How to Buy a Classic Jeep: The Complete Buyer’s Guide

Own the most iconic American thing ever for less than $10,000.

Vintage Jeep Buyers Guide
Mallory Short/TheDrive.com

Here is just one of the many, many, reasons you might want to buy a Jeep Wrangler: it has few secrets and no baggage (and often no roof or doors). Everyone has been everywhere and done everything in a Jeep. It can’t really be categorized beyond the nearly perfect thing that it is: a Jeep. And when you're in one, you can be anyone you want: Farrah Fawcett in The Six Million Dollar Man; Winston Churchill and General Montgomery in Normandy in 1944. Floyd Mayweather or J.D. SalingerDuke Ellington or Ronald Reagan; David Beckham or John McCain; Ciara or Diddy. You can be anything or anyone you want.

So which one do you want? Here's where we can help. Wrangler’s history goes back a lot farther than the 75 years Jeep likes to claim—deep into the 1920s. Between World War II, Korea and Vietnam, there are innumerable military variants in addition to the civilian models. For simplicity's sake, we're shopping only for the Jeeps that rolled out of a dealership.

The Early Years: 1945-1953

The 1945-1949 CJ-2A and 1949-1953 CJ-3A are hypothetically more civilized than the military Jeep, though much of the refinements—the passenger seat, for instance—came as options, and the earliest ones used war surplus parts. Neither the CJ-2A nor the CJ-3A were marketed to the public, and they were intended primarily for agriculture and industry. Nevertheless, almost 350,000 of them were sold.

There wasn’t a whole lot to the early Jeeps. The engine was a 55-horsepower, 134-cu.in. Go Devil inline-four. It was all built tough enough, but a lot of years have passed, and the years have not been kind to the body and frame of the early Willys. Willys-Overland used heavy sheetmetal that is vulnerable to rust.

When you're shopping around, closely inspect the frame and suspension attachment points, body mounts, engine mounts and every other mount carefully for cracking. The early CJs are also poorly suited for driving at speed, with both low gearing and weak brakes. They come from an era where you are expected to rebuild an engine every 50,000 miles. It’s a great one to learn how to do an engine overhaul, and a complete kit runs $800, plus tools. Look to pay under $5,000 for a beater, up to $15,000 for a fully restored Jeep with all the options; the CJ-3A, with a stock Dana 44 rear axle, is probably a better choice for a non-collector.

On the Market Now1948 Willys CJ2A
“Mostly restored” with new engine, brakes, clutch, windshield, distributer, cables, hoses and wiring. Military olive green. $8,500, Marston Mills, Massachusetts.

The Transitional Years: 1953-1964

1953-1964 CJ-3B

The differences between this and the earlier CJs are not obvious to those who don’t nerd out on them, but a higher hood covered the vastly improved engine, the 74-hp Hurricane. Sales were in the 20,000-a-year range, and with an increased emphasis on the civilian market, these Jeeps are easy to find. A very few late CJ-3Bs had the Dauntless 155hp Buick V-6 that was offered in the next generation. Rachel Hodgkins at Kaiser Willys Auto Supply points out that military Ford GPW, and Jeep MB, M38 and M38A1 models are closely related to their respective CJ-2A, CJ-3A and CJ-5s, often with stronger drivetrain and suspension components. "It can be confusing for modern buyers sometimes as these vehicles will often be repainted or modified by subsequent owners," she said. "And it’s not too obvious for the uninformed buyer whether they are looking at a military or civilian model."

More power and torque are not necessarily good for the Dana 18 transfer case or weak Dana 25 front axle. In regular use, it isn’t a major to be a problem but many have been used for hauling and snow plowing, or have been upgraded to the V-6. Even more common are problems related to using larger tires, which play hell on axles and steering knuckles. You can get an absolutely beautiful restored CJ-3B for $12,000.

On the Market Now1961 Willys CJ-3B
$18,000 (Canadian) invested in a 2,000-hour restoration, everything new and completely documented, better than new with 1,500 miles on the rebuild. Bright blue. US$12,500, Ancaster, Ontario.

The Modern Era: 1955-1983

It was a big jump from the small CJ3s to the larger 1955-1983 CJ-5, and 20-inch longer 1956-1975 CJ-6. They generally shared the same mechanical options—the Hurricane four-cylinder available through 1971; and the optional Dauntless V-6 from the 1966 model year on. In 1972, bigger AMC straight-sixes and their 304 V-8 were introduced, along with longer frames to hold them. CJ-6s were not strong sellers and are kind of an interesting specialty Jeep today. Both the Dauntless V-6 and AMC straight-six 258 are very strong engines, so make one of those your priority. Combine that with the 1971-’79 T18 four-speed transmission, 1972-up Dana 30 front axle and up-through-‘76 Dana 44 rear, and there’s your CJ-5. Unless you’re very, very picky or buying a highly modified vehicle, it’ll easily be well under $10,000.

