Flatfender vs. CJ vs. Wrangler
What’s the difference between 1941-present Jeeps?
OK, so the title to this story is sort of misleading because many flatfenders were technically CJs. But CJs technically weren't used by the military. And to convolute things more, Wrangler generations are far from the same. In fact, the first-generation YJ Wrangler has about as much in common with the WWII flatfender than it does with the current model JL Wrangler. But we're here to help give budding Jeep aficionados some information so the next time you're watching reruns of The A-Team and the military is chasing the quirky band of mercenaries around in camouflaged CJ-7 Jeeps, you can impress your buddies by pausing the show and pointing out the glaring inaccuracies of 1980s TV production.
1941-1942 Pre-Standardized WWII jeeps
Notice we're using a lower-case "j" here. Technically it doesn't become a "Jeep" until the military contracts expired after WWII and Jeep becomes a trademark of the Willys Corporation. Anyway, with the storm clouds of war building in Europe, the U.S. military stepped up bid requests for a light -ton vehicle for reconnaissance, troop transport, and generally any old job a horse used to do. What it received in September of 1940 was the Bantam Pilot, which was a light-duty, four-cylinder, solid-axle 4x4. In November of 1940, the Willys Quad and Ford Pygmy were received for trials, with additional models of Bantam Pilot and BRC-60, Willys Quad, and Ford Pygmy being ordered and tested. Ultimately, an order of 1,500 for each pre-standardized Bantam, Willys, and Ford models were placed, most of which were shipped to allies overseas via the Lend Lease program.
For 1941-1942 Bantam, the BRC-40 was produced with a 112ci 45-hp four-cylinder engine, three-speed transmission, two-speed T-case with 1.97:1 Low, and solid front and rear axles running 4.88 gears. In addition to the grille, the easy way to spot a BRC-40 against the other pre-standardized Jeeps is that unlike the Willys and Ford versions, the rear of the tub corners are squared off as opposed to rounded.
The Willys MA had the most power, eking 60 hp from its 134ci engine. A three-speed Warner transmission, Spicer 18 T-case with 1.97:1 Low, and Dana 25 front and Dana 23 rear axles with 4.88 gears would become all too familiar components once specs for the standardized jeeps were solidified. The Willys MA used what would become the standardized T-case configuration with front and rear outputs offset to the driver side. The BRC-40 and Ford GP used passenger-side drop axles. The Willys also had the most unique hood/fender/grille and had a column shifter for the three-speed transmission, making them relatively easy to spot. These are the rarest of the pre-standardized jeeps with very few in existence today.
The Ford GP has a slatted grille somewhat like that of the BRC-40, but the headlights on the GP are housed completely within the silhouette of the grille, while the BRC-40 headlights spill out of the top. The Ford GP made 45 hp from a 119ci four-cylinder and employed a Ford-built three-speed manual, Spicer 18 with 1.97:1 Low, and Dana 25 and Dana 23 axles with 4.88 gears. With the biggest potential for production under its belt, Ford kept its hat in the ring despite the fact that it didn't wow in the power department like the Willys.
1941-1945 Standardized WWII jeeps
Beginning just prior to the USA's entry into WWII, hard specifications were finalized and contracts went to Willys and Ford to build standardized jeeps for military use. Aside from very early production slatted grille models that featured grilles made of welded strap steel like the Ford GP, the Ford GPW and Willy MB were produced from late 1941 through 1945. Dead giveaways that you can differentiate a WWII GPW and MB jeeps from later civilian Jeeps are a ten-slot grille with small headlights, a semi-float Dana 23-2 axle, lack of a tailgate, and indentations in the driver side of the tub for pioneering tools. Additionally, you'll see what looks like a box protruding from under the tub that housed the underseat 15-gallon fuel tank. Later civilian models had a smaller 10-gallon tank that didn't require the bump-out.
