prize was manufacturing 74,000 T3 trailers for the jeep.

Willys MB
Men of the 92nd Mechanized Reconnaissance Squadron test a Willys MB, Fort Riley, Kansas (photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress)

Early production models, known as the Willys MA, featured improvements over the Quad such as a handbrake and an instrument cluster. A weight savings of 240 pounds was afforded by thinner panels and shortened bolts. Under the Lend-Lease program, the lion’s share of MAs were sent abroad to the Allied forces in Russia and Britain. Today, there are only 30 surviving MAs of some 1,500 produced.

Willys MB President Franklin Roosevelt
President Franklin D. Roosevelt reviews American troops from his seat in a Willys MB, Casablanca, Morocco, January 1941 (photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress)

Shortly following the MA was the most common early jeep, the Willys MB. Tougher than the MA, the MB could be outfitted with numerous accessories, ranging from machine guns to wheels that allowed for railway travel. The MB quickly proved itself to be one of the greatest innovations of modern warfare, and one was even awarded a Purple Heart. With the close of World War II in late 1945, however, Willys found itself with a wartime product but no wartime buyers. The answer to its dilemma was a civilian jeep, poised to bolster the American “can do” spirit at home just as it had at the frontline.

Jeep Spotter’s Guide: CJ-2A to CJ-8

The CJ, short for “civilian jeep,” was released in 1945 and marketed by Willys-Overland as “The All-Around Farm Work-Horse.” In fact, it could do the work of two heavy draft horses, moving at a consistent four miles per hour for up to 10 hours without overheating. To make it more user friendly, the CJ-2A received a side-mounted spare tire, seven-inch headlights, an external fuel cap and an opening tailgate.

1947 Jeep CJ-2A
1947 Willys-Overland CJ-2A (photo courtesy of Bring A Trailer)

The most important change, however, was the introduction of the now-iconic seven-slot grille – the most obvious design departure from its MB predecessor (which had a nine-slot grille). The interior was also plusher than that of the MB, but luxury items like carpet were still off the menu. In 1948, Willys released the updated CJ-3A with refinements such as dual wipers, an updated transmission and a single-pane windshield, the latter being the easiest way to differentiate it from a CJ-2A.

1952 Willys CJ-3A
1952 Willys CJ-3A with shorter grille (photo courtesy of Bring A Trailer)

In 1950, “Jeep” became a registered trademark of Willys-Overland, but just three years later, the company was sold to Henry J. Kaiser. Under the name Willys Motors Inc., an updated CJ-3B was rolled out as the first Jeep-branded vehicle, which included the introduction of the new F-Head Hurricane engine. Taller than the previous Go Devil, the Hurricane necessitated a longer grille and a taller hood. This subtle function-over-form design change is the only noteworthy aesthetic difference between the CJ-3A and CJ-3B, so have your ruler handy if you see one in the wild.

1953 Willys Jeep CJ-3B
1953 Willys Jeep CJ-3B with tall grille (photo courtesy of Bring a Trailer)

Introduced in 1955 and produced until 1983, the CJ-5 marked the end of “flat fender” Jeep styling. The new smoothed-over design was a sharp departure from earlier vehicles, and the rounded fenders are the most obvious CJ-5 giveaway. In addition to the somewhat streamlined looks, the CJ-5 got a host of drivetrain upgrades as well as a one-inch increase in wheelbase.

1971 Jeep CJ-5 Renegade II
1971 Jeep CJ-5 Renegade II (photo courtesy of Bring a Trailer)

The CJ-6, a long-wheelbase variant of the CJ that debuted alongside the CJ-5, saw a less modest 20 extra inches between the axles. The CJ-6 had the goal of increased cargo space and improved rear seat comfort, making it a more family friendly variant of the 4×4 Jeep. To better handle the extra pounds and length, the CJ-6 was equipped with heavy duty axles, bigger brakes and a wider track. Beginning in 1965, the CJ-5 and CJ-6 could be optioned with AMC’s new 155-hp “Dauntless” V-6, which doubled the horsepower of the standard four-banger.

1956 Jeep CJ-6
1956 Jeep CJ-6 (photo courtesy of Bring a Trailer)

In 1970, AMC took full ownership of Jeep with big plans for the future. The first V-8 Jeep was introduced in 1973, offered with either a 304- or 360-cubic-inch AMC powerplant. The larger V-8s required the hood and fenders of the CJ to be widened by five inches, which is the easiest way to spot a 1973-75 Jeep.

1975 Jeep CJ-5 V8
1975 Jeep CJ-5 V8 with wide hood and fenders (photo courtesy of Bring a Trailer)

In 1976, AMC introduced the CJ-7, and notable differences included a 10-inch increase in wheelbase (compared to the CJ-5) to account for an automatic transmission, as well an optional molded plastic top and more squared-off door openings. Door shape is the most apparent CJ-7 design change. Eventually, demand for the improved CJ-7 far eclipsed the aging CJ-5, and the latter was discontinued in 1983.

1986 Jeep CJ-7
1986 Jeep CJ-7 (photo courtesy of Bring A Trailer)

Introduced in 1981, the CJ-8 Scrambler is one of the rarer CJs produced. Although mechanically similar to the CJ-7, the Scrambler truck has a 10-inch-longer wheelbase (compared to the CJ-7) and an extended rear overhang. These modifications afforded a far greater payload and make Scramblers easy to identify. Scramblers also lacked V-8 propulsion; all made do with either a four- or six-cylinder engine. The Scrambler’s rarity and lack of appreciation in its own time has made it one of the more desirable CJs today, reflected in the premium demanded for clean Radwood-ready examples. With one of the shorter CJ lifespans, the Scrambler ended production in 1985, followed by the CJ-7 in 1986.

