1953-1956 Jeep


The early 1950s were strange times in the U.S. automobile industry. But at the same time Willys produced over 50,000 Mcs and MDs a year for the military. See more Jeep pictures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

In 1952 Willys-Overland re-entered the passenger car market with its innovative Aero-Willys. The car was a lightweight, unibody compact weighing just 2600 pounds and riding a 108-inch wheelbase. It was well engineered and drew rave reviews. However, the Aero-Willys sold for $150 more than a Chevrolet Bel Air hardtop. Dealers were hard pressed to sell the 31,000 they managed to move that first year.

At the same time the auto industry as a whole had hit a sales slump, and the Korean War was forcing new rationing policies for steel and rubber. Despite all of this, Willys managed to increase sales to 42,000 units for 1953.

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Yet, it was too little too late. The combined effects of costly new tooling for the new model and the recession had put Willys in deep financial trouble again. There was no miracle salesman like John North Willys around this time, and the company was put on the block.

In April of 1953, the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation purchased Willys-Overland for approximately $60 million. Ward Canaday had turned the reigns over to Henry J. Kaiser and his son, Edgar.

Though the prospect of new ownership brought hope, there were two major problems with the Kaiser buyout. First, Kaiser was in no position to spend any money. The company had lost almost $10 million the year before and over $34 million in its five-year history. Also, the Aero-Willys wasn't much larger than the Henry J, the low-price leader at Kaiser-Frazer. Despite this, Kaiser knew that the Jeep was where the fortune would be made.

If there had been one persistent complaint about the CJ-2A and CJ-3A Jeeps -- as well as the military MCs -- it had to do with their perceived lack of power. The same shortcoming had been true of other Willys models, including the Jeepster and the Station Wagon.

Barney Roos and his engineering staff had undertaken to increase the horsepower of the little four-banger by converting it to the F-head configuration. (For those readers who may be unfamiliar with this type of layout, the F-head engine's intake valves are in the head, while the exhaust ports remain in the block. Larger valves can thus be used, and greater power results from the improved breathing.) Keep reading to find out about the Jeep CJ-3B.

For more information on Jeeps, see:

  • History of Jeep
  • Consumer Guide New Jeep Prices and Reviews
  • Consumer Guide Used Jeep Prices and Reviews

1953 Jeep CJ-3B

So, on January 28, 1953, the Jeep CJ-3B appeared. The hood line was raised in order to accommodate the taller engine. Proportions were thus altered, making the CJ-3B a rather odd-looking machine, wearing what might be termed a "perpetually startled expression" with its high-riding headlamps. The same was true of the corresponding military unit, the M606.

The difference in performance, however, was substantial. Horsepower -- listed in the CJ-3A as 60 at 4,000 rpm -- was raised at the same engine speed to 75, a 25-percent increase. Torque was boosted as well, from 106 to 114 pounds-feet. This increase was particularly useful at the lower engine speeds so critical in many applications.

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Another improvement in the CJ-3B was a new transfer case, said to offer longer life and quieter operation. All in all, the CJ-3A was three pounds heavier than CJ-3B and was $25 more costly. Little enough to pay for 25 percent more horsepower and 9 percent more torque.

By 1955 there was another new civilian Jeep, the famous CJ-5. This model, based on the MD-MB38 A1 military jeep, was announced on October 11, 1954. However, there were some major changes made in converting the CJ-5 to civilian use.

Headlights received a chrome surround and extended slightly from the grille. The military-spec, black-out lights were replaced by conventional parking lights. Also, the military's 24-volt electrical system was replaced by a 6-volt system.

The most visible difference between the CJ-5 and the CJ-3B was the curve of the new front fenders. The frame was fully boxed and a cross member was added to increase the strength, rigidity, and carrying capacity of the CJ-5. Sheet metal was fully flanged and overlapped all around, also to increase strength. In addition, the ride was slightly altered by an increase of one inch in wheelbase (up to 81 inches) and softer front springs in conjunction with stiffer rear springs.

At 135.5 inches, overall length was up almost six inches from the CJ-3B. The new CJ-5, at 71.75 inches, was also three inches wider than the CJ-3B, although weight was up only modestly at 2274 pounds. The one-piece windshield of the CJ-5 was nearly 100 square inches larger than the CJ-3E, and the driver's-side mirror was mounted to the windshield support base. Continue to the next page to learn about Jeep's Station Wagon.