1945-1949 CJ-2A Jeeps
Overlooking the uber-rare '44-'45 CJ-2 Agri-Jeep, which is considered the first civilian Jeep and was little more than an MB with "Jeep" badges added to it, the CJ-2A is easily distinguished from a WWII jeep by its large headlights, seven-slot grille, "Willys" stamp on the side of the hood, semi-floating rear axle, and pop-out windshield. The earliest CJ-2A models retained the vestigial pioneer tool indents on the driver side of the tub and had column-shift transmissions rather than the conventional floor shifter for the T-90 T-case, but all were powered by the 63-hp 134ci Go Devil engine that featured a different carburetor than the WWII flatties. The axles were a Dana 25 front and Dana 41 rear, which can be identified by an oblongish diff cover. Axle gearing was 5.38 in the axle gears and thanks to an increase in intermediate gear shaft size from inch to 1.120 inch and different tooth count on the gears, the Spicer 18 Low Range was increased from 1.97:1 to 2.43:1.
1949-1953 CJ-3A Jeeps
The CJ-3A brought a few refinements such as elimination of external top bow pockets on the back of the tub, a windshield with a larger glass area and a pop-out vent in the center, slightly larger marker lamps in the grille under the headlights, and a semi-float Dana 44 rear axle in place of the Dana 41. Otherwise, the CJ-3A was mechanically the same as the CJ-2A and without a windshield frame, many would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between them.
1950-1952 M38 Jeeps
As the interim model between the storied MB/GPW WWII flatfenders and the later M38A1, the M38 in many ways is the high water mark for flatfender enthusiasts. Based on the CJ-3A and sharing many of its mechanical attributes like the 134ci Go Devil engine. Down from the civilian Jeep's rated 63 hp to 60 hp thanks to its Carter YO-637 carb and slightly more restrictive exhaust, the M38 featured the large headlights and seven-slat grille of the civilian CJ-2A and CJ-3A, had the larger windshield glass and center frame vent of the CJ-3A, and 2.43:1 Spicer 18 and 5.38 gearing in the Dana 25 and Dana 44 axles.
M38 Military Flatfender
However, the M38 featured a gauge panel in the dash that could be easily removed with four quick-release fasteners, had a glove box on the passenger side of the dash, used military-grade switches, and can easily be identified at a glance by its passenger-side pioneering tool indents on the tub, extra-large fuel cap, and (if still present) blackout lighting. It also featured a cool positive-pressure system that diverted crankcase pressure to the diffs and gearboxes to keep water from intruding on deep crossings, as well as a snorkel cutout in the hood and (for some models) Power Lock limited-slip differentials in the front and/or rear.
1953-1968 Willys CJ-3B Jeeps
Technically, here in the United States the CJ-3B was only sold until about 1965, but they were exported in civilian and military variants until 1968. However, we'll stick with the U.S.-market versions. Of all the flatfenders, the CJ-3B is most easily distinguishable by the love-it-or-leave-it "high hood," which gives it is nickname. The high hood was necessitated by the new F-head engine, which was an unusual design in that it featured overhead intake valves located in the cylinder head yet left the exhaust valves in the block like the flathead Go Devil. Dubbed "Hurricane" by Willys, the engine could be had in either a 72-hp version with 6.9:1 compression or a 75-hp version with 7.4:1 compression. Aside from the more powerful engine, the CJ-3B was mechanically similar to the CJ-3A
1952-1957 M38A1/M-170 Jeeps
With the exception of a single unicorn CJ-4 that's rumored to exist somewhere in the world, the first round-fender Jeep was the 1952 military M38A1, which would set many of the styling cues for all universal Jeep models to come. Powered by the 6.9:1, 72-hp F-head Hurricane engine, the overall grille, hood, windshield, and front fender styling was totally different than the earlier flatfenders, as was the increased dimensions of the tub. The front fenders featured the now-familiar forward-facing downward lip, which helped keep mud and rain from spitting off the front tires and kicking back into the windshield or driver's face. The M38A1 featured the same military gauge panel configuration in the dash as the M38, a glove box on the driver side of the steering column, and military switches throughout. The 24-volt battery system was mounted under a lid in the cowl, and the front suspension had a shackle-reversal for the first time in Jeep history. Easy ways to distinguish an M38A1 from a civilian round-fender CJ at a glance is the small blackout lights in the grille, lack of headlight trim rings, removable cutout in the passenger side of the hood for a snorkel, extra tall dash board, and (for those not covered over) "Dog Dish" recess in the passenger-side tub under the cowl into which an antenna was originally mounted.
