How the military jeep evolved into the Jeep Wrangler of today

How the military jeep evolved into the Jeep Wrangler of today

The history of the off-road utility vehicle is traced through 13 generations

(This is part a continuing series of stories from Motor Authority about the iconic Jeep from its origins as a World War II workhorse to its history as a robust off-road vehicle for work and play.)  

Jeep Wrangler has a long and illustrious history. Trace its ancestry back to its lowercase-”jeep” forefathers, and it goes back to before America entered World War II, through at least a dozen models that share its uncomplicated, irreplaceable DNA.

The genealogy of the jeep starts in May 1940, with the small U.S. automaker Bantam. The company was losing at the car game and looking for government work to stay afloat. That month it submitted proposals to the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Corps Ordnance Technical Committee for reconnaissance cars it had developed from its small Bantam Roadster.

The committee liked the idea so much, it shopped it out to 135 manufacturers. Each was to submit proposals for a quarter-ton reconnaissance vehicle with four-wheel drive, room for three and a 30-caliber machine gun, a payload of 600 pounds, and a featherlight weight limit of 1,300 pounds. Any automaker interested had just 49 days to build a working prototype.

Bantam was the only manufacturer to meet that deadline, but Willys-Overland and Ford soon submitted proposals of their own, though based off Bantam’s design. The Army ordered 1,500 sample vehicles from each manufacturer for further evaluation—and Willys’ design beat them all.

Jeep

1944 Willys MB jeep

The final design, called the MB, used Willys’ reliable 60-horsepower 134-cubic-inch (2.2-liter) “Go-Devil” 4-cylinder engine, weighed 2,450 pounds, and incorporated the flat hood that Ford had pioneered. Willys-Overland eventually built 362,841 military General Purpose vehicles, while Ford built 280,448 under the name GPW for General Purpose Willys. Bantam, which had drawn the basic shape, built only 2,643 units, including that order of 1,500.

The jeep was integral to America’s “Arsenal of Democracy” as part of the Lend-Lease program that supplied our allies even before America entered World War II. It did any kind of work the military needed, across the globe—in Europe, and Africa, and China—and soldiers loved it.

More than 600,000 military jeeps were built for the war.

When the war ended, Willys-Overland realized it could sell the vehicle to civilians. Through the decades and various corporate owners that followed, the jeep morphed into the Jeep, and eventually became the Wrangler. Here’s how we trace that family tree:

Jeep

1945 Willys-Overland CJ-2A

The government’s contract with Ford expired on July 31, 1945, leaving Willys-Overland with the rights to the jeep. The company had been making plans for a civilian jeep, or CJ, since 1943, and the vehicle it settled on, the CJ-2A, differed from the MB military jeep in several ways.

It used 7-inch headlights instead of 6-inchers, the spare tire moved from the rear to the right side, a tailgate was added, the passenger side got an automatic windshield wiper instead of a hand-operated unit, and it added a remote gas filler instead of a direct filler under the driver’s seat.

The gear ratios also changed to permit a higher top speed of 60 mph (up from 55), cooling was improved, the frame was reinforced, and the clutch was strengthened.

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In the interest of comfort, the springs were softened, better shocks were used, and a new driver’s seat was installed. It was still Spartan, though. The front passenger seat and rear seats were optional, as were a rear power takeoff ($90.67), a front top ($51.05), a rear top ($28.44), a heater ($17.41), and more. The base price was just $1,090 plus a $46.53 federal excise tax.

Willys-Overland marketed it as the Jeep Universal for its many capabilities, and indeed, the little jeep did yeoman’s work for farming, fire departments, landscaping, and anything else America could throw it at. It sold well as 214,202 were built through 1949. In 1950, Willys-Overland trademarked the Jeep name.

Jeep

1949 Willys-Overland CJ-3A

The CJ-3A was little changed from the 2A. It received a one-piece windshield that increased the vehicle’s height from 64 to 66 3/8 inches, rear-seat passengers lost leg room to front-seat passengers, and the transmission and transfer case were strengthened. The wheelbase remained a tight 80 inches.

Willys-Overland built the CJ-3A for five years, cranking out 131,843 vehicles. The next models would last far longer.