For more information on Jeeps, see:

  • History of Jeep
  • Consumer Guide New Jeep Prices and Reviews
  • Consumer Guide Used Jeep Prices and Reviews

1954 Jeep Station Wagon

Production of the 1953 Jeep Station Wagon climbed to over six thousand units.
Production of the 1953 Jeep Station Wagon climbed to over six thousand units.
©Chrysler LLC

The Jeep Station Wagon and panel delivery were mostly carryovers between 1953 and 1955. However, one significant option was added to the four-wheel-drive versions of both in 1954: the 115-bhp six cylinder engine. That year also brought minor revisions to the front end, including a grille that now had three, instead of five, horizontal slats.

In a September, 1954, report Motor Trend tested a wagon with the flathead six. This engine was essentially the same one used by the Kaiser automobile, then nearing the end of its career in the United States.

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Oddly enough, the term "Jeep" was being downplayed by this time, though the Willys name was still prominently featured. There was no mention of the Jeep, per se, in literature dealing with the Station Wagon. But the four wheel-drive version still performed like a typical Jeep.

According to the Motor Trend reviewer's report, the Station Wagon "bounded over the worst ruts we could find (we couldn't take the other cars through the same 'tank traps') and settled down quickly. One dust-covered driver got out of the Jeep complaining that he couldn't get it stuck! The way it goes through soft earth or sand, through the brush, and up and down hills is a wonder to behold: The wheels fling themselves around some, but the car just keeps digging in. On a rain-drenched, muddy incline, the Willys never faltered. In fact, its driver eagerly expected that he'd have to pull some of the other back sliding, spinning cars out of a ditch before the slippery hill was conquered."

In summarizing their reaction to the four-wheel-drive Jeep wagon -- rather a different breed than the typical Motor Trend subject -- the test drivers commented:

  • "The greatest invention since feet, for moving from point A to point B, regardless of what's in between."
  • "Not in the running as a comfortable, quiet, and economical family car, but I like it for its ruggedness and fantastic pulling power."
  • "If you like to head for the back woods, or have a home in the mountains or desert (or anyplace where there are or aren't any roads), this is the car. It's not for city or highway use, nor is it meant to be."
  • "I got a big bang (in more ways than one) out of being bounced around as if the car didn't give a hang whether I was comfortable or not. The Jeep has its shortcomings, but I'll bet it has more fortitude than a lot of drivers when the going gets rough."
  • "An austere, truck-like interior denotes its purpose. It's not a comfortable car by any standard, but I look at it as a good compromise between a non-deluxe family car and a pickup truck."

Read on to find out about the Jeep Utility Wagon.

For more information on Jeeps, see:

  • History of Jeep
  • Consumer Guide New Jeep Prices and Reviews
  • Consumer Guide Used Jeep Prices and Reviews

1955 Jeep Utility Wagon

By 1955 the Station Wgon could be had with the 115-horsepower Kaiser six. The interior was quite Spartan, but this was, after all, a utility vehicle.
By 1955 the Station Wgon could be had with the 115-horsepower Kaiser six. The interior was quite Spartan, but this was, after all, a utility vehicle.
©Vince Manocchi

During 1955, Willys withdrew from the passenger car market and designated the wagon as part of the company's commercial line. Available in either 4 x 2 or 4 x 4 guise, it was designated the "Utility Wagon." The extra seat for the seventh passenger was deleted, as was the standard overdrive that had been featured with the four-cylinder models.

A live axle replaced Barney Roos's Planadyne suspension. Prices were moderated accordingly, and production figures were lumped with those of the trucks. Warn hubs were optional on the four-wheel-drive units, making it possible for drivers to disconnect the front-wheel-drive mechanism by simply turning the hubs with their fingers.

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Performance, thanks to the 115-horse-power engine, was considerably enhanced, compared to the early Jeep wagons. A reviewer for Auto Age reported an easy cruising speed of 60 miles per hour in the two-wheel mode, with 80 miles per hour within easy reach. Then with the front wheels reconnected he "rode through a marsh, across a two-foot-deep stream and climbed a 60 degree bank on the other side....

"If it were possible to cover up some of the hair on the Willys chest and add some powder and paint and a bustle," Auto Age's chauvinistic staffer added, tongue-in-cheek, "maybe the style-conscious females who determine America's car market would give it more of a tumble."

