Photo by Bryon Dorr
I bought a Jeep recently, and like many new Jeep owners, I’m kicking myself for waiting as long as I did before taking the plunge. If I had known how much fun it was going to be, I’d have done this years or even decades earlier.
You bought what, exactly?
The Jeep I bought is not your garden variety Wrangler. It’s a 1955 Willys M38A1, which was the military version of the CJ-5. It takes a little knowledge to tell them apart, but the main clues are that the CJ-5 has a little tailgate in the back, and the military version does not. The military Jeep also has a recessed round hole in the passenger side that you won’t find on a CJ. That’s because the M38A1 used a 24-Volt electrical system and the recess is for a plug so you can power a campsite.
Apart from that, the M38A1 is a lot like an early CJ-5. It came with a 2.2-liter, 75-horsepower, 114-tq, “Hurricane” F-Head engine. This unit was a modification of the earlier “Go-Devil” flathead four. The exhaust valves are still in the engine block, but the intake valves are mounted in the cylinder head. The engine powers a basic Borg-Warner T-90 three-speed transmission with a Dana 18 transfer case and open-differential Dana front and rear axles.
It’s getting hard to find old Jeeps that haven’t been “upgraded” at some point, usually with a V6 or V8 engine and some kind of automatic transmission. Most of these installations appear to have been done with a Sawzall, so finding this one with the stock driveline in good condition was a great piece of luck.
In the interests of easy maintenance, my Jeep had previously been converted to 12-Volt operation, which means most of the gauges aren’t original. It’s got a functional roll bar and a civilian convertible top, chrome bumpers, a vintage winch, and a repaint in deep metallic green. To complete the image, it’s wearing a set of totally bitchin’ Cragar mag wheels and Warn locking hubs up front.
One upgrade I did myself was to replace the ultra-heavy military leaf springs with a new set of CJ springs and shocks, which has made the ride dramatically more comfortable. Apart from a few chrome trim bits, this Willys is a time capsule of early Jeep goodness, right down to the original brass plaques on the dash.
Among the Tilla-maniacs
After getting to know the Willys on pavement and around town, it was time to get it dirty. My partners in adventure were Andy and Mercedes Lilienthal of Crankshaft Culture, and Bryon Dorr of Autowise. Both were driving nice new Rubicon-spec Wrangler Unlimiteds. Our venue was the set of trails around the Brown’s Camp OHV area in the Oregon coastal mountain range, up above Tillamook, Oregon. The enthusiasts who frequent these trails call themselves the “Tilla-maniacs.”
Before we left, I told the group I’d do my best to keep up, but that I didn’t know how the old Willys would fare on these trails. I have plenty of laboratory experience with off-roading on organized tours (such as Trail Trek Tour or tire manufacturer press events) but that’s a much different scenario from going out on an unfamiliar trail in an untested Jeep that’s old enough to qualify for Medicare.
We chose a trail called “Cedar Tree” named for a downed cedar that you can drive under, if your rig will fit. This trail is rated as “Moderate” by alltrails.com, but also rated as a “Jeep Badge of Honor” trail by Hourless Life. Most of the trail is easy, but there are several steep climbs with loose surface, and some obstacles you’ll want to approach carefully.
Willys for the Win
I’m pleased to say that the Willys went everywhere that the new Jeeps went, without any real difficulty. In fact, I noticed that the old Jeep actually had an easier time on some parts of the trail because of its much smaller size. Where the larger four-door Jeeps with wide fenders had to carefully negotiate around trees, stumps, and rocks, you could just drive the Willys through with plenty of room on both sides. The lack of locking diffs didn’t impact traction much, if at all. The little Jeep just scrambled up loose rocky sections like a goat.
Video by Bryon Dorr
Engine power wasn’t an issue as we spent most of our time on the trail in low range, where torque is multiplied and horsepower doesn’t really factor into the equation. The M38A1 weighs a svelte 2660 pounds, which is about half the mass of a new Rubicon. Even in high range on the groomed logging roads, overall lower speeds don’t highlight the many advantages of a newer Jeep. The bottom line was that nothing we did on this day required any of the nifty high-tech features present in a new Rubicon.
By far the most intimidating part of the adventure was getting up to the trails. The old Willys tops out at about 53 MPH on the highway, and modern drivers don’t understand that. So I did a lot of pulling over to let traffic go by. However, the takeaway from this trip is that for as primitive as they are, the old Jeeps are pretty darn good on a trail, and you don’t have to spend $50,000 or more to get where you’re going.