Jeep

1953 Willys Motors CJ-3B

The Jeep received its first power upgrade for 1953. Now under the ownership of Kaiser, Willys-Overland converted the Go-Devil 4-cylinder to an F-head design and rebranded it the Hurricane. The change put the intake valves in the head and the exhaust ports in the block, which allowed for larger valves and improved breathing. The result was in increase in horsepower from 60 to 72 and an improvement in torque from 106 to 114 pound-feet.

The new engine required a higher hood line that moved the headlights higher and gave the Jeep an awkward, surprised look in the eyes of some. The CJ-3B lasted until 1968 and overlapped with the CJ-5 for several years.

Jeep

1955 Willys Motors CJ-5

The CJ-5 that arrived in 1955 was developed from the MD-MB38 A1 military jeep, which was based on the CJ-3A. However, it was a much-improved model that was almost 6 inches longer overall at 135.5 inches, with a 1-inch longer wheelbase (now 81 inches). It was also 3 inches wider, so it had more front leg room and hip room. A new rear bench seat made four occupants a more realistic proposition.

The ride became more livable thanks to softer front springs and stiffer rear springs and a stronger, fully boxed frame with an added crossmember. The Hurricane 4-cylinder still churned the same 72 hp and 114 lb-ft of torque as the CJ-3B, but the goofy tall-hood look was gone.

The headlights added chrome surrounds and extended into the grille, the front fenders traced a different curve, and the top now fit better. The CJ-5 remained in production through 1983, and 603,303 were built. A rear-wheel-drive version was also released under the name DJ-5.

Jeep

1955 Willys Motors CJ-6

Jeeps were always small, but when the CJ-5 arrived, so did the CJ-6 with a 20-inch longer wheelbase. The 101 inches between the tires allowed more room for passengers and cargo but made for a gawky look that didn’t catch on with American buyers. Just 50,172 were built through 1976, and they continued for the export market through 1981.

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Buyers could order a 192-cubic-inch (3.1-liter) Perkins 4-cylinder diesel engine from 1961 to 1969 for both the CJ-6 and CJ-5, and the long-wheelbase Jeep was offered with two-wheel drive as the DJ-6. In 2004, the Wrangler Unlimited picked up on the CJ-6’s extended-length idea and quickly expanded Jeep sales.

Jeep

1976 Jeep CJ-7

Kaiser Industries Corporation sold Jeep to AMC in late 1969, and the reformed company’s first new offering was the CJ-7. Longer than the CJ-5, the CJ-7 split the difference with the CJ-6. It rode a new 93.4-inch wheelbase to give it enough room for an automatic transmission as well as passengers but keep it short enough for off-road agility.

It also permitted the use of Jeep’s Quadra-Trac full-time four-wheel-drive system for the first time, improving off-road ability in concert with a stiffer frame. The Jeep gained a new plastic top, roll-up windows, and lockable metal doors.

Engines included 4-cylinder gas and diesel powerplants, 232- and 258-cubic-inch straight-6s, and AMC’s 304-cubic-inch V8. A total of 379,299 CJ-7s were built by the time it retired in 1986.

Jeep

1981 Jeep CJ-8 Scrambler

Before there was the Jeep Gladiator, there was the CJ-8 Scrambler. Released midway through 1981, it was based on the CJ-7, but used a 10-inch longer wheelbase to accommodate a 5-foot pickup bed. The cab’s top was removable, and occupants could access the bed by simply turning around. A soft top was standard and a hard top was optional.

Other options included a folding rear liftgate and steel doors. Otherwise, it was mechanically identical to the CJ-7. Scrambler was actually a graphics package, and like those graphics, the name stuck to the little pickup. Only 27,792 were built through 1986.

Jeep

1987 Jeep Wrangler (YJ)

The Wrangler was developed under AMC, introduced when Renault took control of AMC, and brought to market under new Chrysler ownership. The Wrangler sat lower than the CJ-7, and its track was 2.2 inches wider up front and 2.9 inches wider in the rear, all of which was important because the CJ-7 had been accused of rolling over too easily by “60 Minutes” in 1980.

Underneath, it featured a perimeter frame and semi-elliptical leaf springs with front and rear traction bars and a front stabilizer bar. All were tuned for an improved on-road ride, despite the solid front and rear axles. The body looked familiar, but square headlights replaced the traditional round units.

