Endurance: The CJ-3B Story

by Jim Allen


This is probably the most comprehensive historical article on the Jeep CJ-3B, originally published in the April 2000 issue of Jp magazine. A great issue for vintage Jeeps, that month also featured Jim's profiles of John Hubbard's "restified" 1954 3B (90K JPEG), and Jim Marski's Historic Civilian Jeeps Collection.
Adam  Charnok photo

This '63 CJ-3B is factory original right down to the 7.00-15 Goodyear Suburbanite tires, White Manufacturing top, and upholstery, and it's showing only 4,900 miles. It was owned by a Wardsboro, Vermont woman who purchased it on July 26, 1963 and used it sparingly until her death in the early 80's. The family buried the keys with her and kept the Jeep, which was considered an heirloom, in a heated garage.

The flatfender is a revered species among Jeep enthusiasts. The heritage of the early Jeep, both military and civilian, has been the subject of a great deal of research and writing over the past sixty years. One Flatfender, however, seems to have eluded the limelight. Despite definitely being in the Flatfender category, the CJ-3B has been almost neglected by historians. Even worse, to the great annoyance of a legion of CJ-3B fans worldwide, most of the few mentions it does get usually contain some variation of the term, "Ugly Duckling." Guess we just did it again!

Well, we won't presume to dictate beauty to our readers but we will point out that the CJ-3B was a pivotal development, being the first production CJ to be fitted with the new, more powerful F-head engine. It's also the most enduring of the flatfender designs and is in the running for the most enduring Jeep of all time. How do we define enduring? The CJ-3B went into production in December of 1952 and variants remain in production to this day. That's an unprecedented 46 year run.

American production of the CJ-3B began at Willys' Toledo, Ohio factory and ran 15 years from 1953 through 1968. Sales to the general public appear to end in 1964 but CJ-3Bs were available for commercial and military markets through 1968. It appears that most of the late production rigs were military M-606 export units, but some very late civvy rigs have also been found. The full story of the last few years of U.S. CJ-3B production is still unclear.

The design was also licensed for production overseas and Japan's Mitsubishi was the first foreign market to begin producing a license-built version. Beginning in 1953, Mitsubishi's J-3 line (a military variant was called the J-4), began slow, steady Asian sales progress and production continued to August of 1998. India's Mahindra and Mahindra began building a license-built variant in the 1950s and still produces a version of the 3B they call the CL. Likewise, the Columbian Willco company builds a CJ-3B variant, with rectangular headlights. In Spain, VIASA (Vehículos Industriales y Agrícolas, S.A.) built a CJ-3B variant under license called the CJ3 starting in 1960. When that company became EBRO, they continued with a "sport" version called the Bravo to 1985.

High Hood Roots

It's clear that the CJ-3B was born to carry the F-head four-cylinder into the civilian Universal Jeep market. It's also clear that this came about directly from a push by the military for a more powerful Jeep, though the idea was not exclusive to military markets. During tests of the Willys Model MC (later to be called the M38), the Army expressed displeasure with the power-to-weight ratio of the new vehicle. Equipment requirements had raised the MC's curb weight to a gluttonous 2,750 pounds (compared the WWII jeep's 2,400lbs) and the payload requirement was raised to 1,200 pounds (vs 800 for the WWII rig). The 60hp "Go Devil" flathead, essentially unchanged from WWII, was simply not enough engine. Enter the new F-head.

The F-head had been in development since 1947 and was spearheaded by none other than Barney Roos, the original designer of the L-head Go-Devil engine, and the father of the Willys Jeep. With very little money, he developed an easy retrofit of the L-head (A.K.A. flathead, all valves in the block) that converted it to an F-head (exhaust valves still in block, but intakes in head). The F-head had much better breathing characteristics and produced 72hp versus the L-head's 60hp (63 in civilian form). Best of all, it used most of the existing L-head lower end. In fact, an older engine could be retrofitted with the new head.


