Earlier this year, I used junkyard parts to build up a rusty $600 Jeep Cherokee, which I then took off-roading at the Easter Jeep Safari. That Jeep kicked butt, outclassing much newer rigs, but now I’ve got a new off-road project, and it’s even rustier than the last. Much rustier. And older. In fact, I think I may have gone overboard with this one.
A few weeks ago, while conducting my daily Craigslist ritual of searching for sweet old Jeeps when I really should be working (sorry, Patrick), I came across an ad for a 1948 Willys CJ-2A. After feasting my eyes on a picture of the glorious vehicle and its epic camouflage paint job, I immediately had one of my Jeep blackouts.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had one of these episodes—it happened when I bought my J10, too. A Jeep blackout is what happens when I first feast my eyes upon a lustworthy Jeep on Craigslist, lose consciousness for a couple days, then “come to” later with a title in my hand and a junky old Jeep in tow on a flatbed.
This sickness is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I have to spend two or three days in a trance, where all I can remember is darkness with a little rainbow-colored Willys bouncing around a square, annoyingly never getting stuck in a corner—like an old Windows 98 screensaver.
On the other hand, I have an excuse when friends ask me “Dude, you bought a fifth Jeep? Are you insane?” I just reply: “Hey, I don’t know what happened. I just woke up, and here it was!”
Now that a few weeks have gone by, my memory has started to return, and here’s what I remember.
About a month ago, I called up my friend Brandon, who is an expert on CJ-2As, and asked him to come along to check out an old farm Jeep.
We hopped into Project Swiss Cheese—now my daily driver—drove to the boondocks, and arrived at the address, which was a large plot of farmland. Greeting us were a handful of jacked, bearded young 20-something farmers; some wore overalls, some were shirtless, but all were really friendly.
After exchanging pleasantries, they guided Brandon and me into an eerily dark and quiet barn. We walked blindly along the creaking, straw-laden wood floor, navigating our way using only the thin rays of light that crept through the gaps in the boarded walls.
For a split second, we wondered if these young men were going to harvest our organs, or if there was actually a Jeep for sale somewhere in this barn. But then one of the guys opened the barn door, and the heavens shone light upon a wonderful quirky little CJ.
I immediately fell in love.
Brandon and I looked the Jeep over as best we could—it was still a bit dark—but we eventually decided that because the CJ had a solid enough frame and a complete powertrain, it was worth about $1,400.
That’s what I offered the owner the following day. He accepted, and that evening, a friend and I returned with a flatbed to pick up my first flat-fender Jeep.
Once I got the Jeep into my driveway, Brandon and I realized we may have missed a few things during our initial inspection, and that, in retrospect, $1,400 was a bit much for a CJ in this rough condition. Here’s what’s wrong with the little flatty:
There’s A Ford Leaf Spring Patching The Front Passenger Side Frame Rail
I’m not sure how we missed this but right at the front of the Jeep, the top of the frame has been patched with an old Ford leaf spring. And whoever did the patching clearly wasn’t a professional welder, as the job looks pretty rough.
Still, leaf springs are usually fairly strong, so I expect this patch job to hold up just fine.
Holy Rustbucket, Batman!
The picture above shows what used to be the toolbox, which is hidden under the passenger’s seat. Normally there’s a floor there, and the crossmember (which you can see at the top right of the toolbox opening), ties the body in with the frame.
But rust has claimed much of the structure, so the floor and crossmember are both eaten, and the body mount just sits there doing absolutely nothing. This CJ has rust. All the rust.
The Fuel Tank Is Rusted
The fuel tank on these old CJs is right under the driver’s seat, and the one on this little Jeep is very, very rusty, clogging my fuel filter with many little particles of iron oxide. I’ll need to remove the tank and line the inside at some point, as otherwise my carburetor jets will get clogged in no time.
There Was Water In Both The Transmission And Transfer Case
I removed the drain bolts for the transmission and transfer case, and found that both were filled with water. The little duct-tape job for the shifter apparently didn’t do much to keep the rain out, and after looking into the transmission through the inspection cover, it’s apparent that the bearings are shot. A rebuild for both the transmission and transfer case is in order.
The Body Has Been Thoroughly Patched, And Not By A Seasoned Welder
Yeah, look at those weld jobs.
The Seats Are Barely Seats
The seats are essentially just cotton blankets draped over some foam, and the frames to which they are fastened are not bolted to the car in any way. And as much as I’d like to just find a bolt and thread the seat frame to the body, there’s really not much body left to thread into.
A welder may be on the menu.
The Body Is Held To The Frame Via Gravity And Rust
I looked under the Jeep to see how many body mounts were still doing their jobs, and I counted one, maybe two. So really, the body is held to the frame by rust and gravity at this point.
Will the body come off the frame during off-roading? We shall soon find out.
The Brake Pedal Does Nothing
I’m not entirely sure why the brakes don’t work, but it might have to do with the fact that the brake lines aren’t connected to the wheel cylinders. That’ll do it!
The Tires Are Shot
The tires for the CJ have lots of deep tread, and probably have very few miles on them, but they’re dry-rotted, and the rear passenger side tire has a gaping hole.
The Water Pump Leaks
I’ll need to rebuild the water pump, as it leaks steadily when I run the engine. And by “steadily,” I mean it flows like a raging waterfall, so at best, I’d make it a couple miles before overheating.
The Fan Shroud Is Trashed
Speaking of overheating, a previous owner smashed up the fan shroud somehow, and while that may not seem like a huge deal, the shroud is a key part of getting the fan to suck sufficient airflow through the radiator to cool the engine.
I’ll try to heat up the shroud with a torch and try to bend it into place. If that doesn’t work, aluminum tape will be the temporary fix.
The Engine Is Registering Low Compression
I ran a compression test on the engine, and got only 65 psi in each cylinder, or about 25 psi less than what I always thought was needed for an engine to run. That could mean bad valves or worn piston rings. I’ll have to pull the cylinder head to find out.
The Wiring Needs To Be Gone Through
None of the lights work and the charging system isn’t keeping the battery juiced up, so I’ll need to break out the multimeter, new wires and heat shrink tubing. I’m not looking forward to that, as I hate wiring.
But this vehicle has so few electrical systems, a small child could probably fix it.
But it’s not all bad. The CJ has some redeeming qualities, namely the fact that there’s a title, the frame is sorta solid, and the Jeep is mostly complete and missing very few parts.
The Frame Is Fairly Solid
One of the first things I did when inspecting the Jeep was knock on the frame with a screwdriver.
And considering how rusted out the body is, I wasn’t expecting the frame to have any strength left, but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s fairly solid, meaning the Jeep probably won’t fold in half while crawling over a rock.
The Engine Runs
Now to the really good news: she runs! Even with only 65 psi of compression, that little 134 cubic-inch Go Devil engine—the same engine found in World War II MB Jeeps—actually fires on all cylinders.
Whether it makes any power remains to be seen, but the ignition system and fuel system are all working as they should.
It’s Pretty Much All There
Perhaps the most redeeming quality of the CJ is that all the parts are there, and almost all of them are original CJ-2A components. This means I won’t be left scratching my head wondering what parts are missing.
My plan is to replace the tires, rebuild the transmission and transfer case, and get this thing to the nearest off-road park and just thrash it like it was meant to be thrashed.
And if it can withstand my abuse at Michigan’s local off-road parks, it’s going to Moab next year where it will have even more opportunities to break in half.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to stockpile the Tetanus vaccine.