Buyers had the choice of a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder that made 117 hp and 135 lb-ft of torque or a 4.2-liter inline-6 that churned out 112 hp and 210 lb-ft of twist. The Command-Trac four-wheel-drive system could run in two-wheel drive and offered low-range gearing and shift-on-the-fly capability, but it wasn’t meant for use on dry pavement. A locking rear differential was optional. Production continued through 1995, and 632,231 were built.

Jeep

1996 Jeep Wrangler (TJ)

The Wrangler YJ’s square headlights proved unpopular and the TJ model that followed returned to round beams. More importantly, it got coil springs for the first time, which greatly improves ride quality and extended wheel travel. Approach and departure angles improved as well.

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The TJ wasn’t a complete redesign, but 77 percent of the parts were new. The body and track were about an inch wider. Engine options included a 120-hp 2.5-liter 4-cylinder and a 180-hp 4.0-liter inline-6.

New safety features appeared on the TJ. It added standard front airbags while 6-cylinder models offered optional anti-lock brakes. Trim levels included the $13,470 base model, the SE, and the Sahara that cost $19,210. Part-time 4WD remained on the menu, as did a locking rear differential, and buyers could get a Dana 44 rear axle. Jeep added the Wrangler Unlimited in 2004 with 13 additional inches of rear cargo room.

Jeep

2007 Jeep Wrangler (JK)

The ever-growing Jeep grew again in 2007, but in the right dimensions. It became 5.4 inches wider overall with a 3-inch wider track to make it more planted. The wheelbase was 2 inches longer for more passenger space, but the overall length was 3 inches shorter to better conquer the trails.

The Wrangler Unlimited became the first four-door Wrangler and it rode a wheelbase that was 20.6 inches longer. Both models added a rounded windshield for the first time, though it could still be folded down. Under the hood, a 205-hp 3.8-liter V6 from Chrysler replaced both the 2.5-liter 4-cylinder and the venerable 4.0-liter inline-6, while underneath the Wrangler adopted a disconnecting front sway bar for control in corners and wheel articulation off road.

A new Rubicon model became the ultimate off-roader with lockable front and rear differentials, the disconnecting sway bar, knobbier tires, and a lower crawl ratio. The JK received an interior upgrade in 2011 and switched to the smoother and stronger 285-hp 3.6-liter V6 in 2012.

Jeep

2018 Jeep Wrangler (JL)

Jeep added some modern technology to the 2018 Wrangler while also sticking to its basics. The ladder frame uses more high-strength steel, which allowed Jeep to reduce the number of crossmembers from eight to five. A new 2.0-liter turbo-4 with a 48-volt electrical system gives the Wrangler mild hybrid capability, and an 8-speed automatic transmission improves fuel economy for all models.

The Wrangler is bigger, too. The two-door version is 2.5 inches longer with an inch longer wheelbase, while the four-door is about 3.5 inches longer with a wheelbase stretched by almost 2.5 inches. All models have a track that is 1 inch wider, they all sit at least 1.5 inches higher, and the Rubicons are higher still, with 11 inches of ground clearance partially due to their big 33-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires.

The 285-hp 3.6-liter V6 is still available, and a 3.0-liter V6 turbodiesel is promised. The current Wrangler is the most roadworthy civilian Jeep ever offered, but it doesn’t forget its go-anywhere, do-anything roots.

Jeep

2020 Jeep Gladiator

Like the CJ-8 Scrambler before it, the Gladiator is essentially a pickup based on the Wrangler. It has the wonderful and peculiar traits of a Wrangler: the fold-down windshield, the convertible top (available as a hard top or soft top), the solid front and rear axles, and the removable doors.

It also adds a 5-foot bed for utility. Unlike the CJ-8, however, this one has a full crew cab with two rows of seats and room for five. Teamed with the bed, that requires a wheelbase almost 19 inches longer than the four-door Wrangler.

The lone engine thus far is the 285-hp 3.6-liter V6 hooked to either a 6-speed manual or 8-speed automatic transmission, but a 3.0-liter V6 turbodiesel with 260 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque is promised for 2020. Like the Wrangler, the Gladiator also offers a Rubicon model, complete with the locking front and rear diffs, disconnecting sway bar, 33-inch tires, and snail’s pace crawl ratio.

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  • Car Guy`
    June 12, 2019, 12:03 PM

    Check your facts….. No wrangler was produced for model year 96. Jeep went back to round headlights with 97.

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  • Tim smith
    June 12, 2019, 12:04 PM

    No Wranglers were produced in model year 96

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