Starting in 1953, a longer version of the M38A1 was produced with a 20-inch increase in wheelbase and an elongated opening in the passenger side and cutouts in the tailgate to accommodate a stretcher. These M-170s saw duty primarily as field ambulances, but some, such as this slightly modified '53 owned by Christian Hazel, were equipped with field radio setups and had larger generators and gauges required for working the equipment.
1955-1971 CJ-5, CJ-6 "Early CJ" Jeeps
Introduced in 1955 with many of the mechanical features of the M38A1, the 1955 CJ-5 had a flat dashboard with a single round gauge that housed the speedo, temp, and fuel level gauges. A glove box was installed in the dash on the passenger side, and the vestigial battery box in the cowl of the M38A1 remained, although it was capped with a welded-on cover to render it functionless. So too, remained the snorkel cutout on the passenger side of the hood, but the filler plate was welded in and not removable. The civilian CJs had a shackle-forward front suspension, larger marker lamps in the grille, and chrome-plated headlight trim rings. Mechanically, the 72-hp Hurricane four-cylinder was the only engine available until the 225ci V-6 was introduced as an option in 1966. There was also a super-rare Perkins diesel engine option that enjoyed few takers. Transmissions could be T-90 behind the Hurricane, the T-14 behind the V-6, and some rarely optioned T98 four-speeds are out there. Axles were a Dana 25 front and Dana 44 rear. In 1966, the Dana 27 replaced the Dana 25 front and in 1970.5, the Dana 44 rear got a severe upgrade to one-piece 30-spline axle shafts. Alongside the entire run of 81-inch-wheelbase CJ-5s was offered the CJ-6, with a 101-inch wheelbase.
You can generally tell an early CJ-5 or CJ-6 at a glance from its civilian grille and small door openings with a lack of side-marker lamps embedded in the leading vertical edges of the front fenders. Those weren't added until about 1970. Additionally, thanks to the 2.43:1 (or later 1.25-inch intermediate shaft, 2.46:1) offset Spicer 18 T-cases, early CJs can be quickly spotted due to their offset rear axle pumpkin.
1972-1975 "Intermediate" CJ-5 and CJ-6 Jeeps
After AMC took over Kaiser, which had been building Jeeps since Willys, it ultimately did away with the F-head four-cylinder as the base model for the CJ and added 3 inches to the front sheetmetal and wheelbase in order to accommodate AMC's 232 and later 258ci inline-six engine. The 232's 115 hp was well above the F-head's 72 hp, and the 258's 145 hp more than doubled the Hurricane's rating. If that weren't enough, for the first time, the CJ could be ordered with an optional V-8 engine, namely AMC's torque 304ci that made 150 hp and 245 lb-ft. In addition to the longer front sheetmetal and wheelbase increase out to 84 inches, intermediate CJs are easily identified by a manual or power Saginaw steering box mounted on the driver-side front framerail that did away with the overly complex Ross Cam & Lever steering of '71 and older Jeeps, a centered Dana 44 rear axle with excellent 30-spline one-piece axle shafts, and a drum brake Dana 30 front axle with open knuckles rather than the closed knuckles of the earlier Dana 25 and Dana 27 axles. On top of the better axles, the rear Dana 44 featured a centered pumpkin for the Dana 20 T-case. Transmission options were a T-14 three-speed or T-18 four-speed behind the inline-six or a T-15 or T-18 behind the V-8. Further easily identifiable features of an intermediate compared with an early CJ are a rear-mounted fuel tank under the cargo area, a relatively upright windshield angle compared with later-model CJs, and swinging brake and clutch pedals that actuate a firewall-mounted master cylinder and Z-type clutch linkage as opposed to the older style through-floor pedals with the master mounted low on the frame. Like the early CJs, intermediate versions were also available with a 20-inch longer wheelbase in CJ-6 variants through the model run. An intermediate is a great starter Jeep for a new enthusiast looking for a CJ with vintage feel and styling, but that doesn't require as much intricate work as the earlier models.