Willys experimental rig X98 was a CJ-3A fitted with a F-head engine under project 5607. It's almost certainly the first CJ to carry the F-head engine. The hood, cowl and front end were modified for clearance. This rig was built in late 1949 or early 1950. This photo is dated 24 August 1950 but it is also seen in mid-1951 undergoing Army tests at Fort Knox.

When exposed to this engine while testing a Willys pickup in 1949, the Army was excited. Unfortunately, the new engine didn't help the M38, which was already through development tests and under contract, but it led to discussion of another new MV. It appears that the Army's desire for a more powerful Jeep was the driving force behind the project to stuff the F-head into the Universal chassis. No doubt, civilian application were also considered, but the government was likely chipping in on development costs giving them first dibs. This adaptation was not a hugely difficult process, mostly involving sheet metal changes, and the project was underway in June of 1949.

There were four distinct variations built from 1949 until 1953 in chain that led to the CJ-3B. The first vehicle was a CJ-3A to which an F-head engine and a taller hood and cowl were fitted, along with an appropriate grille. This vehicle was given the experimental number of X-98. The hood very much resembled the later M38A1/CJ-5 piece but the rest was largely 3A. It was tested extensively with outstanding results.


In the June/July 1997 issue, Jp broke the news that the original CJ-4, experimental prototype X-151, was still extant. From the cowl back, it's obviously very CJ-3A. The hood is similar to the later M38A1/CJ-5, but the rest of the front wrap is unique. The experimental vehicle was purchased by Willys Chief Chassis Engineer Miguel Ordorica in the mid '50s. He used it as a work rig on his farm. After his death in 1977, it passed to John Milam who stored it for many years. The unit is now in the hands of a serious Jeep collector and is undergoing a detailed restoration.

The next incarnation refined the look by adding some decorative ridges to the fenders, plus refining the lines of the cowl and windscreen. Three variations of this look were produced, the first being the CJ-4, which was also referred to as the 473CJ. This was a purely civilian prototype and was given the experimental number of X-151.

The CJ-4M, also known as the M38E1, was a military variant and had the general look of the CJ-4 with military accoutrements. It isn't clear if it was actually built, with only a retouched photo as evidence one way or another. Directly related to this was the CJ-4MP, which was a long wheelbase personnel carrier version (100 inch wheelbase), of which at least one prototype was built. Both the CJ-4M and CJ-4MP were steps that led to a pair of production models, the M38A1 (Willys Model MD) and the M170 (Willys Model MDA).

The final prototype began development in November of 1951 and was originally dubbed the CJ-4A. This was very simple adaptation that used many of the existing CJ-3A lines, simply adding a strip of material to the sides of the hood and cowl to make clearance for the engine. Called the CJ-4A to avoid confusion with the CJ-4, it was later designated the CJ-3B after the CJ-4 project was discontinued, and "now you know the rest of the story." While the CJ-4 idea was viable and had more pizazz, it has been speculated by historians that material shortages during the Korean War led to the more economical adaptation of the civilian vehicle.

The Production CJ-3B

CJ-3B production began in December of 1952 and by year's end, 27,551 were produced. The next year, 31,292 were produced. Late in 1954, the CJ-5 was introduced and it immediately eclipsed the little 3B with its refinements. Far from fading away, the 3B became a useful commercial rig, purchased for its compact, bare-bones features. Though production dropped to less than half of the '53-54 levels, it remained a strong enough seller to remain in production. It was less than a hundred bucks cheaper than the CJ-5.

Derek Redmond photo

Derek Redmond's '59 CJ-3B is the inspiration for what most enthusiasts think is the best Jeep site on the web, The CJ3B Page. The website contains hundreds of pages of great Jeep information. The '61 is resplendent in Fountain Green paint. The only notable change from stock is the windshield frame painted body color instead of black.

