John Rutherford joined the United States Navy the day after he received his high-school diploma in January 1944. Before long, the seventeen-year-old Illinois farm boy was a Seaman First Class aboard the attack-transport ship USS Mendocino (APA-100) in the Pacific theater of World War II. Some of Rutherford’s duties included applying touch-up paint to the sides of the 492-foot ship (the weak ammunition of Japanese attack planes marred, but didn’t penetrate, its hull) and the more dangerous task of piloting a Higgins boat, an amphibious landing craft loaded with beach-bound Marines. When the Mendocino docked in places such as the Philippines and Okinawa, Rutherford had the more pleasurable job of chauffeuring the ship’s captain onshore in a little blue-gray, quarter-ton, four-by-four general-purpose vehicle, a.k.a. “jeep.”
By the time of Rutherford’s service, Willys-Overland — the company that built the majority of those wartime quarter-tons and engineered the blueprints — was already advertising the Jeep with a capital J. It had also applied to trademark the term, even though Ford built some 280,000 Jeeps for the war effort and tiny American Bantam had designed and created the original prototype in a frantic ten-week span beginning in July 1940. Nearly 650,000 military Jeeps aided the Allies during the next five years, serving such varied purposes as ambulance, tow truck, snowplow, road grader, presidential motorcar, parachutist, communications center, machine-gun pedestal, fire-fighting water pumper, train engine, religious altar, gunfire shield, and soup heater.
Predictably, countless servicemen returned home with great respect for their trusty wartime sidekicks, and Rutherford was more smitten than most. Back in western Illinois, he immediately bought a beat-up ex-military Jeep from the American Legion and followed it with a parade of civilian Jeeps, or CJs. Prototypes assumed the CJ-1 and CJ-1A names, and probably fewer than fifty CJ-2s, known as Agrijeeps, were built. The CJ-2A that began production in July 1945 paved the way for decades of Jeep sales to consumers. The model differed from Rutherford’s Navy-spec steed in several ways, including larger headlamps, a seven-slat grille (instead of nine), a bigger clutch, different gearing, a column-mounted shifter, and the addition of a fuel-filler neck. Adroit soldiers had raised their Jeeps’ wheels to power belt-driven machinery such as sawmills and generators; civilian owners had it much easier. They could simply order their CJs with power take-offs (PTOs) suitable for running a variety of accessories.
The PTOs were particularly useful to farmers like Rutherford, who still owns several vintage Jeeps. Back in 2011, he sold Dick Folsom the 1948 CJ-2A pictured here. It was probably the nicest of Rutherford’s Jeeps, having been used for decades to check fences and gates on the perimeter of his 116-acre property and to give his grandchildren and great-grandchildren rides around the farm. The odometer’s low mileage — 13,561 when we photographed it — was accumulated almost entirely on the farm. That made Folsom’s recent cosmetic restoration easier than it would’ve been were this Jeep treated as roughly as most. The black and red color combination is original, rare, and very snazzy. To make the Willys more drivable, Folsom added a rearview mirror, seatbelts, and a back seat. He drives it quite a bit, but it’s a fair-weather cruiser. Folsom doesn’t take this gem off-roading — for that he has a 1962 CJ-5 for playing at Michigan’s Silver Lake Sand Dunes. Flat-fender Jeeps are plenty capable, however: a trail guide driving a 1951 CJ-3A led our Four Seasons 2007 Wrangler during a Jeep Jamboree event in Virginia several years ago. (CJ-3As are basically updated 2As that offer slightly more room for front passengers and — most noticeably — one-piece windshields.)
Sand, mud, and mountains aren’t required to enjoy driving an early CJ. It’s tough to subdue a smile while piloting Folsom’s Willys on paved suburban streets. It can feel as though you’re driving a 1960s British sports car on stilts. The first two gears are quickly dispensed with short, mechanical gear throws, the sensations of speed and wind and noise growing as the torquey, growly Go-Devil four-cylinder does its work. (The column shifter survived only part of the ’45 model year, but the floor-mounted shifter ends in a little knob that’s comfortably close to the steering wheel.) You instinctively back off the throttle — the pedal is really just a metal stub — once you’re in top gear. You look down and see the speedometer needle between 30 and 40 mph, and only those riding in the Jeep notice that anything exciting just happened. A dashboard label lists 60 mph as the top speed, but that’s a good way to ruin an engine; Folsom doesn’t dare drive his 2A faster than 45 mph. “It gets lots of thumbs-up,” he says, “but it doesn’t do too well with impatient people.”
The very small footprint works well in traffic because the CJ wanders a lot. The big, thin steering wheel — angled at about 45 degrees — fights the driver in corners and demands a counterattack to twist the wheel back to straight-ahead, where there’s a huge dead spot. Bad pavement causes the Jeep to buck on its stiff suspension, but the 2100-pound 2A usually isn’t unbearably rough. An upright, good-posture-promoting driving position helps, as do seat cushions that are softer than the original military-spec pads, which, according to WWII veterans, were like sitting on sandbags.
This highly involving, low-speed driving experience is even more amazing when you consider its roots. A hasty effort to secure a bid from the U.S. government to create a four-wheeled, all-purpose, light-duty military vehicle for the imminent war resulted in a versatile tractor/horse alternative for farmers and one of the most iconic pieces of industrial Americana ever built.
Engine 2.2L (134 cu in) flathead I-4, 60 hp, 105 lb-ft
Transmission 3-speed manual
Drive Rear- and 4-wheel
Front suspension Live axle, leaf springs
Rear suspension Live axle, leaf springs
Weight 2000-2200 lb
1945-1949 (CJ-2A), 1949-1953 (CJ-3A)
214,760 (CJ-2A), 138,210 (CJ-3A)
$12,500-$20,000 (CJ-2A), $12,000-$18,000 (CJ-3A)
Early CJs resonate with American history and ingenuity: help save them from being relegated only to small-town parades and collapsing barns. Reasonably priced and simple to maintain, they’re surprisingly fun to drive, especially for something that will rarely reach the speed limit. The flat-fendered “Universal Jeep” survived through 1968 in the form of the more powerful (and still slow) CJ-3B, but its taller hood skews the original’s proportions somewhat. Many CJs have worked hard their entire lives and exhibit plenty of rust and/or modifications. Excellent examples are worth the premium.