1976-1983 "Late" CJ-5 and CJ-6 Jeeps
As much as the intermediate CJs may be considered a step forward, in some areas the late CJs were a step backward. For the 1976, Jeep CJs were given a significant mechanical makeover, although the overall styling remained relatively familiar. The CJ-6 was dropped for the domestic market in 1976 thanks to the advent of the CJ-7, but it was still produced for the export market. For the dash, several switches, HVAC pulls, additional gauges, and padded dash pad busied the control center. The base engine remained the I-6 with the 304-V-8 remaining on the options list until 1981. In 1980 the 151ci GM-sourced "Iron Duke" four-cylinder with 82 carbureted horsepower became the base engine for the CJ-5's final two years of production. Other disappointments ushered in for 1976 was the Dana 44 rear axle giving way to AMC's Model 20, which in itself wasn't a very bad design, but the CJ Model 20 got very weak axletubes and inferior two-piece outers that separated easily if the axle nut backed off and allowed the single Woodruff key to dislodge, bend, or break. Transmission options remained mostly manual, with varying three- and four-speed manuals offered behind the I-6, V-8, and I-4 engines, and for the first time in a short-wheelbase CJ, an automatic option in the form of a Torqueflight 904 was offered behind the four-cylinder starting in 1981. Ultimately, with the take rate on the CJ-5 dwindling compared with its more popular and long-wheelbase CJ-7 brother, production of the short-wheelbase CJ-5 ceased in 1983. Really the easiest way to tell a late CJ-5 from an intermediate or early is via the windshield with its more dramatic rake and wiper motor no longer visibly mounted on the exterior of the frame. Or, just answer the question, "Does that look like a CJ-7 with a narrow door opening?"
1976-1986 CJ-7 Jeeps
Here comes the Goldilocks Jeep. If the 84-inch-wheelbase CJ-5 was too short for some buyers and the 104-inch-wheelbase CJ-6 was too long, then the 94-inch-wheelbase CJ-7 proved to be just right. Introduced for the 1976 model year with the same front sheetmetal as the CJ-5, the CJ-7 added 10 inches between the wheels, greatly increasing the interior room and allowing a stretched door opening that was much easier to get in and out of. Along with the longer wheelbase and more interior room, the CJ-7 quickly started piling on the options straight out of the gate. For the first time, you could order an automatic, although you had to order the V-8 to get the TH400 with the full-time Quadra-Trac T-case. In 1977 front disc brakes became standard and air conditioning became an option, and in 1982 the track width was increased 4.3 inches in the front and 5.1 inches in the rear.
Rubber fender flares make these later "wide-track" Jeeps easy to spot at a distance. From 1982-1986, a longer-wheelbase version of the CJ-7 was introduced, but unlike the CJ-6, in addition to adding 10 inches for a 104-inch wheelbase between the tires, the CJ-8 Scrambler featured an extended rear overhang for additional cargo capacity. On all models, the front axle remained the open-knuckle Dana 30, but for the final year of CJ production the AMC Model 20 rear was finally replaced with the Dana 44. CJ-7s are easy to spot at a distance if you pay attention to the door opening. If they've got Wrangler-sided doors, a fold-down tailgate, and a flat dash, it's most likely a CJ-7 as opposed to the Wrangler imposter.
1987-1995 YJ Wrangler Jeeps
With federal rollover regulations and wild press accusations of CJ stability issues playing with the public's trust in Jeep CJs, the YJ came to market with a rash of stability-enhancing features. Front and rear track bars, wider springs that were more widely spaced on the axles, and relatively limited articulation in stock form were some of the trade-offs to obtain better anti-rollover reviews. The YJ is the most recognized (and sometimes reviled) face in the universal Jeep world thanks to its grille. For the first time, the Jeep universal featured not only square headlights, but a grille that wasn't completely flat. The YJ grille kicks out in a chevron from the middle of the grille bars.
On the inside, the YJ features a plastic dash with a gazillion gauges bedazzling the whole array stretching from the driver side almost to the passenger compartment. And for the first time, a swing-out tailgate replaced the drop-down tailgate of the CJ lineage. The swing-out tailgate made it easier to reach deep into the Wrangler tub from the rear and allowed the spare tire to be mounted to the tailgate, but you lost you picnic table when you were out on the trail.
The early YJ models could be had with a base 2.5L Chrysler four-cylinder TBI engine and AX4 or AX5 transmission. The four-cylinder actually made more horsepower than the 112-hp electronically controlled carbureted 258ci optional inline six-cylinder. The transmission of choice behind the six-cylinder was the lackluster and forgettable Peugeot BA-10, which was little more than an aluminum bag of bolts waiting to spew chunks out onto the road. In 1989 the AX15 thankfully replaced the BA-10 as the six-cylinder engine. In 1991 both engines benefitted greatly from Chrysler's involvement in Jeep, with the 2.5L being treated to a switch from TBI to MPI. And the 4.2L 258 six gave way to the HO 4.0L with MPI injection and 181 hp. The six-cylinder could be had with an optional TF999 auto transmission, and in either drivetrain the NP231 T-case delivered a 2.72:1 Low.