1984 Jeep CJ-8 Scrambler
1984 Jeep CJ-8 Scrambler (photo courtesy of Bring a Trailer)

Jeep Spotter’s Guide: YJ Wrangler

After a 40-year run with multiple generations, the venerable CJ passed the baton to its successor, the oh-so ’80s YJ. Widely considered to be the most notable departure from conventional Jeep styling, the YJ debuted in 1987 as the first Jeep to wear the Wrangler nameplate. Although familiar design cues abound, rectangular lighting, a slanted grille and a modernized interior distinguish the YJ Wrangler from its CJ predecessors. The headlights and turn signals are the easiest YJ giveaway, as the new Wrangler was the first and only Jeep to wear rectangular units.

1992 Jeep YJ Wrangler Renegade
1992 Jeep YJ Wrangler Renegade (photo courtesy of Bring A Trailer)

Although AMC had designed the YJ from the ground up, with a focus on improved on-road manners, the company was sold to the Chrysler Corporation a year after the YJ’s release. The YJ became a product of Chrysler’s short-lived Jeep/Eagle division, and famously appeared in blockbuster films “Jurassic Park” (1993) and “Clueless” (1995) before being phased out of production in 1996.

Jeep Spotter’s Guide: TJ Wrangler

1998 Jeep TJ Wrangler Sahara
1998 Jeep TJ Wrangler Sahara (photo courtesy of Bring A Trailer)

On the heels of the YJ came the TJ Wrangler, introduced in 1997. The TJ was a return to the Jeep styling of yore, with round headlights and a more upright grille. Underneath the sheet metal, the TJ was more than 80% new and one of the most comprehensive redesigns in Jeep’s history. While the TJ more closely resembles its CJ brethren, its face differs in that the headlights do not protrude into the first and seventh grille openings.

2005 Jeep TJ Wrangler Rubicon
2005 Jeep TJ Wrangler Rubicon (photo courtesy of Bring A Trailer)

Another TJ identifier is full coil-spring suspension, which bolstered already impressive off-road capabilities with increased axle articulation and ground clearance, as well as more aggressive approach and departure angles. The earlier CJ had leaf springs, so a glance inside one of the wheel wells should differentiate a TJ from earlier Jeeps. The TJ saw the introduction of the Rubicon package geared toward hard-core off-roaders as well as the reintroduction of a long-wheelbase model, now called the Unlimited, with an additional 10 inches between the axles and 13 inches of extra cargo space.

2005 Jeep TJ Wrangler Unlimited
2005 Jeep TJ Wrangler Unlimited (photo courtesy of Bring A Trailer)

Jeep Spotter’s Guide: JK Wrangler

The JK Wrangler replaced the TJ in 2007, with styling that was more of an evolution than a dramatic departure. Nonetheless, small differences set the two generations apart. The JK received mild face lifts throughout its run, but consistent differences from the TJ include grille-mounted rather than fender-mounted turn signals, fog lights integrated into the bumper and round fender side markers. The JK Wrangler Unlimited trim is also relatively easy to distinguish from its TJ predecessor, as an extra set of doors was introduced on this generation.

2007 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
2007 Jeep JK Wrangler Rubicon (photo courtesy of Jeep/FCA)

Jeep Spotter’s Guide: JL Wrangler and JT Gladiator

The latest Wrangler, the JL, hit the streets and trails in 2018, boasting a design with details pulled from each preceding generation. Like the CJ, the optional-LED headlights protrude into the first and seventh grille openings; like the YJ, the grille has a defined slant; like the TJ, the turn signals are squared off and fender-mounted, yet now the side marker and blinker are one unit; lastly, like the JK, the fog lights are integrated into the bumper. The easiest JL Wrangler giveaway, however, is the location of the Jeep emblem, which for the first time is located on the hood.

2018 Jeep JL Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited
2018 Jeep JL Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited (photo courtesy of Jeep/FCA)

The new JL platform also saw the return of a Jeep truck called the Gladiator. The original Gladiator, produced from 1962-1988, was based on the Wagoneer (SJ) platform and had a conventional pickup configuration. The new-for-2020 JT Gladiator is essentially a four-door Wrangler with a longer wheelbase and an extended frame behind the rear axle to support its five-foot pickup bed. The JL Wrangler and JT Gladiator models put greater emphasis on luxury to meet the demands of an SUV-obsessed market.

2020 Jeep JT Gladiator
2020 Jeep JT Gladiator (photo courtesy of Jeep/FCA)

Identifying each generation of Jeep in stock form is already a challenge, but a robust Jeep aftermarket complicates the task. All the way back to the tough-and-ready MB, Jeeps have been vehicles begging for customization. Although machine-gun mounts are not available for civilian 4x4s, companies like Quadratec, the world’s largest retailer of Jeep parts and accessories, offer everything from functional off-road bumpers and lift kits to form-and-function mods like wheels and LED lighting. Many Jeep enthusiasts enjoy modifying their Jeep to perform better off-road or to look better on the street. For this reason, looking at a modified Jeep’s grille, headlight shape and turn signal location provides useful clues to identify its model generation.

Quadratec Jeep Moab Utah
A modified Jeep JL Wrangler Rubicon tackling a slick rock trail in Moab, Utah (photo courtesy of Quadratec)

The Jeep is one of the few vehicles to have truly stood the test of time. It’s a piece of Americana, reborn with a certain familiarity in every generation. Jeep’s honest and functional styling is a staple of the brand, synonymous with adventure and exploration. Even so, changes throughout the years have allowed the Jeep to enter the modern era with originality. As American as you can get, the Jeep is freedom with four-wheel drive.

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