As commonly offroaded vehicles, CJ-5 frames should be your first stop. Pre-1976, they were open and prone to cracking; post-’76, boxed and prone to rust, as was every other part of the Jeep. Rust is everywhere in the body, but everything up to and including complete frames and body tubs are available.

On the Market Now1976 CJ-5
Stock drivetrain with 258-cu.in. straight-six engine. Modified: Jeep YJ lift conversion, soft top, bimini top, doors and half-doors, Corbeau front seats, stereo. Custom front bumper with lights and drawbar, custom rear swing-away bumper. Passes California smog. Military khaki green. $5,500, Sacramento, California.

The Collectibles: 1976-1986 CJ-7 and 1981-1985 CJ-8

While the long wheelbase CJ-6 wasn’t a hit, the same formula in the CJ-7 worked out. The CJ-5 was getting pretty hot on TV (Charlie’s Angels, Six Million Dollar Man, et c.) and this time, adding inches to the wheelbase added 380,000 sales. Much of the CJ-5 carried over mechanically, but the room in the frame was also there to allow an automatic transmission to fit. Unlike in later CJ-5s, almost all CJ-7s had strong front Dana 30 front axles and Dana 20 or Dana 300 transfer cases, with the popular T18 four-sped phased out after ‘79. Watch out for some with a weak, cost-saving AMC Dana 20 rear axle, or Quadratrac four-wheel drive. Among the many engines offered, the 304-cu.in. V-8 and 258-cu.in. straight-six are still favorites. The 258/T18 combo is going to set you back an easy $15,000.

Frames were still prone to cracking and bodies to rusting--any Jeep forum will show you the weak points--and rock crawling beats up steering and suspension, not just components but mounts and attachment points. Stock carburetors are notoriously crummy, engines leaky and the electrical system is...challenging. Parts are everywhere.

On the Market Now1979 CJ-7 Renegade
Refurbished, 258 engine and T18 transmission, looks like maybe a Dana 44 front axle. Three-to-four-inch lift on 32s, diamondplate corners, no rear seat, bimini top. Electric yellow. $15,995, Ft. Worth, Texas.

The Later Modern Era: 1997-2006

The 1997-2006 TJ Wrangler was not the first “new” Wrangler—that would be the less off-road-ready, rectangular headlamped, death throes of AMC 1987-’95 YJ. But much like the the introduction of the 5.0 H.O. Mustang, fans were horrified to find a four-link, coil spring suspension in place of the leaf springs of the previous 60 or so years. They rapidly unhorrified when it became apparent you could have both great wheel articulation and tolerable ride quality. The rest of the vehicle was modernised for comfort, crashworthiness and the like, too. TJ saw the introduction of the Rubicon (2003), with a front Dana 44 axle, 32-inch tires and other offroad-specific features; and the hardtop-only Unlimited (2004), with an additional two inches of rear legroom and 13 extra inches for cargo. Budget $15,000 for a 2000-’06, but aim for $10,000 or less.

This was also the first Wrangler to come out of the gate with the straight-six 4.0-liter engine, which had been introduced to the YJ in 1991. Stronger than many smallblock V-8s of the time at 181hp, it climbed to 190hp by 2000. A creaky AMC 2.4-liter four cylinder and a creaky Chrysler 2.4-liter four cylinder shared with the PT Cruiser were also offered and while they it have fuel-miserly aficionados, they also came with weaker axles. There are generally more problems with pre-2000 models, but all should be carefully checked for offroad damage to steering and suspension, as well as the traditional oil and coolant leaks.

On the Market Now2004 Wrangler X
Rocky Mountain Edition (rear Dana 44 with 3.73 gears, Alcoa aluminum wheels, color-keyed Rubicon flares, fog lamps, 7-speaker CD stereo, special seats). Excellent maintenance, 4.0/5-speed, 82,000 miles. $10,500, Marcy, New York.

THE TAKEAWAY

Even a relatively recent Jeep is not going to give you Jaguar ride quality and when you go back a few years, you’re getting a real old-car experience, except you don’t see many ‘65 Mustangs in the dunes. They’re cheap to buy, own, repair and modify, you can use them in any city or forest and show up at any event in one, not to mention get it fixed in any garage in America and find parts in any junkyard. Try that in your Citroën.

Additional Resources

  • Um, where to start? A subscription to your choice of Four Wheeler magazines: JP MagazineFour Wheeler and 4wheel and Off Road. And YouTube videos, hundreds of books, informative catalogs…
  • Each specific model has multiple forums dedicated to it. Shop around until you find the most helpful.
  • But seriously, start with your local clubs. Rhode Island has one. Washington, D.C. has two. Tennessee has 18. You might get muddy and/or beer covered, depending on the club, but you’ll probably be welcomed with open arms.