The axles were a mix of good and bad, with a high-pinion Dana 30 up front that made do with an unnecessary Central Axle Disconnect system, and a Dana 35 rear. The earlier '87-'89 axles were slightly better than the '90-later C-clip style. At least with the earlier versions, when your axle snapped you didn't lose your wheel. But that said, the YJ was a good, solid vehicle that lacked the sex appeal of its earlier siblings.
1997-2006 TJ Wrangler and TJ Wrangler Unlimited Jeeps
Technically, depending on who you speak to, most agree there was no 1996 Wrangler. Production ceased on the YJ in 1995, and the company coasted on sales of prebuilt units until the TJ came on line in 1996 as a 1997 model year. Where the YJ lacked off-road attributes, the TJ came to the table swinging a mean articulation stick thanks to its four-wheel coil suspension. The front suspension was essentially the same as the '84-up XJ Cherokee, with the coil rear borrowing technology from the '93-up ZJ Grand Cherokee. The TJ made good on the horrors of the square-headlight grille with a return to the happy round headlights that Jeep has been known for.
In addition to the grille, TJs have a slightly larger wheel opening, allowing them to accommodate up to a 31-inch tire on a stock suspension with only minor rubbing. The TJ flares are somewhat unique in that they extend way forward and house the side marker/reflector in the flexible plastic. With very few exceptions there aren't many visual clues to differentiate a YJ from a TJ tub. The TJ uses a newer cam style hood latch, where the YJ used old-school pulls and stops almost identical to those of WWII jeeps. Inside, the TJ upped the interior refinement with a central gauge pod, center stack containing the radio and HVAC systems, and for the first time, driver- and passenger-side airbags.
Mechanically, the early TJs came with the MPI 2.5L or 4.0L engines. The 4.0L saw out the entire TJ line, but the 2.5L was replaced in 2003 with the DOHC 2.4L four-cylinder that made 147 hp. In 2003 the first Jeep Rubicon model was offered with front and rear Dana 44s, lockers, and a 4:1 T-case among some of its other party pieces, and in 2004, the longer-wheelbase TJ Unlimited brought back some CJ-6 vibe to the TJ lineup. Aside from the Dana 35 rear axle on the four-cylinder and some early six-cylinder models, there really aren't that many inherently problematic components used in TJ Wranglers. Pound for pound, they offer some of the best engine, transmission, and axle components Jeep ever put in its vehicles.
2007-2017 JK Wrangler Jeeps
Out went the TJ and in came the JK with an elephantine wallop. For the first time ever, you could buy a four-door Wrangler. Apparently it's what the market had been clamoring for, because ever since the JK Wrangler Unlimited, Jeep has been producing a majority of four-door vehicles and selling every one it can build. With electronic stability controls, a perky 202-hp 3.8L V-6, and a decent six-speed NSG370 manual or four-speed auto transmission, the first few years of JK Wranglers killed it. The 3.8L was replaced by the 3.6L and with almost 300 hp, and the new engine did better at pulling the hefty JKU across the prairie. With its dimensionally larger tub, wider stance, and distinctive grille, there's really not much chance of mistaking a JK for a TJ or CJ, especially if it's a four-door.
2018-present JL Wrangler Jeeps
Wanna tell a JL from a JK at a hundred yards? The headlight rings protrude into the outermost grille slats, there's an indented scoop in the fender sheetmetal just behind the plastic flare, and the front marker lamps are tastefully moved out of the grille into the flare. It's actually the first time a production "universal Jeep" hasn't had a marker lamp in the grille, only headlights. How about that. Like the JK, the JL is powered by a 3.6L base V-6, but now there's a powerful 2.0L eTorque turbocharged inline-four and a 3.0L turbodiesel option available. Will JL ever see a V-8 like CJ Wrangler? We can only hope and wait, but for now JL is a quantum leap ahead of JK in terms of comfort, refinement, and (in this author's opinion) looks.