Jeep celebrates its 70th Anniversary in 2011, and as we welcome the best Wrangler yet, we also pay tribute to the original Trail Rated truck. Though Jeep considers its birth year to be 1941, when the first military-spec Jeeps rolled off the line in Toledo, Ohio, the first "Civilian Jeeps," or "CJs," weren't available until 1945. This Model CJ2A is number 26.
One of only a handful built with a column-shift "three-on-the-tree" three-speed manual transmission, this truck spends most of its time in the Chrysler collection, but it's led a full life. Jeep acquired it from an Indiana collector, who in turn had bought it from a school district that was using it to pull parade floats. Before undergoing a full restoration, it was said to have been covered in several layers house paint "an inch thick." Today, it looks just as it did when it rolled off the Willys-Overland production line 67 years ago.
Drives like it, too. Puttering around Motor Trend headquarters, the CJ was only slightly trickier to handle than a modern Wrangler. Like any old truck, there's a fair amount of play in the steering and it never really tracks straight unless you keep sawing at the wheel. The column-mounted shifter takes a little getting used to, but it's the same H-pattern you'll find on any modern stick shift. Even the transfer case operates nearly the same as a new truck, though it has separate levers to engage the front axle and to switch between 4-High and 4-Low.
Of course, the new Wrangler isn't temperamental on cold-starts and doesn't need a manual choke. And you don't have to rev-match every downshift to keep from grinding the gears, or operate the passenger-side windshield wiper by hand. But then, the new Wrangler doesn't come standard with a power take-off hanging out of the tail, either. It does, however, have a stereo and gauges that can be read without looking down by the floor.
Jeep boasts that the CJ was the first inexpensive four-wheel-drive vehicle the consumer could purchase, and came with civilian-friendly features like better shocks and springs and a remote fuel filler that didn't require you to fold the driver's seat out of the way. The upgrades help the CJ ride only a bit rougher than a modern 3/4-ton truck and handle surprisingly crisply. More so than you'll actually need it to, since the seats have no bolsters or, for that matter, seat belts. The seats are actually quite plush and help further iron out the bumps in the road.
The 60-horsepower L-head four-cylinder is enough to get the lithe 2200-pound truck down the road with some authority, but no one will accuse the CJ of being fast. The shifter is vague, though in the opposite manner that you would expect, with neutral being harder to find than the gears. Downshifts require a light touch and some rev-matching, but it quickly becomes second-nature. The drum brakes on all four corners are more than enough for the featherweight rig in normal driving, though we made sure to maintain a large following distance in lieu of a panic-stop test. Not that we were at all concerned about hurting the all-steel Jeep, but rather having to remove the steering wheel from our ribs. In fact, the old workhorse felt so solid that we had to fight unrelenting urges to drive over the nearest obstacle for no other reason than because we knew the CJ would do it. It is a museum piece, after all.
Driving the CJ, it's hard to imagine how our grandfathers, fathers, or younger selves did it while being shot at. The low sides and nonexistent doors and seatbelts are ever-present in the mind, as are the smooth, flat seats. You feel as if you could be thrown out while executing a three-point turn. There's no protection from the elements, much less bullets, save the collapsible windshield, and the only soft-touch materials to be found are the seat cushions. It's not child-friendly, it's not luxurious, and it makes no apologies. This is a work vehicle, and those are prices we'll gladly to pay to enjoy the feeling of driving a national treasure.
Easy to drive, easy to fix, nearly impossible to break, and all for just $1200 new; it's easy to see why not much has changed in the last 70 years.