Willys's trucks featured the same changes and updates as the wagon line. A 4 x 4 sedan delivery was added in 1953, priced $451 higher than the 4 x 2 version. The four-wheel-drive unit appeared to have had only a limited market, and usefulness was limited.

The six-cylinder, F-head Willys passenger car engine was made available to 4 x 2 sedan delivery buyers in 1954, and the 115 horsepower, 226 cid Kaiser L-head six became the standard powerplant for the 4 x 4 trucks, supplying both with badly needed additional power. Despite all this shuffling, the big news on the Jeep truck front was still a year away -- Forward Control. Keep reading to learn about the Kaiser-Jeep FC-150.

For more information on Jeeps, see:

  • History of Jeep
  • Consumer Guide New Jeep Prices and Reviews
  • Consumer Guide Used Jeep Prices and Reviews

1956 Kaiser-Jeep FC-150

In November 27, 1956, Kaiser-Jeep announced a new 3/4-ton pickup truck. This design was a completely new idea for the light truck market. It placed the driver directly over the front wheels in a forward control position.

The Commercial Car Journal, in December 1956, stated the mission of the Forward Control Jeep trucks. "Aimed at providing maximum cargo space in relation to wheelbase," the announcement declared, "the new FC-150 has the cab situated well forward of the engine to provide more than six feet of cargo bed length despite the 81-inch wheelbase."

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Overall length was 147.5 inches, two inches shorter than the diminutive Nash Metropolitan and 38 inches shorter than a Chevrolet half-ton pickup. Classified as a 3/4-ton unit, though the chassis was basically that of a CJ-5 Jeep, the FC-150 was powered by the four-cylinder F-head "Hurricane" engine producing 75 horsepower and 114 pounds-feet of torque.

A three-speed manual transmission was standard, while a four-speed was optional. Four-wheel drive was featured, and the transfer case could be shifted without stopping the vehicle -- a major innovation in those days. The price for the pickup was $2,320, just $64 more than the conventional 4 x 4 Jeep truck.

The Jeep advertising program stressed the FC-150's superior visibility, claiming it to be 200 percent greater than that of a conventional vehicle. The deluxe model, in fact, provided a glass area of 2,747 square inches.

However, Motor Trend noted that "T-Birds, Corvettes, Hawks and other short-stature iron which may pass on your right are difficult to see from the driver's seat." The magazine referred to the FC's "helicopter look," observing that "your first impression, as you climb into the cab of this little workhorse, may very well be that you have ensconced yourself under the bubble canopy of a whirlybird."

Like the other four-wheel-drive Jeep vehicles, the forward control models would climb almost any kind of grade. Bob Scala, reporting for Motor Trend, recalled, "For our initial test hop, we pushed the transfer control into the low-speed, four-wheel-drive position and pointed the stub nose of this heap of Jeep up a motorcycle hill climb course. This course was a narrow, deeply rutted, and bumpy trail, and while we decline to estimate the percent grade, we would never dream of attempting to negotiate it in a conventional truck or passenger car.

"The Jeep had no difficulty whatever with this and climbed steadily and surely to the top. We turned around, experienced the sensation of leaping from a ski jump, and allowed the engine compression to lower us safely to the bottom. We are keeping our eyes open for a hill which might stop the Jeep, but we'll bet it will have to be close to vertical."

Transfer controls on this model were reduced to a single lever, in lieu of the two-lever operation typical of other Jeeps. Steering was light and easy, though somewhat slow (a ratio of 32.0:1 gave five-and-a-half turns, lock-to-lock). Clutch and brake pedals were of the pendulum type, just then coming into widespread use.

For convenience the brake fluid reservoir cover was placed on the dashboard. Access to the engine was through an easily removable cover, and heavy fiberglass insulation deadened engine noise. The payload bed stood just 24 inches above ground level, for convenient loading. However, the strange configuration of the bed somewhat limited its carrying capacity. To link the FC to other Kaiser-Jeep products, the company gave it a familiar seven-slot twin-headlight grille of contrasting body color.

For more information on Jeeps, see:

  • History of Jeep
  • Consumer Guide New Jeep Prices and Reviews
  • Consumer Guide Used Jeep Prices and Reviews