Few changes came to the American CJ-3B during its life. A batch of these came in 1957, starting at serial number 35522, when a 12 volt electrical system was introduced. This coincided with the same intro on the CJ-5. A 6-volt system was still optional. The dashboard also changed from a cluster of five instruments to a single unit that had speedometer, fuel gauge, temperature gauge and warning lights for oil pressure and charging system in one unit.

Other changes included the introduction of the Powr-Lok limited slip differential option in 1955, an uprated optional heater and defroster in 1959, introduction of a "T" handle parking brake into the upper dash in 1961, to replace the low mounted "L" handle unit. Other very minor changes occurred in later years, such as rubber clutch and brake pedal pads. In 1963, the front axle changed from the Model 25 to the similar Model 27AF. Color options changed somewhat through the years. By in large, a '68 3B and a '53 are easily distinguished only by the well informed.

Military CJ-3Bs

The government bought a large number of CJ-3Bs over the years. Some were purely standard models and others had military spec features of assorted types. One of the most interesting CJ-3B variants was the American-built M-606.

It's unclear exactly how the M-606 got the military nomenclature, but it signified a package that was service-ready. The changes to the standard CJ-3B included blackout lights and switches, a military pintle hitch, a military 12-pin trailer plug, 7.00-16 tires, 4.27 axle ratios and a coat of O.D. paint. The U.S. military used them in non-tactical roles, mainly at overseas bases, but the biggest market appears to be with foreign military units.

FWD mystery

What's wrong with this picture? It looks a bit like a CJ-3B, but in fact was made by FWD in the late 50's or early 60's. Why? We don't know yet. Speculation is that it was designed for Military Defense Assistance Program contracts. It appears to have standard Jeep running gear but a fabricated body. Note the un-Jeep-like grille.

A good number of M-606s were involved in the Military Defense Assistance Program (MDAP), by which "friendly" countries were supplied with military vehicles courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. Some MDAP rigs were American military cast-offs and others were new units, like the M-606. It's very possible that the majority of CJ-3Bs listed in the production sheets after 1964 were, in fact, M-606s.

Other Special Models

Fire Jeep

This 3B fire unit was used at the factory as a first response vehicle. The picture was probably taken in the mid to late 1950s.

While 3Bs were often fitted with special equipment like snowplows, welders and trenchers and other implements, the factory shipped some out in special guise and with special serial numbers. The Farm Jeep was one of these that was built in very small numbers in 1953 and 1954. The sources conflict a bit, but it appears that these rigs were equipped with a Monroe Hydraulic lift, drawbar, rear PTO and a belt driven speed control governor. Just 77 of these rigs were built (65 in 1953 and 12 in 1954). The Farm Jeeps are often confused with a special variant of the CJ-3A called the Jeep Tractor, which was equipped nearly the same way but was without windshield, top passenger seat and even headlights.

A number of CJ-3Bs were built each years as a stripped chassis or chassis with a cowl. These were converted to a variety of tasks, from weed abatement to ice cream sales. A CJ-3B fire engine was produced at Toledo in some numbers over several years. They were also converted by outside companies.

The CJ-3B Today

While the CJ-3B "High-Hood" doesn't enjoy the hot collectible status of an early CJ-2A, it has attracted more attention from Jeep collectors in the last few years. It's likely that even more attention will be directed at these plucky rigs as the Jeep collection hobby grows.

With its more powerful engine, it's a little better driver than the other Flatfenders. It also make a fine basis for a trail buildup, perhaps with more potential than a "Low-Hood" because it's a bit easier to stuff in a larger engine. As you can guess from the production figures, the '53 and '54s are the most plentiful, so a logical conclusion would be that the lowest production units will be the rarest and most sought after. Restoration of the 3B models is supported by a large number of suppliers and enthusiasts.

Thanks to Jim and to Jp magazine for originally printing this article. -- Derek Redmond

See more of the story leading up to the CJ-3B, in Universal Jeep History on CJ3B.info.

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Last updated 30 November 2004 by Derek Redmond redmond@cj3b.info
All content not credited and previously copyright, is copyright Derek Redmond