Jeep CJ Evolution

With the possible exception of the Volkswagen Beetle, the Jeep CJ has the most recognized shape in the automotive world. The newer ones, of course, are bigger, taller, and more rounded than the 1946 original, but they're obviously part of the same family, separated by a seemingly short 40 years much like a grandfather from grandson.

jeep cj7 and jeep cj-2a
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
A Jeep CJ-2A (foreground) next to one of the last Jeep CJ-7s shows how little the Jeep changed over the years.

It's funny how similar these Jeep CJ generations are from behind the wheel. With less weight, smaller size, and a lower center of gravity, the 1946 feels like it'll scamper anywhere, and its flathead four certainly seems to have the gumption. The gearbox feels right, and time has changed the rudimentary suspension but little. It's starkly Spartan, of course, but what military vehicle isn't?

Hopping into the 1986 Jeep CJ is like entering a time warp. You know this is a newly built rig from its seatbelts, "unleaded fuel only" warning, and the contemporary instruments, steering wheel, and bucket seats, but it's anything but modern.

There are more gauges now than there were in the 1940s, but most are still low down in the center of the dash. The accessory soft top flaps noisily above 40 mph, and the stiff suspension with its big radial tires delivers a bump-and-grind ride even on roads that look smooth.

Still, the Jeep CJ is a magnificent vehicle for a long drive in the desert, and driving through one one realizes why the CJ has hung on so long. With the greatest of ease it charges down trails that don't stand a chance of being paved, and driving through a stream bed is a nice way to cool off.

Climbing up from the desert over a boulder-strewn path requires concentration, but thanks to its amazing ground clearance, the CJ hurtles obstacles matter-of-factly. This form of travel may take more time, but it's sure a lot more fun.

Sadly, the Jeep CJ isn't nearly as much fun around town or on freeway expansion joints. The ride is unnervingly pitchy, top-up vision is mediocre despite the high seating position, and the power steering is overassisted yet slow.

A short wheelbase and tall build make hard cornering tippy, and rough surfaces tell you the body structure isn't nearly as stiff as the suspension. As they say, "Only in a Jeep,"

So despite air conditioning, stereo sound, and full carpeting, the last of the Jeep CJs is not the best way to reach your cabin in the woods, though it may be the only one of today's offroaders you'd want to keep there. Yet driving a Jeep CJ through a desert, you get the feeling you'd never give it up -- at least not without a fight.

And that's only right. After all, isn't fighting what got the Jeep started in the first place?

Continue to the next page to learn how collectors are keeping the Jeep CJ alive in the present day.

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